Ursula Dubosarsky on the “Sharing Stories” exhibition in Canberra

Australian children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky spoke at a preview of the first-ever exhibition in Australia of the IBBY Honour Books, hosted by Woden Library as part of the National Centre of Australian Children’s Literature “Sharing Stories” program, celebrating the International Year of Translation. The exhibition is open from 2-20 October 2018 at the Woden Library and features a never-seen-in-Australia exhibit of 191 outstanding children’s books in translation from 70 countries around the world.

Ursula has kindly shared a copy of her speech:

So, what is this exhibition? IBBY, for those who may not know, stands for the International Board on Books for Young People. It’s an organization based in Switzerland with member countries, including Australia, all around the world, whose aims, broadly speaking, are to promote international and cross-cultural understanding through the encouragement and sharing of high quality children’s literature and most importantly access to that literature for children everywhere, whatever the circumstances.

IBBY was officially founded in Zurich in 1953, born in the disillusioned atmosphere that followed six years of catastrophic war in Europe and the Pacific. It was led by the inspirational and indefatigable German-Jewish writer Jella Lepman who had a devout conviction that through exposing children around the world to great children’s literature we might find ourselves living in a more peaceful and more tolerant world
One of IBBY’s earliest initiatives was the creation of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen medal, awarded every two years for a lifetime’s work to a writer, and since 1966 also to an illustrator. Famously two Australians have each won this medal, writer Patricia Wrightson and illustrator Robert Ingpen. The medalists are chosen by an exclusive international jury and everyone in IBBY Australia is tremendously excited that Robin Morrow, our erstwhile IBBY President, is to be a member of this jury from next year, a stunning tribute to her international standing in the field.

In association with the Hans Christian Andersen Medal IBBY member countries also select every two years their country’s honour books, one for writing, one for illustration, and with an option for an honour book for translation. These honour books, are, according to IBBY, intended to be “representative of the best in children’s literature from each country … furthering the IBBY objective of encouraging world understanding through children’s” books. Full collections of Honour Books from all over the world since the practice began in 1956 are held at the IBBY headquarters, at the International Youth Library in Munich, and in specialist children’s literature libraries from St Petersburg to Kuala Lumpur.

But we don’t have to go to any of these far flung places today – the books have come to us here in Woden library all the way from Switzerland. The exhibition is in two parts. Firstly you will see all the IBBY honour books for writing, for illustration and for translation for 2018, 191 books from 70 countries around the world, a fascinating and comprehensive snapshot of current international publishing for children and a reflection of the variety and creativity of contemporary children’s literary and illustrative culture.

Obviously in these few words I can’t tell you about every book, so I will just give you a brief sort of birds eye view of what you will see in the exhibition. The greatest number of the honour books for writing are prose fiction. Some of the subject matter is quite serious – there are realist novels about children confronted with stress or displacement, from Argentina, Demark, Germany, Greece, Lebanon, Holland, South Africa and Swizterland; stories about disability from Bolivia and Canada; stories about refugees from Belgium, Poland and the United Arab Emirates. There are several historical novels – from Italy is a story set in the 1930s and from Sweden another set in the 1940s. From Cambodia a book that takes place during the Khmer Rouge; another from China during the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai in the 1960s; and another from Korea about the colonization of Korea by Japan in the early 20th century; the honour book from Colombia is set during contemporary military conflict and a story from Chile is takes place during recent student uprisings.

For younger children the stories tend to be lighter – there are animal stories from Egypt, Ghana, Mongolia, Peru, Rwanda and Uganda; there are philosophical fables Cyprus, France, Hungary Slovakia Tunisia and the Ukraine. There are funny stories from Finland, Russia, Slovenia and New Zealand –“From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle” from the wonderful Kate de Goldi ; gentle coming of age stories from Costa Rica and Palestine, a novel about sport from Japan, fantasy novels from the Czech republic, Finland Iceland Indonesia Lithuania Mexico Norway and Croatia. I was particularly charmed by a novel from Ecuador about a boy who has a tiny Martian living in his ear. As I said the selected books are dominated by prose fiction, but there are several poetry collections – from Haiti, Latvia, Armenia, Moldova and Spain, and one book of short stories from Austria in Arabic and German about the author’s Syrian childhood and strangely enough only one non-fiction title – a biography of Nelson Mandela from Israel.

