IBBY in the 21st Century

IBBY’s founder, Jella Lepman, believed that books could build bridges of understanding and peace between people.  Because of this strongly held belief, she created IBBY as an international organization that would bring children together by means of books. She did this because she was convinced that the German children she saw after the war needed not only food, medicine, clothes or shelter, but also books.  Good books, literature, and especially books from around the world.  They needed to know what all good readers know:  you are not alone; others have experiences, feelings, and needs just like you do, and there is a whole world out there you know nothing about.  And that world is not what you thought, it is more like the world you will find in all the wonderful books.

Today, fifty-five years later, IBBY has seventy-two national sections with an international secretariat with two full-time staff in Basel, Switzerland, all paid for by the annual membership dues of our national sections. IBBY’s newest members come from Haiti, Guatemala, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  

In its second half century IBBY continues with many of the projects that have been previously developed: the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award, the IBBY Honour List, and the Collection of Books for Young People with Disabilities.   In addition, IBBY coordinates international celebrations of International Children’s Book Day.

Following its five decades of pioneering work, IBBY has launched a new set of activities and programmes that are built on the foundation and ideas that have guided IBBY since its inception.

The framework for these new projects is the Right of Every Child to Become a Reader.  By this IBBY means that every child everywhere in the world must have access to books and the opportunity to become a reader in the fullest sense.  IBBY sees this as a fundamental right and the doorway to empowerment for every child.  But this is not simply a matter of literacy.  This principle entails becoming a life long reader, one who can think critically, participate actively in society, resist demagoguery, understand the world, know him or herself, and know others.

IBBY believes that the best way for this to happen is through access to the very best literature for children – wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated books that tell the truth of children’s lives.  But the real emphasis is on making sure children everywhere have access to books about their own lives, published in their own countries.  The governing metaphor for this new emphasis is that children need books that are mirrors and books that are windows.  When using the metaphor of mirrors, we think of books in which we can see ourselves, our own lives, our own experiences, hear our own names, and see our own towns and streets.  If you look in the mirror and don’t see yourself – are you a kind of monster, a vampire perhaps!  And this engenders self-doubt: who am I if I am not worthy of being written about?  But also, as Jella Lepman taught us, we need books that are windows – ones that open onto the world and let us know how other people live, that they have the same human feelings and emotions as we do.  Of course, one child’s mirror is another’s window and vice versa, which brings IBBY back full circle to the idea that books can build bridges of understanding between people.

Unfortunately, this right to become a reader is not equally available around the world.  In most of the poorer countries children are lucky to find any books, much less high quality books.  And they are almost certainly never going to find books that reflect their own lives and cultures.

This is due to the structure of the publishing industry as well as to the more general economic forces with which we all contend.  Publishers from the great colonial powers Britain, France and Spain continue to live off their former colonies, and along with companies from the USA, they are the world’s great exporters of books. To add to this concentration in the major rich countries, comes the further corporate concentration that has taken place in world publishing in the past twenty-five years.  The frightening reality is that the vast majority of the world’s book production comes from a handful of multi-media conglomerates.  

As publishing is only marginally profitable the last thing these conglomerates want to do is lose money publishing for small populations in, what to them, are marginal languages.  Their business interest lies in selling the same books they have developed at great expense for their home or principal markets.  Compounding the effect of the ownership of publishing companies is the fact that the great majority of editors in English language publishing companies are unilingual and they are reluctant to buy books they can’t read.  And editors in many other countries, though they do a much better job of taking on translations, are influenced by what is published in English.  None of this contributes in any way to the production of local books, in local languages, reflecting their unique and particular societies.  The only people who can see themselves in these mirrors are the privileged children of the world.

IBBY can’t change the structure of world publishing but thanks to the generosity of Hideo Yamada, a Japanese honey producer and philanthropist, IBBY is working in a small way to address this imbalance with an effective series of projects aimed at helping to strengthen and develop local capacity for production of high quality books and reading promotion.  In 2005 the IBBY-Yamada Fund began a five-year programme of workshops in publishing, writing, illustrating, and librarianship in countries that have little or no local publishing. Good writing and illustration is not born – it is shaped by years of apprenticeship, contact with excellent peers, editors, a market, critics, librarians and most importantly – receptive, book-loving child readers.  We have that kind of expertise in IBBY and through the IBBY-Yamada Fund workshop programme we can share it with others.  Our broad network of National Sections means that IBBY, through its dedicated and principled activists, can carry out effective reading projects in many countries that otherwise may not pay children’s reading promotion the attention that is imperative for their growth.

Further to the mission of ensuring that every child has the right to become a reader and influenced by the experiences of the Banco del Libro in Venezuela and the projects that arose following the Tsunami disaster in South East Asia, IBBY has begun another very powerful activity – the IBBY Fund for Children in Crisis.

This work represents a circling back to Jella Lepman and her basic tenets. It is really an updated version of what Jella Lepman invented after World War II.  This is now known around the world as Bibliotherapy.

IBBY believes that children who are suffering from natural disaster, displacement, war and its aftermath, desperately need books and stories as well as food, shelter, clothing and medicines. These are necessities and are not mutually exclusive.  

In conclusion, reading and books can save lives.  They can change lives.  They can give children in the most desperate circumstances a way to begin to live again and to understand what has happened to them.  IBBY believes that every child, rich or poor, safe or in danger, with a home or without, has the right to become a reader. This has been IBBY’s continuous message.  The new projects, together with the existing ones, make IBBY and its seventy-two national sections uniquely suited to working concretely to bring children and the very best books together around the world.  We stand firmly by our deeply held convictions that books and stories can change lives, bring understanding, and empower the powerless.

Patsy Aldana, 2008