Getting books into the hands of children is vital if kids are to learn to read. But there are many significant challenges facing those who wish to build a nation of story-readers and story-tellers. Five of these challenges are:
- Affordability – the average storybook in a book shop is expensive and many caregivers / parents find that children’s books are priced beyond their means.
- Diversity – storybooks often don’t reflect the multiple cultures, different family types and range of heritages.
- Home languages – when children learn to read, the should be doing so in their home languages but storybooks are not published in all the vernacular languages
- Distribution – making storybooks available, especially in remote areas, is a logistical challenge.
- Emerging writers – if we are to address some of the above challenges, then we also need to grow our own young authors..
Social Publishers are publishers who create reading materials for neglected audiences. Rather than operate on a profit basis, these publishers are driven by a mission. They see their books as a social goods, to be directed where they are most needed.
In South Africa, to make books affordable, accessible and available, social publishers like African Story Book, Bookdash, Fundza, Nal’i Bali and Vula Bula have adopted a range of innovative book production and distribution practices. Almost all have digital editions of their books available, formatted in PDF, ePub or as a webpage. Some of these storybooks are published under a Creative Commons licences. Sometimes they also have apps available for mobile devices are associated with these projects. Caregivers can freely install these apps, download the different books and store and read them from their mobile devices.
The above mentioned challenges are being addressed by social publishers in different ways. Below are a few specific examples of how certain projects are working with highlighted issues.
- Fundza & the Author Challenge – Fundza are making it possible to become authors Their “Developing Young Writers” programme is intended to prompt young readers to become writers. Aspiring young voices can showcase their writing on the fundza.mobi site.
- Bookdash & the Funding Challenge – Bookdash have a different book creation model. They generate publishable story books very rapidly. They facilitate an event and challenge multiple story production teams to create a storybook in 12 hours. Groups of four creative professionals (illustrators, authors, editors and designer) voluntarily combine their skills to create a complete creative commons storybook in one day.
- Nalibali & the Distribution Challenge – Nal’ibali works to build a larger community of reading enablers across the country who are interested in storytelling, reading and writing with children. They distribute the message about reading by running high-visibility media campaigns (TV, Radio, Newspapers, Billboards), a network of reading clubs and also offer paprents and caregivers a library of multilingual stories and resources.
- African Story Books & the Diversity Challenge – African Story Books have taken an open education resources approach to book production. This alternative model involves books licenced as creative commons materials that can be re-used and remixed. Their platform has a facility for users to alter, translate or create new stories and select different images. This has meant that their books have been translated into 111 languages
- Vula Bula and the Language Challenge – Vula Bula is an African language graded reading series. Rather than translate books from English, they commission indigenous South African writers to write stories in their home language. These illustrated stories are contextualised to the young reader’s inner world and life experiences. The text within these books is based on the specific orthographical building blocks of each language.
The 6th Challenge – Obscurity
The one challenge that has not been mentioned is the inconspicuousness of these projects. Commercial publishing still holds most most of our attention, especially when it comes to storybooks. While these social publishing initiatives are as innovative as they are exciting, they need to also become sustainable. This is THE problem that requires immediate attention. If social publishing is to continue to offer new routes to entrench reading and writing habits in children’s daily lives, then broader uptake and ownership of such projects is necessary. Social publishing needs to become a mainstream player within the development of reading. Visible support, especially from those who access and use children’s books frequently, like librarians, teachers, social workers etc. Financial backing from the state, large multinational or corporates in required. Obscurity is their biggest challenge.