HCA 2006 Laudacio

Presentation of the Hans Christian Andersen Awards 2006

 

Laudatio by Jeffrey Garrett

President, Hans Christian Andersen Award Jury 2006

 

Mr. President, Distinguished Laureate, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Most Valued Hosts and Sponsors, Esteemed Guests.

Almost fifty years ago to the day, on September 17, 1956, buried on page 10 of the Monday London Times, boxed in between advertisements for Cartier engagement rings and Grouse Brand Scotch Whisky, readers could find the following announcement taken out by Oxford University Press: The first award of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the only international children’s book award, goes to Eleanor Farjeon’s The Little Bookroom. Since that first bestowal of the award, the Andersen Medal has gone through a host of transformations — from a prize for a single outstanding book to two medals honoring the complete work of a living author and a living illustrator, from a simply juried process always conducted within a short chauffeured drive of Jella Lepman’s home in Zurich to a huge two-year process in which even the jury members go through a rigorous nomination and selection machinery.

Today, we have a process in which there are regularly over fifty candidates nominated from all over the world represented by almost 400 individual books sent to each juror, to IBBY headquarters, and to the editors of Bookbird — thus over 6,000 individual copies of books crisscrossing the planet. The Andersen remains today the only internationally juried and conferred award for international children’s literature, and the size and carefully tuned complexity of the jury process gives it a unique place and a unique authority in the world of children’s books.

I had the honor to preside over the selection process for a second time this year, an amazing intercultural and translinguistic experience lasting eight months and culminating in a two-day meeting last March in Fiesole, Italy, when IBBY did its best – and succeeded — in relieving the ten voting and three non-voting members of the jury of all (or nearly all) earthly cares, while at the same time enforcing a demanding and rigorous schedule of discussion, debate, and above all: decision. (You can read all about this year’s jury meeting in the congress issue of Bookbird, which you received with your registration materials.)

This year’s jury was as representative of the world of children’s books as one could imagine, with experts from twelve countries and all continents but Antarctica represented. The 51 candidates from 28 different countries were represented not only by their books, but also by extensive dossiers and unpublished translations prepared by their nominating IBBY sections.

I wish to thank the Nissan Company for sponsoring this meeting, the Casalini family in Fiesole and the staff of Casalini libri for providing invaluable local support, as always Liz Page of the IBBY Secretariat for holding everything together, and the ten voting members of the jury for traveling from the most distant corners of the world to provide each other with an extraordinarily harmonious, constructive, and (despite all the pressure) enjoyable couple of days. Many of them are with us this evening. Allow me to recognize them briefly—and if you are here, please stand: Vasja Cerar (Slovenia), Isabelle Nières-Chevrel (France), Lona Gericke (South Africa), Grazia Gotti (Italy), Maija Korhonen (Finland), Angela Lebedeva (Russia), Bill Nagelkerke (New Zealand), Parnaz Nayeri (Iran), María Cecilia Silva-Diaz (Venezuela), and Junko Yokota (United States).

It is now my privilege to present to you our winners this year — in the name of IBBY, of the jury, and also the Queen of Denmark, HM Margrethe II, the patroness of the awards, who grants me permission to convey her personal congratulations to the medalists. Before presenting their medals, let me introduce both of our winners to you in words that I hope will resonate with them and with you and with the millions-strong international community of their readers, both young and old, those now alive and those yet to come.

It is always stimulating and revealing to take two artists of greatness and compare them, defining each in terms of their differences with the other, and also finding their unexpected similarities. This can be done independently of medium, I believe, for after all, text and illustration are both vehicles of the imagination, both languages of the mind and of the heart. In the case of our winners this year, the commonalities far outweigh the differences, for both firmly believe that there is a reality which transcends our everyday and banal world. It is an artistic, poetic, and often magical world far more basic than what we can see or read about in the newspapers, on that quite obviously follows different laws, laws that secretly govern our existence, confirming what the poet Muriel Rukeyser meant when she wrote that “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

A powerful sense of story and of wonder and of beauty, of realities that go beyond the stolid mirroring of physical fact, are therefore qualities of childhood that children’s literature should be nurturing, not seeking to overcome. And both of our prizewinners brilliantly nurture childhood in this way. Let us look at each of them in turn.

The winner of the 2006 Hans Christian Andersen Medal for writing is Margaret Mahy of New Zealand.

