Cape Town Library, our office for the day.

I made a Creative Commons kids book in 12 hours. Here’s why…

Book Dash Cape Town, 30 August 2014

And what I learnt when I put aside perfectionism and doubt for a day…

It takes me at least a week to draft a short piece of writing. And that’s only what Anne Lamott would call my shitty first draft. I need time to sleep on things, edit and redraft. The rest happens over a few more weeks.

Writing takes time.

So when I found myself writing a story for children at the latest Book Dash event in Cape Town, I was taken completely out of my comfort zone.

Only 5% of parents in South Africa read to their children

Book Dash gathers writers, illustrators, book designers and editors in one room to produce print-ready children’s books in just 12 hours. Why? Because kids in South Africa desperately need books – good quality storybooks – and there’s no time to waste.

As I write this post, it’s South Africa’s National Book Week and the stats are bleak – only 5% of parents in South Africa read to their children and 51% of households don’t own a single book!

This latest event, the third in Book Dash’s short history was hosted in honour of Women’s Month and co-organised by Rock Girl. We creatives were tasked with producing 10 biographical stories about inspirational African women (Oh, and did I mention this had to be achieved in 12 hours?)

Thanks to the sponsors (African Storybook Project, Spier, Hemelhuijs, and Green Home) we were given enough caffeine, food, encouragement and wine to sustain us through this marathon for the creative mind.

Graça’s dream

The subject of my team’s book was Graça Machel. Her story is inspirational of course – from humble beginnings in Mozambique she went on to help her country gain independence and significantly raised the literacy level of its children in her first two years as Minister of Education and Culture. She was passionate about sharing her love of books and learning with her people and realised so many seemingly impossible dreams.

This story speaks to me on such a personal level – it’s the reason I volunteered to be part of Book Dash in the first place. South Africa’s own reading culture and literacy stats need to change; our children deserve to know the power of story and the pleasure of reading. It’s a worthy dream to have.

The challenge…

So there I found myself in a room full of talented and committed strangers – people all working towards the same goal of getting quality storybooks into children’s hands. And I’ll admit I felt pretty challenged.

But I had to just do it. There was no room at the table for self-doubt, wavering focus or that insidious beast called Ego and that other cruel hanger on: Perfectionism. We were all working towards a worthy common goal. And we had to get the job done.


Here’s what I learnt 12 (very short) hours later:

Making kids books is a collaborative process

Although I could prepare an outline of the story beforehand, the actual telling happened on the day. I was nervous about this. But I needn’t have been. The moment I sat down with my fellow collaborators – illustrator Karlien De Villiers, designer Marike Le Roux and editor Lisa Treffry-Goatley I realised that this was exactly the process that those clever Book Dash people had set up.

We shared ideas, created a rough flat plan and got started almost immediately. In kids books the visual elements need to have a fluid conversation with the words. Neither can be created in isolation. This was all about teamwork.

Hold on to the goal, let go of perfect

As much as I wanted this to be perfect, or at least the very best effort I could make, I knew that the point was to just get a book made by the end of the day that kids could get access to. They needed to hear the story and I just had to tell it.

This initiative is about getting free books into the hands of children – children who may not even own one book. So I made the decision early on, as did my team members… that Perfectionism got shown the door; Good Enough sat at the table with us. Why? Because Perfectionism would only delay our process. Good Enough encouraged us to just keep going, to tell a story that kids could enjoy. And having two children of my own I know this for sure: kids are not looking for Perfect, they just want to hear a good story.

A time limit is a good way to keep focused

There’s something about an almost impossible time limit for a task to motivate action. Write, illustrate and design a print-ready book in 12 hours – it sounds difficult, right? It was actually easy. It really was. There was no time for checking Facebook, email or smartphones or even engaging in small talk. Surprisingly, in a library room about the size of a small restaurant with around 40 strangers seated at tables quite close to each other, I probably only connected with a handful – the team I was working with and a few others while making tea or stretching my legs. Any outside distractions, even if they were only a few metres away, were avoided at all costs. The task at hand was our primary focus and there wasn’t a minute to spare.

Books connect us

But having said that, I did connect with some amazing people. And I realised that this is the beauty of books. When we are in that intimate space with a book in our hands and we relate to the story being told and the voice that tells it, we get taken to a magical place, a place that can teach us something, that can inspire us. All of us in that room knew that space well and it’s what brought us together in the first place. We did what we did because children deserve to know this place too. We wanted to offer it to them, just like Graça did when she asked at the end of our story:

Illustration by Karlien de Villiers
Here’s a book, my child, what will it inspire you to do?

This is what Book Dash is all about.

So at the end of the day Graça’s Dream was born and so was Singing the Truth (the story of Miriam Makeba) and Miss Helen’s Magical World (the story of outside artist Helen Martin) and seven other quality Creative Commons biographies of inspirational African women for children to read and enjoy. Eventually the complete open source files and PDFs for these biographies (and other Book Dash books) will be available here for you to share with your children.

We all did something extraordinary there that day. We put aside our egos, our doubts and our own personal agendas and we gave everything else we had, to bring the joy of reading to our small people. There are now 10 spectacular open source books about inspirational African women ready to print, translate and eventually distribute to hungry readers. It was worth it!


If you want to know more about Book Dash you can follow them on fb.com/bookdash, or @bookdash (on Facebook and Twitter), or read all about their mission on bookdash.org.

For queries about future events email team@bookdash.org or visit http://bookdash.org/donate/ for details of how to donate books to kids who need them.

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