To celebrate Astrid Lindgren’s contribution to ‘furthering the right of children to have a rich inner life’, the Swedish government set up the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award which is presented to all who carry on this work ‘with imagination and empathy… and the highest artistic quality’. Julia Eccleshare discusses this year’s winner.
Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking and her friends, was passionate about the importance of imagination and play for children. She knew that her stories helped children to enjoy both of these and, in doing so, to develop into the kind of people that any rational society would want them to be. That’s why she wrote them. Lindgren died in 2002 at the age of 94.
The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is hugely ambitious and this ambition is matched with a substantial Award. Five million Swedish crowns is a very romantic sum to win; translated into $ or Euros, it sounds less romantic but remains a lot of money. It’s also substantial enough to make it the second biggest literary prize in the world.
This is because the Swedish government means business by it. They believe passionately in the legacy that Lindgren left. Her influence stretches far beyond children’s literature. Allied to the teaching methods of Maria Montessori it permeates all Swedish thinking about childhood and the way in which children grow intellectually and emotionally. The government’s vision is that the Award should celebrate a writer, illustrator, playwright, poet or organisation that makes children better citizens of the world and strengthens their human rights.
To fulfil this exceptional ambition which stretches far, far beyond the remit of any other prize, the 12-strong jury tirelessly seeks out the people and organisations that are making a difference. Once they’ve found their winner, they bring them to Stockholm for a fantastic celebration, including a presentation to the Swedish House of Parliament where the members are genuinely interested in this work, to salute them.
Banco del Libro from Venezuela
This year, for the first time and following a distinguished showing of authors including Philip Pullman, the winner was Banco del Libro from Venezuela whose representatives were presented with the Award by the Crown Princess. The citation for the Banco praised it for its work saying, ‘In a true pioneering spirit, with ingenuity and a sheer determination, the Banco del Libro has constantly sought new ways of disseminating books and promoting reading among children in Venezuela. Enthusiasm, professionalism, closeness to the children and a refreshing lack of bureaucracy are the hallmarks of the Banco del Libro’s work, whether in shanty towns, mountain villages, universities or out in cyberspace.’
Accepting the Award for the Banco del Libro, Managing Director, María Beatriz Medina said, ‘When we heard we’d won we laughed, we danced and we cried. We are proud to be linked with an author whose work changed how we look at children and childhood. This is a prize with a soul. It will challenge us to find new ways of bringing books to children in a country where so many are denied that basic opportunity.’
Now an extensive reading promotion organisation, Banco del Libro was founded in 1958 by a group of volunteer women who were determined to raise standards of education in a country where many had been denied any educational opportunities by the ruling dictatorship. Initially, it was set up as an exchange system for used textbooks as a way of supporting those who lacked sufficient educational resources: hence the name which means Book Bank. Banco del Libro soon took on a much bigger role with an ambitious objective ‘to support the reconstruction of the country’s educational system, to improve the standard of teaching materials and to promote reading among children and young people’.
To achieve this in the intervening years it has developed numerous projects including the setting up of model libraries in remote communities with books being delivered by any means possible including on muleback and by book boat, the start up of a school library network, the foundation of a publishing company, Ediciones Ekaré, now an independent business, in an effort to improve the available supply of good quality fiction, and the foundation of a research centre which underpins the development and dissemination of children’s literature across South America.
Most recently, Banco del Libro developed a ‘Read to Live’ programme in response to the needs of thousands of children who were orphaned following devastating floods in Vargas in 1999. The success of the book based programme in helping individuals and communities come to terms with the chaos caused by a natural catastrophe has led to it being replicated in other countries including, most recently, in Thailand following the tsunami in 2004.
For all of these remarkable achievements Banco del Libro captures the essence of this hugely distinguished Award.
‘Alone with a book, a child creates unique images somewhere within the secret chamber of the soul. Such images are vital for human beings. The day that children are no longer capable of creating such images will be the day when mankind is impoverished.’ Astrid Lindgren