Turning to the illustrated books, what a pleasure to see such ingenuity and brio from all around the world. Most of the books are in colour, although there are black and white illustrated books from Estonia and Chile; imaginative collage from China and Cyprus; and a book from Mongolia which combines ancient rock art and modern illustration. There are wordless picture books from Slovenia and Canada; a graphic novel from Denmark; a newly illustrated version of the Little Prince from the Ukraine, and a French book called the Ribbon where an actual ribbon is part of the book and is transformed in function as you turn each page. The subject matters are equally varied, from folk tales to history, from the whimsical – life in Italy as a Professional Crocodile – to an obviously very serious book from Japan about the atomic bomb. Everyone will have their favourites – my own is a poetic picture book from Lebanon, about a little girl in an apartment block watching the people below crossing the street at the traffic lights, over and over again, in all weather. She calls out to them, through the glass waving, shouting but nobody sees her or notices she’s there.

As I mentioned earlier, it is the International Year of Translation. The selection of Honour Books in translation is absolutely central to IBBY’s aim of fostering cross-cultural connections. How delightful to think of Eleanor Farjeon’s “The Little Bookroom” in Chinese; Neil Gaiman in Persian; Astrid Lindgren in Armenian and Mongolian; Hebrew folk tales translated into Japanese; Sanskrit fables into Khmer; an English African story into Kinyarwanda. And I was very charmed to see Ruth Krauss 1952 “A Hole is to Dig” illustrated by Maurice Sendak translated into Catalan.

In contrast to this display of contemporary publishing the second part of the exhibition is historic, and consists of all the Australian IBBY Honour books selected since 1962, when Australia first began to nominate. And what an impressive and seminal collection it is. Of course such a collection is not only of literature but also of changing social circumstances, values and preoccupations over the fifty five years which you will observe for yourselves. In terms of literary and artistic values, however, looking at the list I was quite astonished. There are all sorts of lists out there of outstanding Australian children’s books chosen each year, and it is natural and indeed inevitable that when you look at such lists from past years you will see names and books that have disappeared into time and not been heard of since. This IBBY Honour list however is remarkable in that just about every name on the list since 1962 continues to be held in high esteem. IBBY Australia should be extremely proud of having such a record of what appears to be most excellent and perspicacious judgment.

Just to finish, can we say confidently that the ideals of IBBY born after World War Two, of the power of great children’s literature to change the world for the better, have had any effect? When we read the news we may feel some intense despair. But that is not a reason to abandon the project. One of Jella Lepman’s other great lasting legacies was the establishment in 1949 of the International Youth Library in Munich, an exceptional archive of world literature for children. I visited the library on invitation some years ago, and wandered around the old Bavarian moated castle it’s housed in until I came across a small museum in honour of the German writer Michael Ende, himself a winner of the Hans Andersen medal. In the English- speaking world Michael Ende is of course most famous for “The Never Ending Story”, but in Europe it is his novel “Momo” that is most loved – and I must thank IBBY’s Margot Lindgren for telling me about Momo. (And I strongly recommend to everyone Margot’s marvelous blog on children’s books, MOMO time to read.)

Momo is a parentless illiterate innumerate child who lives on the edge of a city in a ruined amphitheatre. One day she has a conversation with a street sweeper about how he keeps on working, in the face of despair of ever getting the job done, and this is what he tells her:

“Sometimes, when you’ve a very long street ahead of you, you think how terribly long it is and feel sure you’ll never get it swept… But you must never think of the whole street at once, you understand? You must only concentrate on the next step, the next breath, the next stroke of the broom, and the next, and the next and the next. Nothing else.”

What is on display here at Woden Library is a selection of patient steps, gentle breaths and brush strokes, and the next and the next and the next. I wish you all the deepest pleasure and inspiration in exploring the exhibition.

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