Hand Of Friendship: The Book Bus

Book Bus

This year’s Hand Of Friendship campaign will support the Book Bus, a charity founded to improve child literacy levels in Africa and South America.

Here, retired publisher and charity founder Tom Maschler fills in some of the details for us.

WHEN I stopped working as a publisher in 2006 people kept asking if I had retired.

I’d say no, I’m not, and as if to prove them wrong I suddenly had this idea.

I thought, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a bus that goes around an African country sharing good books with children?”

We settled on Zambia. There’s an incredible need there, and English is the main language.

I wanted to do something that made a difference and that also would be an exciting adventure – I liked that element.

I didn’t know the interior of Africa at all; I’d never been on a back road in any African country, apart from in a Land-Rover, looking for leopards.

So I hatched a plan; there was no trigger, it just came into my head.

Book bus

The first task was to obtain a bus from which we gutted most of the seats and then fitted racks and shelving to accommodate the books. In my experience, the “best” books move the children, educate and entertain them.

My publisher friends were most generous and supported us by donating 5,000 wonderful books to the project.

My purpose was to create a moving library for children to experience the joy of reading. It was already sounding good but it had to look good as well.

To embellish the whole project, I felt it very important for the bus to be decorated.

The first person I asked was Quentin Blake

The first person I asked was Quentin Blake. He was – both in his name and in his talent – just the perfect person for it.

Quentin had never painted a bus before and he relished the challenge. His illustrations are a pure joy.

By early 2008 our first Book Bus was ready for the long haul to Africa.

We shipped Book Bus “Tiger” to South Africa early in 2008. It was then driven north to Zambia, via Namibia and a ferry across the mighty Zambezi river.

By May of that year Tiger was taking his books and a team of volunteer storytellers into schools in Lusaka.

The Book Bus

We instantly came face to face with the learning crisis that affects much of sub-Saharan Africa. Primary school literacy levels in many countries are shockingly low, especially for girls.

For example, in Zambia, 91% of children tested in Grade 2 (average age eight) and 78% of children in Grade 3 (average age nine) were unable to read a single word, even in their mother tongue.

There are many reasons for such low literacy rates.

Books are in short supply and are very expensive. A new book might cost the equivalent of one week’s pay for the average person.

Lack a reading culture

Most communities lack a reading culture – the tradition of oral storytelling means that many things simply don’t get written down.

Teaching methods and learning environments do not encourage reading, curiosity or excitement. Teachers focus on rote learning, which means that education has just become a memory test.

To help tackle this literacy crisis the Book Bus visits disadvantaged communities to promote reading to children who would otherwise have little or no access to books.

We now have six Book Buses, each decorated with Quentin Blake’s artwork and laden with books, art materials and volunteer storytellers to inspire the children to read.

Working with local teachers, volunteers divide huge classes into small groups and deliver assisted reading sessions to the

We work also with teachers and parents from the community to develop their interest in books through reading workshops and book clubs.

School feedback has been very positive. Teachers can now request books that are relevant to their children; pupil numbers are always up on Book Bus day and there is a demonstrable improvement in reading and English language skills.

How you can help

If you would like to send a donation by post, please make your cheque payable to the Book Bus Foundation and send it to: The Book Bus Foundation, 11 The Orchard, Montpelier Road, London, W5 2QW.

You can contact the Book Bus with any queries by telephone on 020 8099 9280, or by email to info@thebookbus.org.

Next week, look out for a note from our Editor, Angela, and the thoughts of world-famous illustrator and Book Bus patron Quentin Blake.

We’ll also be sharing details on how you can “adopt” your very own Book Bus.


Iain McDonald

Iain is Digital Content Editor at the "Friend", making him responsible for managing flow of interesting and entertaining content on the magazine's website and social media channels.