I’ve added the adjective “Mahyan” to my personal dictionary, comparable to other adjectives such as Dickensian, Kafkaesque, and Rabelaisian. (You know, of course, that bestowing an adjectival ending on an author’s name is a higher honor than a Nobel Prize.) According to the dictionary, for example, “Rabelaisian” means: “pertaining to or like the coarse, uproarious humour of François Rabelais.” “Kafkaesque”? “Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.” What does “Mahyan” mean? Let’s give it a try: mahyan: of or pertaining to language in which no figure of speech is merely ornamental, but potentially real, waiting to be activated, thereby making all things potentially animate and sentient, all children potentially magical. Mahyan prose then is therefore very often: sensical nonsense. Consider one of her earliest books, Leaf Magic, in which on an autumn day a leaf follows a boy home, acting more and more like the dog the boy longs to have — until, at last, it becomes one. Or this passage from Nonstop Nonsense: “The [word-]wizard tossed an idea into the air. It buzzed off like a mosquito, over the lawn, straight to Mr. Delmonico and stung him on the end of his nose.”

This is very poetic. In one of her books, Mahy has a character say “Perhaps all this poetry stuff is just the world’s way of talking about itself.” There is no difference between word magic and thing magic in the Mahyan universe. Find the right words, and things will follow suit. Games become real. Word games bend reality to match them. And because we are magic, because the universe is one giant extension of our imaginations, we must deal with the good magic and also the evil magic that abounds around us.

The world is poetry, not science. Science, at least in the hands of many adults, makes us smaller, limits us and our ability to reach out, enthusiastically and creatively, to touch and to grasp the world around us. “That’s science,” Winola says to Tris in The Underrunners. “Think down to the smallest bit of anything there is and it’s mostly nothing. Even us!” Truth is intuited and felt, not read in thick books—which are useful, as the aspiring scientist Tycho Potter discovers in The Catalogue of the Universe, mainly to stand upon to kiss a girlfriend much taller than he is. Again Muriel Rukeyser: “Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling.” The magic of the poetry of words is a sign that the world is far more mysterious and deeper than we think. Humphrey Carpenter has written: “To children, the Earth appears ... beautiful and numinous.” Numinous is a wonderful but not a very common word, which protects it, I guess, from being overused and losing its power. But perhaps it needs to be explained. It comes from Latin numen, meaning divinity or divine will, and is related to even more ancient words in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit meaning to nod or incline the head, since from the beginning of time to nod the head has been a gesture of respect, piety, deference, honor, and awe. Not surprising, then, that our word “numinous” means “revealing or indicating the presence of a divinity, awe-inspiring.” So “mahyan” also means: “showing respect for nature and for human nature, which is suffused with divinity.”

In her book The Invisible Child, Andersen and Lindgren award winner Katherine Paterson tells the story of a lecture Margaret Mahy gave in 1989, where she recounted reading in a science book called Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia the then fact that the world had dropped off the sun and would someday come to an end. Although she discovered later that this fact was a falsehood, what she remembered was the extraordinary sense of wonder that she felt. Mahy wrote:

    I have come to think wonder must be a part of truth, but a part which our physical systems are anxious to conceal [, for] a perpetual state of wonder and desire (which seems to me the truest state to be in, confronted with the universe) is certainly not the most practical state to try and live in. We are biologically engineered to have the wonder filtered out of our lives, to learn to take astonishing things for granted so that we don’t waste too much energy on being surprised but get on with the eating and mating, gardening, feeding cats, complaining about taxes, and so on.

What she is describing is, of course, normal adulthood. What an encounter with her work does for us as adults is return us to the wonderment of childhood and of young adulthood: of encounter with the strange and numinous; with our first loves; with the gradual or sometimes also sudden discovery of our own powers. What Margaret Mahy’s writing does for children is to confirm them in a sense of the sacredness of themselves; the higher sense of nonsense; the poetry of their lives.

I believe that the other genial creator of children’s books whom we are honoring here this evening, the winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Illustration, Wolf Erlbruch of Germany, would agree with Margaret Mahy on all of this. In fact, on the profundity of children’s perception, their ability to see things their parents remain blind to or have become blind to, the assertion that the world is poetry before it is science: he has said these things himself. “No child is ignorant,” he writes. “That’s only what adults like to think. They like to have the edge on them. But it’s just the other way round. Grownups live with so many restrictions. They just can’t fathom the intellectual depth of children.” In his entire oeuvre, Erlbruch seems determined to show that nothing is trivial, nothing is as the grownups insist that it is, not even counting to ten, not even walking through a dark city street, but that everything resonates with associations, ghosts, possibilities.

