Twenty-Twenty Vision: The way forward for Children’s Book Network


Soon, it will be ten years since CBN began to work with children from poor communities who had little interest in books and reading.

Those of us who love children and love books felt that we had to DO something about these lost readers. Children who would never dive headfirst into a book, swim through the delights of story and resurface full of ideas and inspiration. There is also the important aspect of reading for knowledge, reading for a life, a job, a future.

In our nearly-decade, we have worked with thousands of children and made a difference to many of them. We have given hundreds of workshops – often illuminated by visiting experts delighted to share their own knowledge and love of reading; their culture. We have watched with joy how young people react to music, art, puppets, dance, theatre … and brilliant books.

In the process, we have built an archive of experiences – and a list of books – that really work. These have been plundered to create the Reading Toolboxes that we have sent out into the world in 2019 and early 2020, (20 of them, coincidentally) to enable other communities to share our work.

This year, and the terrible pandemic that has changed the lives of everyone, must not be allowed to overwhelm our belief that children need reading. They need it now, more than ever. Their lives have changed too. They need the escape that story brings, and they need the tools for education in difficult circumstances. Most of all, they need windows into other people’s lives, and the ability to imagine and empathize. Only then can they begin to make sense of their world as it now is.

Lockdown Learning
The CBN team held our last physical meeting two days before South Africa entered one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. In a knee-jerk reaction we launched three projects simultaneously, before rapidly realizing that three people could not generate that amount of material and stay sane. We focused instead on what we thought would work best for our children locally, particularly in the informal settlement of De Kop.

Every week, 100 children received a 20-page booklet of stories to read, information to absorb, and activities to keep them busy in what turned out to be five months away from school. This initiative is now in it’s 17th week, with a further five units in planning. It is available, free, on our website for anyone in the world to use and will be constantly updated.

The Happiness Project
The next five weeks will be allocated to looking at the joy in life – wonderful sights, sounds, tastes and texture and scents. The books and reading activities will draw on everything we have learned. The method will be informed by what we have learned from lockdown. We learned a lot.

It is unlikely that we will be able to hold workshops until – maybe – next year. The children are back at school, but the protocols protecting their health and that of their teachers is very strict – and beyond the resources of a small not-for-profit organization (NPO).

There are many things we can do to bridge this gap. CBN has always worked with communities rather than schools, and we need to expand our reach and train more facilitators there. Vuyokasi Siza has done a splendid job in lockdown of keeping the children connected to us. She has handed out the reading packs, hosted small groups of children in her own home (when this was allowed under the lockdown rules), checked on masks and hand sanitizing and been a pillar of continuity and steadiness for the children. Our aim is to train a further three facilitators initially, all local, and create a handbook that can spread the reading word.

It would be ideal if we could supply toolboxes to these new recruits, but these are expensive (around R7500) and difficult to source right now. Instead, we are looking at making smaller components that, one day, can be incorporated into future toolboxes. This would be called the Book Bag project.

We are grateful to Royd and Lindsey Frith, owners of Norfolk Place, where we gave workshops previously, for cancelling the rental since lockdown. The building is now for sale and we must find a venue for storage – and possibly a venue next year. We are working on that.

The need
Of course, we need funding. Everybody in the NGO world needs funding. We know the importance and urgency of all of those other needs. We are hoping that the humanitarian response to this need will be effective in the case of our children – who could read.

If we DO something.

Lesley Beake
Director CBN
19 September 2020

Watch our Children’s Book Network video here, where we talk about what we do, show you what we’ve been up to during our nations lockdown, and celebrate our programme and its supporters:

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