All I want for Christmas is a pile of high-quality books for my children and your children. High quality not just in the paper, the artistic and literary quality of the illustrations – but in the values that adults pass on to children via books, the excitement of story and culture and history, the challenge of opening minds and developing awareness. Everyone in the world wants that.
Everyone in the world – except the people of Great Britain.
What? Britain produces the most wonderful of all the world’s books for children! Yes – but they produce them on an island, disconnected from the rest of the world. They’re not interested in IBBY.
The International Board on Books for the Young met in Berlin in September, and the whole world came: from Argentina, Albania, China, Indonesia, Switzerland, Sri Lanka. Teachers and librarians, publishers and academics, illustrators and writers met to share experiences, question assumptions, reflect on the philosophy underlying their work, and even make deals. Just two Brits were there: the last of a tiny group of IBBY enthusiasts, Chris Kloet of Gollancz, and myself as a lone interested writer.
It was a week of questions, questions, questions. Like: what proportion of children’s books in your country are translated, what proportion locally written? In Britain, the answer is 3-4%; in Scandinavia 50%; in Japan 70%. Such facts opened up a deeper question: what effect does a near-100% translation rate have on your culture, and its transmission to the next generation? Why should a Nigerian girl soak up the atmosphere of Haworth, Yorkshire? A chasm grows between the inner and the outer: the inarticulate sense of self and daily surroundings, and a mirror which constantly (as in the old Eastern Europe) throws back a distorted or bizarrely contrasting image.
But conversely, what effect does it have on our children, here in Britain, to experience almost none of the folk tales, classics and vibrant modern stories from other countries?
There’s a whole world out there, and we’re missing it. To quote Robert Leeson, another despairing old IBBY hand: `People here think the world needs them, rather than the other way round.’
Just look what we’re turning our backs on. The children of Albania, thrown from communism into market chaos, and hungry for books; IBBY there has an office, but no phone. In Germany, IBBY groups have started ‘Bibliotherapy’: libraries for children in hospital, with volunteers on hand to read books aloud or, better still, encourage parents to read to their own children. In South Africa, the organisation called READ (Read, Educate And Develop) is bridging the gulf not only between black and white but between urban and rural children.
Lots of people spoke of the success of a `books with germs’ scheme: a story-book has a ‘Go and Read This Book to Someone Else’ germ, and sends them maybe to a neighbouring but ethnically different school, maybe to a faraway village that takes days to reach. How about that for Northern Ireland?
In Croatia, the library in Vinkovci has been entirely destroyed by bombing. Their representative appealed movingly for books and donations towards a Children’s Library of Peace, to help children grow up with tolerance and understanding both of their own and other people’s cultures. (Donations and enquiries, please, to: Children’s Library of Peace, Marulicev trg 21, Zagreb, Croatia.)
I had breakfast with Kyoko Matsuoka, Japanese writer, librarian and translator of `Paddington Bear’. I heard about children in Israel – and her own traumatic childhood – from an Israeli children’s TV presenter as we pounded along Berlin pavements. I learnt from the Iranian delegation over lunch that they’re eager for books which open children’s minds and help them to think for themselves.
IBBY BRITISH SECTION
Why has the British launch of IBBY died a slow and painful death? `To be fair,’ says Chris Kloet, `there are practical difficulties. For instance, the IBBY subscription is calculated on the basis of the number of children’s books published in that country. So the British have to pay over the odds. And lots of countries have governments that support their IBBY branch through the Ministry of Education. That doesn’t happen in Britain, does it?’
Nor are children’s book publishers interested to give support. They go to the Book Fairs and make their deals there. And Britain has lots of other organisations for children’s book people: The Federation of Children’s Book Groups, the Children’s Book Foundation, the School Libraries Association, and more. They’re wonderful – but they belong to these islands. They are insular.
There in Berlin, between hard covers, stood all our famous authors and illustrators: John Burningham, David McKee, Geraldine McCaughrean, Raymond Briggs with his Snowman, Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth’s Kannst Du Nicht Schlaflen, Kleine Bar?. No doubt those deals, those co-productions, were worked out at Frankfurt and Bologna or in the publishers’ offices.
But there’s more to the international children’s book world than trade. Everyone who offers a book to a child – offers food for children’s minds – needs to stand back and look at the overall diet. We in Britain need to stop resting on past laurels, and end our intellectual isolation. Let’s try a bit of humility for a change, and learn from the minds, hearts, words and pictures which communicate through IBBY, and get together every two years for nourishment, like they did in Berlin.
Christmas present, anybody?
Alison Leonard‘s most recent book is
Kiss the Kremlin Goodbye published by Walker, 0 7445 2134 3, £8.99; 0 7445 2360 5, £2.99 pbk
For more information about IBBY, contact Wendy Cooling of the Children’s Book Foundation (Book House, 45 East Hill, Wandsworth, London SW1S 2QZ, tel. 081870 9055). The Foundation acts as mail-box for remaining British IBBY correspondence and contacts. Wendy is eager for an IBBY revival, because she gets lots of visitors from IBBY branches abroad, who are dismayed at the lack of IBBY’s presence on the British scene.