Consider his work The Big Question, first published in France in 2003 as La grande question and the winner of the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2004. The “big question” is: Why am I here? What an opportunity for pedants such a topic would have offered, comparing perhaps Christian, Buddhist, existentialist or materialist views of the meaning of life! But instead, Erlbruch derives answers to this question from each individual, each animal, each inanimate object in a child’s life according to what makes them meaningful to the child. You are here so I can spoil you, says the grandmother. You are here to get up early, says the baker. You are here to learn patience, says the gardener. I don’t have the foggiest idea, says the duck. You are here to be here, says the rock. You are here because I love you, says the mother. What matters, what gives life meaning, what provides a humorous contrast to some people’s seriousness: this is what matters, this is what gives our lives meaning, this is why we are here. And what matters is what matters to you: there are blank pages at the end of the book where a child can add her own changing answers as she grows up.

The message of Erlbruch’s Nighttime, originally published in Dutch in 1999 as ‘s Nachts, reinforces the message that the world is richer, that life is richer, than the deadened senses of grownups can perceive. In Nighttime, “Fons doesn't want to go to sleep, he wants to take a nighttime stroll with Papa. As if deaf and blind, the stressed-out father stumbles through the streets with his son and doesn't notice Alice and the White Rabbit, King Kong, the tulip on roller skates, the polar bear and many more strange and wondrous things than could possibly fit into his adult mind.” (Quoted from White Ravens, 2000: www.ijb.de)

We are back then to wondering at the numinosity of the world around us. That everything around us speaks to us seems underscored by Erlbruch’s technique. His collages frequently incorporate scraps of newspapers or ledger sheets which, whether we want them to or not, speak to us. Though they break off in mid-sentence or mid-word, these images seem to whisper to us as we look at them.

As with Margaret Mahy, then, content and form play equally compelling roles in the work of this master. This year’s Andersen Medal for Illustration is indeed a recognition of one of the great innovators and experimenters of the illustrator’s art. Wolf Erlbruch masters an array of artistic registers, is as at home citing and combining artistic styles of the 19th and 20th centuries as he is inventing new ways to reach out to children of all ages. An adult admiring his work will see echoes, at the whim of the artist, of the color palette and grainy style of Weimar Germany, shapes and forms of Wilhelm Busch (you must see old Goethe rendered as a clownish Lehrer Lämpl!). We see Max Ernst’s incredible collages for La semaine de bonté, Picasso, Dali, Bosch, so many others. And yet Erlbruch is not a mere postmodernist mixer of the old: he goes entirely new ways. Sometimes simple and elemental, at other times dense and intricate, he is always playful, humorous, philosophical, iconoclastic. Renate Raecke wrote in her essay nominating Wolf Erlbruch the following: His characters

    are inimitable individualists with their own unique forms and contours that have nothing at all to do with the usual bunnies, duckies, or wee Billy goats found in other children’s and picture books. They are above any type of cutesiness or trivialization. They have not been treated with a “fabric softener” for children’s books.

Erlbruch is not averse to crassness and the grotesque and, to quote from Horst Künnemann’s 2005 article on Erlbruch in Bookbird, he consistently challenges “traditional squeamishness.” Children, Erlbruch was quoted in a 1996 interview, “are entitled to illustrations that have a certain crudeness.” Just as Erlbruch stretches the limits of the page, he also stretches the limits of acceptable content — consider that perhaps his most brilliant and profound work is about an ogress and her penchant for eating young children — but above all he stretches the imagination, nurturing that same power in young readers that his contemporary, Margaret Mahy, has been doing from her island home on the exact opposite side of the earth.

What brings this year’s two winners together under one tent? Wie können wir sie unter einen Hut bringen? In closing, let me make the attempt. If there were a Frau Meier who could leap from a tree and fly like a blackbird, it would be Margaret Mahy. If there were a Mahyan family wizard fending off the Carmody Braques of the world, the villains who would sap childhood of its powers, that Mahyan wizard would be Wolf Erlbruch. They are both worthy winners of this year’s Hans Christian Andersen awards.

Jeffrey Garrett

21 September 2006

30th IBBY Congress, Fisherman’s Wharf Convention Centre, Macau; China