Guest Interview: Book Dash Increases Book Ownership for Children in Africa … & Beyond

By Elisabeth Norton

Spotlight image: Book Dash teams creating books at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy: Job Mubunya (Kenya), Fiske Nyirongo (Zambia) and Jess Jardim-Wedepohl (South Africa)

At the 2023 Bologna book fair, I had the pleasure of meeting two creators who were attending on behalf of an organization called Book Dash. Their mission? Create two brand-new books in 12 hours with teams of creative volunteers from across Africa.

Their creative energy and drive was impressive, and it made me want to learn more about this organization focused on social-impact, not-for-profit publishing and book-gifting. I recently interviewed Julia Norrish, Executive Director at Book Dash, and am thrilled to introduce Cynsations readers to her and to this organization that is doing so much to put books in the hands of young readers around the world.

Welcome Julia! Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about Book Dash. Can you tell us about the vision and purpose of the organization?

Book Dash is a not-for-profit, South African social impact publisher of open, African picture books for young children. At ‘a Book Dash,’ creative volunteers write and design books in one day.

Our vision is that “every child should own a hundred books by the age of five.”

An assortment of Book Dash titles

Our purpose is to creatively and positively address low levels of literacy among pre-school children. We do this by closing the gap between children who own books and children who don’t. Owning books before school is strongly associated with better academic and emotional intelligence.

Using our innovative book creation model, we have created 188 different books – and through partnerships we have distributed over 3 million of these books to pre-school children to own.

Globally, we have partnered with over one hundred organizations – supporting them to edit, translate and publish Book Dash books. Through this, we’ve reached millions of children across the world. In the coming years, Book Dash aims to enable wide scale distribution (100 million books) to pre-school children and their families.

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Research and evidence that supports the work:

How did the organization start?

Book Dash was started in 2014 as a reaction to the low levels of book-ownership and literacy among young children across South Africa. This was compounded by the fact that books were expensive and inaccessible for much of the population.

A group of friends in the publishing industry wanted to do something. They pooled their collective skills and held an innovative event to produce beautiful, high-quality and affordable African storybooks at low cost.

This was the first “Book Dash.” It was held in Cape Town – and was a great success! Heartened by this, co-founders Arthur Attwell, Michelle Matthews and Tarryn-Anne Anderson established Book Dash as a registered not-for-profit.

Today, the three co-founders sit on the Board of Directors. The management of the organisation is fulfilled by the Book Dash team of five, lead by Julia Norrish and Dorette Louw.

Book Dash board (from left to right) Zanri Kritzinger (Digital Publishing & Partnerships Manager), Julia Norrish (Executive Director), Dorette Louw (Operation and Programmes Director) and Zaib Solari (Accounts and Project Administrator). Not pictured is Cherie Wright (Print and Production Co-Ordinator).

What is a Book Dash? What actually happens at a Book Dash event?

A “Book Dash” is an event at which Book Dash books are created.

Creative professionals (writers, illustrators, designers and editors) from all over Africa are pre-selected and placed into teams. At the Book Dash, they volunteer a day of their time to respond to a challenge: ‘can you create a book in just twelve hours?’

Creatives at a Book Dash day in Johannesburg

A “Book Dash” is a flurry of activity, in which these teams write, illustrate and layout an entire African picture-book. These books are specifically made for young children. The event is supported and overseen by the Book Dash team – who provide support and motivation to the volunteers and make sure everyone is on track!

Book Dash books are then translated into different South African languages and published en masse at low cost.

How do the books that are made at a Book Dash event get into the hands of young readers?

Once published, Book Dash raises funds through grant proposals and pooled procurement projects. The books are then printed and sent to a network of trusted distribution partners across South Africa, who ensure that these books are placed in the hands and homes of young children. Our distribution partners are a variety of organizations working with young children and their families, in both urban and rural areas, in the ECD and health sectors and in all provinces of the country.

Book Dash books are also published online as open-license files – meaning they can be downloaded, adapted and printed and distributed to children by anyone, anywhere!

Sharing a Book Dash story, photo provided with permission by partner Masicorp

Can you tell us where in the world Book Dash events have been held? Have any been held outside of Africa?

We have hosted 21 Book Dash events since 2014. These Book Dash events have taken place in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) and in Bologna in Italy during the annual Children’s Book Fair! During Covid-19, we organized virtual Book Dash events.

We also have the “Book Dash” model carefully documented, and offer support to people and organisations wanting to run a similar event to create books for children in their context. In this way, Book Dash-inspired events have been hosted in Laos, France, USA, Lebanon, Angola and Namibia.

Do you know how many languages Book Dash books are in?

Book Dash publishes books in 12 of the languages that are indigenous to South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini (though there are many more!) The magic of the open license means that the books are used in almost every corner of the world by our “Content partners.” They use Book Dash books to strengthen their early literacy, early development and parenting programmes. Examples are StoryWeaver, Storyberries and ThinkEqual. Often, this involves rendering the books in new language versions — we have one book, Lara the Yellow Ladybird, that we know has over 100 language versions across our partners!

Family practicing book-sharing with a Book Dash book. Photo provided with permission by partner iThemba projects.

Thank you for telling us about the important work that Book Dash is doing. How can readers find out more about holding a Book Dash event or how can they support the work you’re doing?

We would love for more people to join the Book Dash story!
Readers can access the books at Supporters can follow us on social media @BookDash – or sign up to our mailing list at If you would like to make a donation or support our work, we’d love to hear from you, on or through this webpage. Wherever you are, please tell people about us!

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Cynsational Notes

Julia Norrish is the Executive Director at Book Dash, a social-impact, not-for-profit publishing and book-gifting organisation. In eight years, Julia has been integral in leading the organisation from infancy to significant reach and impact. Julia currently serves on the executive committees of the Global Network of Early Years’ Book-Gifting and IBBY South Africa.

In 2023 she presented Book Dash’s work to the World Literacy Summit in Oxford, and at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Book Dash has received local and global recognition and awards for the work done under Julia’s leadership. She is passionate about books as a tool for social change, for building families, communities and peaceful societies.

Julia has an Honours degree from the University of Cape Town in English studies and early literacy, along with professional expertise in early childhood development, social impact and publishing. is our go-to online and all the books are there free to read.

Elisabeth Norton is a neurodiverse author and poet. As a reporter for Cynsations, she covers international aspects of children’s publishing. Originally from the US, she lives in Switzerland where she teaches English as a Foreign Language and writes poetry, picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels in verse.

Her poetry for young readers has been included in several anthologies, including Things We Eat (Pomelo Books, 2022) and Imperfect II: poems about perspective: an anthology for middle schoolers (History House Publishers, 2022). She serves as the Assistant International Advisor (Outreach) for SCBWI. You can find out more about Elisabeth and her writing on her website.