The Secret Behind Storybook Policy

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Guest blog by: Alisha Niehaus Berger, Global Children's Book Publisher at the literacy and girls' education nonprofit Room to Read
As the lead of Room to Read’s global publishing program for the past four years, I’ve been lucky to be involved in many exciting collaborations. As a literacy and girls’ education non-profit, Room to Read works in collaboration with local communities, partner organizations and governments in nine countries across Asia and Africa and consults in many more. The opportunities to engage in meaningful work are myriad. Yet, a recent consultative workshop for Room to Read’s REACH project in South Africa, funded by the World Bank, stands out for me. Why? The public-private partnership at its heart.
We were eager to deepen our work in South Africa for a few reasons. To start, the education sector reflects the country’s social inequities, as only a minority of students benefit from world class institutions. In general, young black Africans face significantly worse infrastructural school environments, access to educational materials, bullying and violence.
Additionally, the most recent results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 highlighted alarmingly low levels of reading achievements in South Africa with little improvement since 2011.
To help increase equal access to quality children’s literature throughout the country, our South Africa team embarked on a new project to bring the government, publishers, and NGOs together. Given our experience training creators and publishing children’s books in South Africa, we felt confident we could build bridges. So, we made public-private collaboration a key piece of the project plan.
The project has three key steps:
  1. To create national storybook quality recommendations for use by South African publishers and government book collection managers.
  2. To publish 20 new storybooks in each of five languages: Sepedi, IsiZulu, Siswati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga.
  3. To use pooled procurement to distribute 65,500 copies of these books to the three provinces: Mpumalanga, Kwa-Zulu Natal, and Limpopo.
Additionally, the project is funded based on a results-based financing model where the World Bank will provide funds to Room to Read only after milestones are successfully completed. We will also use results-based financing with our authors, who are incentivized by the payment they will receive once they complete their writing and versioning work for storybooks.
The consultative workshop focused on the first key step mentioned above, the storybook quality recommendations. Tessa Welch of African Storybook, and Eleanor Sisulu of Puku joined our team as facilitators. Over three days, members of the governments in Mpumalanga, Kwa-Zulu Natal, and Limpopo; NGOs including Nal’ibali, Book Dash, and representatives of the Publisher’s Association of South Africa collaborated on the recommendations and generated fantastic ideas around storybook themes.
National Storybook Quality Recommendations


The group highlighted four critical areas for storybook developers and collection managers to understand: diversity, story content, illustration, and design. Within each of these categories, we brainstormed quality criteria, sharing our different points of view and why we held them.
For example, using “official” language feels very important to the Ministry of Arts and Culture, whereas some others stressed the importance of allowing storybook characters to speak in the dialects children hear in their communities.What was the final recommendation? That there is no one “right” way to address this. Rather, the story needs to lead the decision.
Another discussion centered around morals. Must every story have a strong moral message? This topic sparked some debate — as in many discussions around storybooks, answers were emotional, cultural, and subjective. Ultimately, we decided to put the child first, and remember that our goal is for children to be enthralled in a storybook and motivate students to read more exciting stories. A moral may or may not stem from there.

NGOs and government members who are not usually part of the development process also enjoyed learning how to create a quality storybook. One key learning moment was when publishers shared the critical role of the designer: to marry text and artwork, to create exciting and eye-catching covers, and to ensure that files are ready for print production.
Overall, we were thrilled with the results of the workshop and enjoyed turning the recommendations into a document that felt like a great storybook: something that’s fun, accessible, and inviting.
Empowering Community Voices
Throughout this process, members of both the public and private groups stressed the same message: This project must empower indigenous writers and creators, as well as publishers who work in indigenous languages. And the stories must be from the community.
With the help of our public-private network, we identified one emerging publisher in each of the language groups to join the project. Together with these emerging publishers, we are excited to start creating engaging children’s books, with stories told from their own communities, and in their own languages.
Room to Read is a grantee of the Results in Education for All Children (REACH) trust fund, which is supported by the governments of Germany, Norway, and the United States. Learn more at:



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