Geraldine Brennan on the potential of a Eurobank for picture books. The "universal republic of childhood" is being mapped out afresh as children's literature experts across Europe make plans for a collection of picture books which will help children to understand more about other European countries.
The aim is to put the collection - two or three outstanding picture books from each European Union member state - into every EU primary school, funds permitting. Penni Cotton, senior lecturer at Kingston University, has just orchestrated a symposium to develop the idea. She received European Commission funding to set up a network that would "enhance the European dimension in primary education through children's literature" and has involved representatives from all the member states - academics, teacher trainers, librarians and classroom teachers.
With the UK's national curriculum having been taken to task by Frances Morrell's Federal Trust research group for ignoring Europe (TES, February 23), the idea of exchanging literature is timely.
Penni is delighted with the kick-start provided by the European Children's Literature Symposium in Douai, France last month. Participants outlined how their countries' primary schools are already using picture books to develop reading skills and linguistic and cultural awareness.
"Until now there has been no European network for discussing children's books in this way," Penni said. "We are starting to have a sense of our collective expertise and there is a great deal of excitement about what we can do in the future. We now need advice from the Task Force about how the collection might reach a wider European audience." She has applied for more money to take the project forward.
The next stage is for each country to consider book choices and offer ideas for accompanying materials. It seems likely that schools would be given the books in the original language with accompanying cassettes. Summaries of the stories and ideas for use would be in a teachers' booklet.
The books themselves, participants have agreed, need not be obviously about the lifestyle of their country of origin. Frank Flanagan, lecturer in education at Mary Immaculate College in Co Limerick, Ireland, explained: "The aim should be to broaden children's views and deepen their understanding, not of something abstract called Finland or Sweden or Ireland, but of the geography of their imaginations - the universal republic of childhood."
Geoff Fox, senior lecturer at Exeter University, agreed. "The priority must be the viewpoint of the child rather than the reflection of the country; what the countries have in common, the experience of childhood, rather than what separates them, history and geography. Anthony Browne's Gorilla is a marvellous example."
Robert Dunbar, a lecturer at the Church of Ireland College of Education in Dublin, suggested Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth's classics Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? and The Park in the Dark as other contenders for inclusion.
Margaret Meek, reader in education at London University's Institute of Education, was clear about the advantages for the UK of a picture-book Eurobank - and the barriers that might have to be overcome. "The English are ignorant of books from elsewhere, if not suspicious," she said, lamenting the fact that only one per cent of books available in England and Wales are in translation. The Scots do rather better, with seven per cent.
The English picture book tradition was helped along, she said, by artists and writers who do not originate in England. "Their strength is removing the taking-for-grantedness, of making the obvious less obvious than it seems. In fact the English have absorbed the Englishness of all the other English-speaking countries."
She pondered on the potential of introducing Janet and Allan Ahlberg's "small but revealing vistas of English social life" to classrooms across Europe. The Baby's Catalogue, "a subversion of family normality", makes subtle references to the English class system; Each Peach Pear Plum assumes knowledge of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. "Children have to be taught the constructedness of texts," she said.
The two smallest countries represented were also those with the greatest linguistic diversity. Romain Sahr, a teacher trainer from Luxembourg, mentioned the successes of Guy Rewenig, a new author writing in Luxembourgisch. Denise von Stockar of the Johanna Spyri Institute of Children's Literature mentioned the Swiss trend towards a sense of everyday realism. And in a survey of the Swedish arena - leaving out Astrid Lindgren - Lena Kareland contrasted the safe, comfortable representations of home life in the early-20th-century titles with the chillier contemporary tales from, for example, Anna Hoglind.
French picture books - a wide range were on display at the Douai salon du livre which ran alongside the symposium - are also straying outside the comfort zone, reported Francis Marcoin of the University of Arras. He believes themes such as the actively nurturing father in books such as Papa! by Philippe Corentin reflect the current French concern about the collapse of the traditional family. Of Claude Dubois's Un papa d'aventure, he says: "Usually the child has adventures by running away from authority; in this one, authority - the father - goes along with him. There is security alongside the risk-taking." This theme, Francis says, will travel well.
Copies of papers from the Douai symposium will be available from Penni Cotton, school of education, Kingston University, Kingston Hill, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey KT2 7LB o A new award for children's literature in translation published in the UK opens this year. Details of the Marsh Award, sponsored by the Marsh Christian Trust, from the Children's Literature Research Centre, Downshire House, Roehampton Institute, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 4HT