Children’s Book Network – What we do and who we are (in 15 easy steps)

Children’s Book Network (1)

CBN is pure magic. We start off with children who have learned the basics of reading – the ABC of it. We wave a magic wand and turn some of them into readers and give all of them the chance to experience what books can do for their imagination.

Well … not quite. There are a lot of stages in between. Those stages are critical to a well-run workshop and a well thought out Reading Toolbox, and it has taken us years to hone our method so that it works for us – and just as important – can be shared with others. Ten years, in fact, that have seen thousands of children enjoy our workshops. Many of them go on reading – and may then teach their own children to love reading too.

There is a team involved. To introduce us to you here we are …

Lesley Beake: Creative Director (2)

I have been involved with books, children, reading and writing all my life. I eat, sleep and dream books and stories. Creating new texts of all kinds for new readers is my passion. I founded CBN with writers Gcina Mhlophe and Sindiwe Magona to reach more children at an age when they often stop reading. There is a such a huge jump to be made between early learning reading, and reading for fun, pleasure, and imagination, that it often proves too difficult. Without help, children give up.

Our aim is to convince new readers that the whole project is worth the effort it takes. Once that happens, reading a chemistry textbook, or a poetry book, or a book on advanced coding, or the biography of a great painter– or anything else in the world – is achievable. Reading is the key to an interesting life.

(Lesley has more than a hundred published books to her name and has worked on many major reading projects in South Africa, Namibia and Ghana. Her details are on her website at:

Wilien van Zyl: General Manager (3)

I am, and always will be, a language teacher in two languages and my passion is building the interaction with the kids that makes teaching so worthwhile.

I didn’t read as a kid but found a love of literature as a teacher fascinated by poetry. A colleague then introduced me to Jane Austen – and I was hooked. I still collect Austen’s books, but they must be old, worn copies!

I love the logistics of workshops, the planning, and the thinking ahead, the recording and graphing – making stuff happen and showing afterwards how it did. I also enjoy liaison with the principals and teachers at schools – but – above all – being with and working with the CBN children.

Kelly Semu: social media, website, and workshop facilitator(4)

I am responsible for some of the social media platforms, which gave me a great insight into what CBN does and how it works. Now that I have finished my training, with Wilien and Lesley, I am proud to be part of the planning team. (They say I keep them in touch with what Generation Z is thinking!)

I enjoy liaising with our Hermanus partners. I grew up there and know many of the kids who come to workshops. I have known some of them since they were babies – but most of them don’t recognize me, now I am grown up!

Takura Terry(5)

CBN is lucky to have Terry as an important member of the team. He came to us as a volunteer, brought along his wonderfully smiling friend, Emanuel, to assist with the performances, and never looked back! He is now a vibrant member of our board and an advisor on recording and musical matters – including writing that well known ear-worm, the CBN song.

Terry has recently launched his first CD – and made a very successful change in musical direction by recording his own music from his heart. Find him on his website at:



Diana Parker(6)

Organizing the workshops is one thing. Keeping the accounts marshalled is quite another – and we are so fortunate to have Di looking after this critically important matter, liaising with the auditor and recording funding to best purpose and use.

She comes to us after a long career in business, but also as a volunteer, giving unstintingly of her time and expertise.

How we design our materials (7)

We start with an idea for a theme and when workshop it together and share ideas. We have a vast stock of workshop texts, books and materials, all carefully recorded and filed by Wilien. Quite often Lesley ‘slaps up a new story’ as Wilien kindly puts it. Most of all, we work with the books in the fairly extensive CBN library. Fiction and fiction, they all come off the shelves to be piled in the CB Book Suitcase and trundled off to workshops.

Currently we are producing new material for our winter programme that will look at Children’s Rights, families and then more specifically mothers, fathers, grandparents, and the special people who fill those roles when needed. We brainstorm the ideas at meetings round Lesley’s dining room table adding ideas for art, music, and poetry, devising activities that will lead to better understanding and – most of all – creating ideas that will interest, excite and also demonstrate children that reading is not only cool, but also essential.

Then we add more books to the. Mix – enough books to spread out on the tables and browse when children have finished part of a project. Non-fiction works just as well as fiction as they sprawl across the space, comparing and sharing.

Where do we work from? (9)

There are no fancy offices. Our library (and Lesley’s office) is in her spare room, where she does most of her writing.

We have a very impressive garden hut donated by a kind benefactor where we store our materials on scraped together shelves and racks. There is no electricity down there (well, there isn’t much at the best of times, these days), so we usually choose sunny days to work in our treasured hut – and sharing the space with some giant, donated teddy bears.

How do we choose our books – and where do they come from? (10)

We have a pretty good selection of books that we can draw on from Lesley’s existing library, donated books and books scrounged in second-hand shops and book sales.  Occasionally we buy a new book that the children just have to have. Books are the lifeblood of our project.

We choose them by one criteria only – excellence. Even with older children, books can, and do, range from wordless picture books (like Aaron Becker’s Journey series) to quite advanced teenage reading to challenge better readers. Often the secret lies in selecting a short text that will interest and fascinate – and then backing that up with beautiful words, poetry, and images – and fun.

HOW we engage children with reading (11)

We work with children who can already technically read (ages 10-12 years of age)

We offer them texts and books, non-fiction as well as fiction, that engage their imagination.

The reading is carefully chosen to interest them – they don’t just read, they read because they want to

They have a wide choice around themed reading collections on topics that involve their interest – fashion, bravery, dinosaurs – hundreds of ideas – and grow from there.

They read and think. They read and write. They read and create. They read and imagine.

Are we a Not-for-Profit Organisation (NPO) (13)

Most definitely! It took nearly two years to register for this status, plus other documentation – like a bank account, tax registration and other paperwork that makes us legal and formally constituted.

Our carefully kept accounts are audited every year and there is a great deal of time-consuming paperwork that goes on in the background.

If this doesn’t seem like ‘working with the children’ it is still an essential part of maintaining a good profile and conforming to regulations and statutes. Our Annual Reports appear on our website under RECORDS. Further information is available from:

Where does CBN get our funding from? (12)

From the kindness of friends and strangers. Funding comes both from individuals and organizations both in South Africa and abroad. It is perhaps the only ‘magic’ thing about CBN, because it often appears just in the moment when we need it most. If we run out, we stop to draw breath. This has happened twice in out ten-year history (and nearly happened a couple of additional times). That we survive is testimony to the importance of what we do. We do not receive government grants. Just kindness from strangers and friends (and strangers who become friends.) That is surely enough. We know that.

Can you help? (13)

Please! We always need help because we always want to do more for the children. To find out how to contact us, go to ‘NETWORK – How can I help,’ on our website, or click on the donate button at:

Who wrote this series of short articles? (14)

The CBN team brainstormed the answers to the questions most often asked, on a rainy winter day with intermittent electricity and frequent rain. Much coffee was consumed and eventually the fire was lit. The dog helped.

Stanford 11 May 2023.

Thank you (15)

Many people have contributed to, and encouraged, Children’s Book Network over the years. They are too many to mention, but we hope they are reading this … and smile.

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