Idealists in action

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Jeffrey Garrett looks at the work of IBBY and reports from its recent congress in Seville.

The International Board on Books for Young People (with the friendly-sounding acronym IBBY) was formed in Zurich in 1953 as a border-crossing network of individuals and organisations committed to bringing children and books together. Uniting this group is neither a common scholarly nor a common commercial interest-though both academics and publishers play an active role in the organisation-but instead a shared belief in children's books as a means of promoting tolerance and international understanding.

This could remain the idle dream of glazed-eyed idealists without there being a plan of action, but IBBY has been working for 40 years to create a range of activities to promote literacy for children-increasingly a problem not only in developing but also in industrialised nations. More than 61 countries now belong to IBBY; among the most recent to join are South Africa, Kuwait, Croatia and Ecuador.

Despite the diversity of IBBY's membership, a unifying faith in literacy and the power of story to "give children wings", to raise their sights and bring them to an appreciation of the underlying humanity of all peoples, holds the group together. The biannual congresses assume a special role in bringing together members who can rarely otherwise meet . The most recent, in Seville last month, on the theme of "Children's Books, A Place of Freedom", attracted 700 members from all over the world.

Touran Mirhady of Iran related how, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, indigenous writers and illustrators for children have finally begun to hold their own against the flood of cheap comics from the West which had characterised the cultural order of the Shah's regime.

Jay Heale, editor of the South African children's literature newsletter Bookchat, spoke of how exhilarating it was for the South African children's literature community at last to be "welcomed in from the cold". Heale also documented the rise of Black African central figures in South African books of the last several years, interestingly parallel to an increase in the proportion of heroines.

However, congress participants were reminded that not everywhere in the world is progress being made towards greater literacy and more valuable children's books. Denagama Siriwardena, a Sri Lankan writer whose book Mithuro (Friends) describes how civil war gradually erodes the once harmonious life of the Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities in a village in an eastern province of his country, described the quite different reality of children's literature in societies torn by war: "As writers for children", he asked, "is it permissible for us to portray just sweet illusions? Do we have a right to spin fantastic tales for children who are dying of hunger and sickness? If we are accountable to our young readers, we cannot deceive them by creating a false heaven on this earth".

But it was the Latin Americans who most frequently stood in the limelight at this year's congress. Carmen Diana Dearden, president of Venezuela's Banco del Libro, a pioneering children's literacy organisation responsible for creating her country's first public and school library services, was elected to lead IBBY for the next two years.

The 1995 IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award was presented to the Fundalectura of Colombia, for implementing the national reading plan Es rico leer ("It's great to read") since 1991. Colombia is one of the few countries in the world which by law siphons off revenue from the publishing industry to support reading promotion efforts.

IBBY's championship of the best children's literature is reflected in the sponsorship of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the "Little Nobel", which this year went to the Japanese poet Michio Mado for writing and the Swiss graphic artist Jorg Mueller for illustration. Mado's work combines extraordinary vision and delicacy with what often seems an almost English appreciation for nonsense.

The illustration award for Jorg Mueller honors an artist who during the 1970s and 80s helped shape the sensitivity of an entire generation to the environmental costs of uncontrolled urban growth. One of Mueller's most recent works, Der Aufstand der Tiere (The rebellion of the animals, SauerlAnder, 1989), takes this message a step further, depicting the threatening conquest of the final wilderness, our dreams , by the powerful popular culture industry.

Friends of reading and good books for children often find themselves accused of being Luddite retroverts in an age of media and multimedia. The next IBBY congress, in the Netherlands in 1996, will discuss the new media as a serious and even hopeful vessel for children's literature.

IBBY offers a window to the world of children's books, a chance to contribute both to a discourse and to a humanitarian effort which feeds minds and enriches imaginations and may ultimately lead to a world of more understanding and tolerance.

Jeffrey Garrett is Foreign Literatures Bibliographer at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana, USA) and Editor of IBBY's journal, Bookbird.

The UK Friends of IBBY hope to re-establish full British membership, which ceased in 1991, and will be holding a conference on politics and children's literature at Roehampton Institute tomorrow. Further details from Susan Hancock, The Children's Literature Research Centre, Roehampton Institute, London SW15 4HT.

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