The power of stories and being present — IBBY Congress 2016

The power of stories and being present — IBBY Congress 2016Julia Eccleshare and Leonard Marcus share thoughts on children's literature

“If you have a society of non-readers you don’t have the chance for democracy” Leonard Marcus.

Last week, Auckland hosted the 35th IBBY International Congress. The theme of the 4-day event, Literature in a Multi-literate World, gave the 500 or so delegates from over 60 countries the chance to discuss and reflect on what it means to be literate.

Windows, mirrors and doors

A few themes emerged from the panels and sessions I attended. In particular, in this era of globalisation, how do we retain the necessary ‘mirrors’ in children’s literature, while ensuring children have access to the windows and doors to other cultures and lives needed to build tolerance, empathy and understanding?

In a 1990 article Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors (PDF) Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University wrote:

"Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books."

A number of speakers at the congress spoke of how they didn’t see themselves in the books they read as children. Joy Cowley noted that it took the arrival of the New Zealand School Journal to reflect a sense of ‘New Zealandness’, yet it still wasn’t 'a book'. In a powerful and moving talk, Witi Ihimaera spoke of the role of stories in creating a sense of belonging and family in an increasingly globalised world. He also stressed the need for stories that can help children find solutions for global issues, asking:

“What kind of story are we writing now for the children whose village is underwater?”

The power of stories

The power of stories was also addressed in the keynote panel Cultural Diversity in Children’s Literature with Chris Szekely (Chair) Gavin Bishop, Nadia Wheatley and Nahoko Uehashi. Nahoko, a professor of ethnology, writer of the Moribito fantasy series and winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2014, said that culture is something we acquire after we are born. It does a fine job in dividing us, but it is stories that remove barriers: “Through stories, we can live in other worlds and transcend different cultures, even the bounds of being human.”

IBBY plays an important role in giving children access to stories. Its support of library, publishing, reading and storytelling projects around the world underscore IBBY’s belief that reading and access to great literature is a right for all children “…this includes children from underprivileged families, immigrant children, refugees, children with disabilities and sick children.” Wally De Doncker, IBBY president.

The IBBY project Silent Books: From the World to Lampedusa and Back (PDF) set up a children’s library on the Italian Island of Lampedusa for refugees, opening with a collection of 111 wordless picture books from 23 countries. They were chosen because every child can enjoy stories through the images, regardless of culture or language.

The Congress excelled on many levels. But, like any successful event, the richness came from meeting and hearing in person about the fantastic work being done for children in communities around the world — from a grass-roots level up to a government level. Attending an event in the real world requires us to be present in every sense. In a post-congress session at the National Library Auckland Centre, children’s literature experts, Julia Eccleshare and Leonard Marcus, both touched on people’s increasing desire in our virtual world for 'the real'. Julia said people want to see and hear the authors; they want to feel the whole experience. Marcus, who created The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter exhibit at the New York Public Library (one of the most visited in the library’s history), said exhibitions put children's books in a larger context, showing people they aren't trivial but have real value. And, when so much is digital, exhibitions remind us of the power of being present. They have an emotional impact and are about seeing yourself in the larger scheme of the society you live in.

When asked about the role of digital books, Julia and Leonard spoke of the fall in sales of digital books in the UK and the US. Publishers are responding by putting more money into the production of picture books. As Leonard said, books where everything is related to the story and which allow kids to develop mastery over their senses and can control the pace of the story.

Regardless of the medium, there was no doubt that stories are vital to sustaining and helping us make sense of our world, as Julia said: “Children's stories will continue to fuel the arc of our lives — why do YouTubers all want to write books?”

Further reading and viewing

Visit Paula Green’s Poetry Box for a great overview of some of the speakers including Witi Ihimaera, Joy Cowley, Julia Eccleshare, Leonard Marcus, Kate De Goldi, Martin Baynton, Sir Richard Taylor and Markus Zusak.

If you're in Auckland, check out the Children's Literature and the New Zealand Landscape display at the National Library, 8 Stanley St, Parnell.

By Jo Buchan

Jo is the Senior Specialist (Developing Readers) for Services to Schools.

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