Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature is the quarterly journal of IBBY (The International Board on Books for Young People). Over a period of almost 70 years it has evolved from a modest bulletin promoting IBBY’s overseas activities into a substantial journal containing a mix of peer reviewed articles, articles about authors, illustrators, translators, publishers, features on reading promotion activities around the world, IBBY news, reviews of scholarly literature and reading recommendations for young readers, and much more.
In 2017 the Bookbird, Inc. Board invited Evelyn Freeman and me to compile and edit a publication about the history of Bookbird. We set to work, deciding that a chronological approach would make most sense, and that the contributors would mainly be drawn from those who had been involved with the journal’s development since its founding in 1957. These included past editors, Bookbird presidents, members of the Bookbird board and IBBY’s former and current Executive Directors. Initially the publication was to be 100 pages long, in A4 format and with a high level of visual content. However, as the contributions arrived it was soon clear that there was even more to the story of Bookbird than initially realised and the final publication has grown to 146 pages.
While our focus would be on Bookbird, the book would also be a medium through which to tell the story of IBBY itself and other organizations which operate under the IBBY umbrella, such as the Hans Christian Andersen Awards and other IBBY awards and projects, and the International Youth Library in Munich where Bookbird was first published.
The International Youth Library was the first institution founded by Jella Lepman, a German Jewish woman who returned to Germany in 1945 with the American troops to help with reparation work following World War Two. Lepman was immediately struck by the desperate plight of Germany’s children, many of whom had lost their families, their homes and childhood itself. She resolved to make helping these children her priority– already they were receiving food and clothing from aid organizations, so what could she do? She observed that ‘colour and beauty’ were two things missing from their lives, and drawing on her background as journalist and author, she determined to make books accessible to these children. Using her contacts, she got in touch with a number of countries, soliciting books for an international exhibition. The resulting contributions formed a series of exhibitions which toured German cities and were visited by children and adults in great numbers. Eventually a permanent home for the ever increasing stock of books was found in an old mansion in Munich. This became the renowned International Youth Library (now in Schloss Blutenburg on the outskirts of Munich).
Lepman was determined, and she enlisted others, many prominent in the world of children’s books. Together they formed IBBY, and as IBBY activities grew, UNESCO asked Lepman to work with developing countries to promote reading and libraries. She responded positively, and Bookbird was first published in 1957 to record these international reading projects.
Bookbird: A Flight through Time opens with an article chronicling Lepman’s return to Germany and her activities until her death in Zurich in 1970. In interviews, both Anne Pellowski from the USA, a Fulbright Scholar in Munich in the 1950s, and Leena Maissen, IBBY’s first Executive Director, recall their memories of Jella Lepman, depicting her as a forceful personality who got things done.
This is evident in an article about the early days of Bookbird, and the struggles to keep it going. The story is picked up by successive Bookbird editors, who tease out the growth of the journal, its success in attracting an international audience, and some tussles that ensued when finance became a big problem, and the management of the journal moved from direct control by IBBY to governance by an independent management board. This also gave the editors more autonomy, while remaining true to the ideals of IBBY.
Successive Bookbird board presidents also had a role in Bookbird’s production, ensuring that professional publishing houses managed the logistics, giving certainty to a regular publication cycle. Currently Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore, USA manages the production aspects of Bookbird.
As articles from our 22 contributors arrived, it became evident that Bookbird’s independence was respected by those involved with IBBY. The journal was able to stand apart from political skirmishes which arose as IBBY expanded, including the controversy arising in the 1960s Cold War period when there was a bid for the Soviet Union to join IBBY. British IBBY withdrew its membership, concerned that IBBY would become embroiled in international tensions, but subsequently fears were allayed and Britain rejoined.
How to contain all of this, and in a way that would make interesting reading, was a conundrum at first. Eventually we settled on a plan of dividing the book into five sections, each introduced by an ‘Overview’ giving a synopsis of events in words and a photomontage, and concluding with a poem by an Andersen Award winner from the period.
An article about changing styles in Bookbird covers highlights fashions in print and design, emphasising the importance given to Bookbird’s visual presentation as well as its content. We followed by working with a skilful designer, giving our book high production values. Others contributed too, including Andersen winners Igor Oleynikov who provided a stunning cover and Katherine Paterson who wrote a generous foreword.
The many photographs throughout the publication, along with the articles, provide insights into the history of children’s literature internationally. The volume concludes with a visual round-up of IBBY’s many reading promotion activities throughout the world, often in challenging areas, reminding us that the work of IBBY and Bookbird in bringing children and books together is needed just as much today as it was when Jella Lepman returned to Germany in 1945.
Valerie Coghlan, with Evelyn B. Freeman, is editor of Bookbird: A Flight through Time. Bookbird, Inc., 2021.
Copies of Bookbird: A Flight through Time may be purchased at the IBBY website: www.ibby.org