I recently received a gift of three intricately made traditional quilts. It made me think of a movie I was rather taken with as a teenager, called “How to make an American Quilt”. When the movie was released in 1995 the critics called it “a patchwork form of storytelling”. As someone who loves learning about other people’s journeys, the different threads that make up someone’s story, and the designs they ultimately create, this “patchwork” is what appealed to me most.

In my musings about quilts, I considered the multi-layered nature of the Otto Foundation’s work and the threads that bind our projects and programmes.

There are many characters in the patchwork of our story: Generous partners that support our work. Deeply committed Otto Foundation team members and enthusiastic educators in our schools working together to enable learning by nurturing the reading skills of learners. Eager-to-learn young minds engaging with our library spaces and the books that they find there. And the golden thread of dedicated librarians stitching together a variety of initiatives to promote reading for enjoyment.

A learner reading at the Liyabona Library.

The social media algorithm nudged me towards the social media account of Black Baby Children’s Books (@blackbabybooks) and their feature on “Cassie’s Word Quilt” by artist and textile designer Faith Ringgold. The book teaches important pre-reading skills by introducing children to new words in various quilt motif scenes from the main character, Cassie’s, home, neighbourhood, and school. The book is a wonderful catalyst for conversations with children about their own worlds and stories. In the discussion of Ringgold’s books, @blackbabybooks challenges caregivers to “honour the artist and light within our children” and “help them to paint or quilt a canvas they can be proud of”.

This is an important thread that we try to weave into our work. Using time spent with books and stories to spark and foster the creative self-expression of children. Encouraging learners to tell their own stories. Both make-believe and real. Both imaginary and dreaming of real and colourful futures.

Two other important layers in our quilt is the inviting child-centred spaces we create and the diverse and representative books we provide access to.

Like a quilt is meant to keep you warm, our library spaces are intended to provide comfort to kids. Each library has its own visual identity. Not a blanket approach, but carefully designed with many small details and symbolism intended to send a message around the value attached to books, stories, and creativity.

Learners browsing through books at the Protea Library.

Through the books selected for our libraries we aim to celebrate different stories and lived experiences. We want to show learners how different threads create the singular beauty of individual narratives and are woven together to craft shared stories. In the words of @blackbabybooks we aim to “provide kids with all the materials they need to become people who explore the fullness of their humanity”.

We know that learners who develop a love of reading are more successful in their education journeys. Through collaborative partnership, the Otto Foundation’s work is using the power of books and stories to improve learning outcomes and shape new storylines in communities. We are bearing witness to the making of many uniquely South African quilts, telling uniquely South African stories. What a pleasure.