7 min read

Let's all make gifts!

Giving stuff away for free is the cure for hopelessness, and it's PUNK AS HELL.
Let's all make gifts!

Hello, grownups :)

When I was small, I had a stuffed buddy named Moo-Moo the Moose (four-year-olds should not be allowed to name things). And one of the most entirely dramatic and heartbreaking events of my young life was when I lost him, and couldn't find him for days.

My heroic Mum eventually tracked him down (he'd somehow gotten jammed under the folding backseat of our car) but I tell you, the experience SCARRED ME FOR LIFE. Can you imagine? Poor Moo-Moo, out there in the world, all lost and alone! My poor aching kid-heart!

On Saturday, I turned this extremely dramatic childhood tale of woe into a more hopeful story where a kid's beloved toy isn't actually lost, but is just going on a little adventure without them. And over the course of one wild day, the brilliant Amy Slatem illustrated it, and lovely Natalie Pierre-Eugene turned it into a book, which we'll be giving away for free.

Aren't Amy's illustrations just the damn cutest things you've ever seen?

Giraffe's adventure continues, but rest assured, they eventually find their way back to their kid!

This charming little book exists thanks to an organisation called Book Dash. Book Dash is on a mission to make sure that every child owns a hundred books by the age of five. Owning books really matters. Studies have shown that having books in the home gives kids an advantage at school that's equivalent to 3.2 extra years of schooling, even when you control for things like income and parent's education. So giving away books to children is one of the most low-cost, high-impact things we can do in a country like South Africa, where 78% of Grade 4 (age 10) children can't read for meaning in any language, and 58% of South African households don't own a single leisure book.

But books are really expensive.  Far too expensive for most low-income families in South Africa.

Book Dash's solution to this problem is pretty ingenius: they designed a publishing model that makes it possible to create a beautiful, high-quality kids' book in one (extremely exhausting) day. Professional writers, illustrators, designers and editors donate one day of their time and expertise, and the result is a brand new African storybook. Every book is released for free, under an open license that lets anyone translate, adapt or distribute the book however they like.

You can browse the whole Book Dash library here, and read a bunch of adorable books featuring characters and scenes relevant to African children. Many of them are available in isiXhosa, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Setswana and many more languages, and a lot of them (like ours) are completely wordless so that illiterate kids and caregivers can tell stories together.

Book Dash works with other literacy organisations who get the books out into the world, and they've already given away over 1-million physical books directly. But the true magic of the open license means that books end up in all sorts of weird and surprising places. They're shared on free apps and websites. People record videos of the books being read and put them on YouTube. They're used in classrooms and reading clubs. One guy took my first Book Dash book (about a dancing hippo) on a long-distance bicycle trip across Africa and read the book aloud to dozens of kids who all signed it. That story has been translated into Igbo, Punjabi, Spanish, French, Tamil, and other languages I'd never even heard of before. It's been able to go further and do more than it ever could have if I'd tried to own it or control it.

A copy of Hippo Wants to Dance with notes from children who've read it written on the inside cover.
This book went from Cairo to Cape Town, via BICYCLE. Damn thing has been on better adventures than I have!

The 24 hours (12x2) I've donated to Book Dash have probably been some of the most impactful work I've done in the world. I think we all know on some level that the relationship between what we get paid for our labour and its value in the world have only a very tenuous connection at best. But it's good to be reminded of that sometimes. Often, the work we do for free is the most valuable work we can do.

When something is free, it can go further. Free is a multiplier of impact. Wikipedia could not have been the greatest and most accurate encyclopedia the world has ever seen unless it was created by volunteers. Some estimates say that 80-90% of all software is made up of open-source code. Free work is the source of most art and music in the world (I mean, just go check out the 1.6-billion things anyone is free to "use and remix" on Creative Commons). Heck, the free work our parents did for us is the only reason any of us made it to adulthood. Free work holds societies together.

We all live in an economy that denies this fact, that tends towards commodifying all of our labour. We all have to hustle for our daily bread, and figure out ways to do meaningful work and still earn an income. I think that it's one of the reasons we all feel so burned out and stressed all the time: we're compelled to think of every passion as a potential side-hustle, every source of joy as an opportunity for self-improvement, every new skill as a way to earn more or build our personal brand or whatever. So much of ourselves becomes consumed by the question of whether it can earn you more money, and okes, it's friggen exhausting.

(Anne Helen Petersen has a great essay about this, called "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation", which hit me RIGHT IN THE FEELS I tell you).

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes

Just imagine how much more humans would create, the extraordinary gifts more people could give to the world if things like universal basic income guarantees gave more people the time to do so. But in the meantime, there's something incredibly punk, beautifully anarchic, fabulously revolutionary, about just giving your best work away for free sometimes.

And I know, I know, having the free time and energy to be able to do work for free is an extraordinary privilege. And that's the point, isn't it? If you have free time, you've been lucky. The universe has given you a lot. You have a duty to give something back to the world. One of the mental health practices I'm unironically evangelical about is the practice of gratitude, in the form of active behaviours to help you cultivate these emotions. You might have heard about gratitude journalling–regularly writing down things you're grateful for. Or if you're a cynic and that idea makes you vom in your mouth a little bit, studies have shown that writing a thank you letter to someone, once a week, has long-term benefits for your own mind, even if you never send those letters.

Well for me, making gifts is one of my favourite ways to practice gratitude (sorry, every friend of mine who's ever been subjected to one of my terrible personalised birthday songs or hand-drawn cards).

I've been feeling pretty tired recently. This year has taken a lot out of me! I'm sure it's taken a lot out of many of you, too. I'm guessing that at least some of that exhaustion comes from feeling like you've been on the hustle treadmill and that it would be nice to just exist outside of the market economy for a minute.

Well – here's how you can do that: you can give a gift. Maybe that means finding somebody to mentor. Or volunteering for an NPO, or getting involved in a Mutual Aid society, or visiting an elderly neighbour, or building a fort with your kids, or volunteering for a political cause you care about, or making a piece of art, or making a meal for a soup kitchen. Doing something that enlarges the world.

Just like the stuffed giraffe from the story, when you put something out in the world for free, it's amazing what adventures it can go on without you.

And yes, if you're wondering, of course I still have Moo-Moo.

Sam Beckbessinger cuddling a stuffed moose

Wishing you the time and energy to make gifts for the world,


Want to read a Book Dash book?

Here are four of my personal faves!

  • Where is Lulu? by Mohale Mashigo, Clyde Beech and Nkosingiphile Mazibuko
  • And Also! by Lauren Beukes, Anja Venter and Nkosingiphile Mazibuko
  • Circles by Alex Latimer, Gordon Latimer and Patrick Latimer
  • Where's that Cat? by Sam Wilson, Chenel Ferreira and Thea Nicole de Klerk

Updates from Sam-Land

  • PSA: speaking of lost things, our moving company lost/stole half of our stuff. After a brief fury meltdown I'm now feeling pretty zen about it honestly, but please, if you know anyone who's planning an overseas move, strongly warn them against using a company called Bos Logistics.
  • England is extremely plague-ridden right now so I'm back to holing up in my house. Things that have been bringing me joy: playing Among Us, watching Years and Years, reading The City We Became, exercising with the Down Dog app series, and working on my novel with Dale Halvorsen. You know what's even better than making things? Making things with friends!
  • It's your last chance to order your thank-you postcard!