Transforming Girls’ Education through gender-responsive middle-grade books

Curriculum and Educational Content
Coronavirus (COVID-19)

This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series. 

The Right to Read

According to the World Bank (2019), an estimated 53% of children in low and middle-income countries cannot read proficiently by age 10. CODE and its partners strive to ensure that every child has the right to read and has access to books they can see themselves in. By working across the book chain – with authors, publishers, distributors – CODE helps ensure the availability of high-quality, locally relevant reading and learning materials. Books are designed to provide a meaningful context in which girls and boys and women and men are depicted in ways that encourage equality, empowerment and problem-solving. 

In partnership with Global Affairs Canada, CODE has committed to use its expertise in book production to help promote gender equity in Sierra Leone through the three-year Transforming Girls’ Education program. Working closely with gender experts from McGill University, CODE gained critical insights on the barriers to education for women and girls in Sierra Leone, including the linkages between teenage pregnancy rates and girls’ school success. The impact of pregnancy on girls’ lives was deeply troubling – at one time or another all had been banned from going to school and many had been disowned by their parents. Many pregnant and parenting girls revealed that their pregnancies were the result of coercion into transactional sex in exchange for necessities such as school supplies or transport to school. 

In order to provide local educators and learners with tools to discuss these issues, CODE produced books on gender-related themes for Class 4, 5 and 6 students (ages 9-12). From experience, we knew that books with fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pieces for children could be powerful and appropriate tools for sharing important knowledge and informing young people’s attitudes and habits.

Writing and Refining

Over the period of nearly a year, CODE collaborated with local authors and illustrators to produce eight new anthologies comprising 43 stories, poems and non-fiction pieces and 200 illustrations focused on girls’ empowerment. The stories and illustrations are entertaining, lively, modern, culturally relevant, and filled with dynamic characters both real and fictional. 

The driving force behind these creations were the writers and artists from PEN Sierra Leone, one of CODE’s long-standing partner organizations, who have long been producing excellent children’s books. When we gathered the writers in February 2020, we saw some familiar faces - some of the writers had been young students back when we first met! These same writers are now accomplished adult professionals and some have even been able to pay for graduate degrees with earnings from their books.

To get writers started, CODE held a writing workshop and Jacqueline Leigh (a Sierra Leonean teacher and gifted writer) and other CODE team members generated a set of starter ideas on girls’ empowerment themes, including:

  • Girls should not be held back from pursuing their ambitions;
  • Girls can triumph when they are inspired by successful women; 
  • Girls and women can aspire to non-traditional vocations;
  • Gender-based violence;
  • Education helps girls and boys learn about their rights; and
  • Boys can be recruited as allies to help girls pursue their ambitions.

During the workshops, writers brainstormed, drafted, and discussed their work. Writers worked collaboratively, reading their stories aloud and asking others to provide feedback and ask questions. This approach helps writers to shape and enhance their stories while working out any flaws in the narrative or characters. A star contributor during this process was Marie Bob-Kandeh (head of the Sierra Leone Market Women’s Association). She graciously agreed to sit with the writers one afternoon so they could practice interview techniques with her.

In March, Mohammed Sheriff (a Sierra Leonean communications specialist) skillfully led the writers through a series of editing sessions to refine the manuscripts and write new works to fill any gaps. Additionally, ten local illustrators participated in a skills-building workshop focused on the representation of gender-equality concepts in creative work. As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, final editing and creating illustrations were largely conducted virtually.

Once the illustrations and text were put into the design layout by our skillful designer, Kwabena Agyepong, the books were reviewed by education sector stakeholders in Sierra Leone including representatives from the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, the Teaching Service Commission Curriculum Unit, and the Association of Language and Literacy Educators (TALLE). The books received resounding approval! 

Where are we now? 

The books went to press in December 2020 and are currently on their way to Sierra Leone for distribution to teacher training workshops at six teachers’ colleges and 260 schools where CODE’s Transforming Girls’ Education Program is being delivered – that’s 108,440 copies

The development, production, and distribution of these books are the result of a collaboration between a committed team of creative professionals from around the world. We expect these stories will inspire and motivate both teachers and young readers to reflect on gender equity issues in Sierra Leone, and ultimately contribute to increased access to and quality of education for girls. We can hardly wait to see these books being read and inspiring thoughtful conversations!


The views expressed in this blog are the authors' own.

About the Authors

Charles Temple, Ph.D., is a literacy specialist, writing trainer, and children’s author who has worked on children’s publishing projects for CODE in Tanzania, Liberia, Ghana, and Sierra Leone. He has also worked for USAID in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and for the Open Society Institute in Central Europe and the Caucasus. 

Lynn O’Rourke is the publishing specialist at CODE. She has worked in all aspects of the publishing industry for over fifteen years. She has worked for national and international book publishing companies in Canada and in Tanzania, East Afrcia producing media content for youth with Femina HIP. She has contributed to CODE’s publishing projects in the Caribbean, and in Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

About CODE 

CODE is an international development organization uniquely focused on advancing children’s literacy and quality education. For over 60 years, CODE has been working towards a vision of a world where every child is literate. Since 1959 along with their partners, the organization has helped over 10 million children gain access to better quality education – one great book and one great teacher at a time. CODE was named a “Top 10 International Impact Charity” by Charity Intelligence Canada in 2020. To learn more about CODE please visit or e-mail