Reflections from the 37th IBBY World Congress

Moscow, Russia 10-12 September 2021

The decision to hold the 37th IBBY World Congress in Moscow was made by the IBBY Executive Committee in Bologna in 2015. From the start it was not plain sailing due to the worries about border conflicts and then later by the government’s stance on LGBTQ+ rights in Russia. Nevertheless, the IBBY Executive Committee kept a close eye on the situation while supporting our IBBY Russia colleagues in their preparations. No-one knew at that time what was ahead!

Russian literature has had a strong influence on children’s literature in the world and IBBY wanted to emphasize the positive aspects of the country as well as follow our goal of promoting peace through children’s books. IBBY Russia/Raising Readers Association also wanted to share their very rich heritage as well as showcase the latest trends in children’s literature in Russia.

When the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, travel became restricted, borders were closed and in-person meetings were held online. It was with a heavy heart that the IBBY Executive Committee made the decision in April 2020 to postpone the 37th Congress to 2021. Our colleagues in Moscow had reached the same conclusion and thus the Congress moved to September 2021. There was still a lot to accomplish and a hybrid event was planned with in-person attendance as well as on-line participation. It was a huge challenge and we have learned much in the process.

The programme was developed and speakers were approached. Several of the original keynote speakers agreed to the new plan and many oral sessions were organized. The Scientific Committee worked hard to prepare an inclusive, interesting and wide-reaching programme. The Congress organizers worked with an IT company to build an online platform that could be universally used around the world in the many different time zones and languages.

After all this hard work, the congress opened in Moscow on Friday, 10 September at the State Museum of Alexander Pushkin. Finally, representatives from 30 countries could attend the Congress in-person. The opening began with a very talented young pianist playing, followed short welcome by Vladimir Tolstoy, who is the Cultural Advisor to the President of the Russian Federation. IBBY President Mingzhou Zhang also welcomed the participants via a pre-recorded message. He referred to the work being done by IBBY members across the world:

"As IBBY members, we work towards bringing children and books together. Even though the current pandemic is testing our resources and imagination, there are many projects in the IBBY world that manage storytelling, workshops, seminars and more online or via mobile phones. Social media and websites can deliver many online resources!

During the pandemic we have learned to be resilient and adaptable. As we move forward to face new challenges with renewed optimism and confidence, we have to find new ways to bring the joy of reading as well as access to high-quality books to children everywhere."

Another speaker at the opening was the President of the International Publisher Association (IPA) Bodour Al Qasimi from the U.A.E.  She spoke of the necessity of inclusiveness and diversity in the world of publishing. She praised IBBY as good example of international cooperation in action and how she is inspired by IBBY. Later, Natalia Solzhenitsyna introduced us to three generations of the family of one of Russia’s greatest authors Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She is currently the President of the A.I. Solzhenitsyn Foundation. The opening closed as it began with a young musician, this time a trumpet player.

The first keynote speaker of the Congress was Bart Moeyaert from Belgium, who gave a wonderful speech about growing up as he went on to become an award-winning writer. Zohreh Ghaeni from Iran followed by giving a very moving talk about women from deprived communities are changing their destinies through books and reading. Mempo Giardinelli spoke about his work in Argentina aimed at making every child in the world a reader. Both Mempo and Zohreh are past winners of the IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award.

The afternoon plenary sessions were devoted to reading promotion projects. IBBY projects were promoted: Casa Cuna Cuenteros from Argentina (2020 IBBY-Asahi winner), Leigh Turina lead librarian for the IBBY Collection of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities, Mempo Giardinelli from Argentina (2012 IBBY-Asahi winner), Zohreh Ghaeni from Read With Me in Iran (2016 IBBY-Asahi winner) and Deborah Soria founder and head of the IBBY Silent Books project.  Denis Beznosov moderated this hybrid session with the speakers tuning in from Canada, Argentina, Italy, as well as from Moscow.

Cedric Christian Elongue from Cameroon gave a lively presentation about the accessibility and visibility of African children’s books and how much more is needed to bring relevant books to children across the continent. Cao Wenxuan the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen winner from China, presented a pre-recorded speech about his work and the role of dialectics in writing, drawing on many references to great Russian writers.

Later in the afternoon Junko Yokota lead a round table discussion by six Hans Christian Andersen Award winners: Jacqueline Woodson (USA, 2020), Albertine (Switzerland, 2020), Roger Mello (Brazil, 2014), David Almond (UK, 2010), Cao Wenxuan (China, 2016) and Igor Oleynikov (Russia, 2018). This session was again a hybrid discussion – only Igor Oleynikov was in Moscow. The discussion was wide-reaching and fascinating. One surprise was that Roger Mello, who had been held up in Brazil on his way to Moscow, was able to participate directly from São Paulo airport.

Another discussion was led by Ekaterina Asonova with the participation of Valentin Golovin, the director of Pushkin House, and Laure Thibonnier who is working on Russian Literature at the University of Grenoble in France. The afternoon ended with an enlightening session by David Almond talking about why he writes for young people.

The 2020 IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award ceremony took place in the evening at the Pushkin Museum, with a live connection with the leaders of the Casa Cuna Cuenteros project in Buenos Aires. Laura Ormando and Alejandra Alliende gave an energetic presentation of the project and showed that, despite the pandemic, they could take stories and books to the children in the Buenos Aires main children’s hospital. A pre-recorded laudation was given by Jury President Redza Khairuddin from Malaysia and a message of support and congratulations was sent from the sponsor Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo. The evening ended with a fabulous buffet.

On day two, the Congress moved to the Russian State Children’s Library, which is the home of IBBY Russia. The library was converted into seminar rooms, exhibition spaces, and a theatre. The main hallway was transformed by pictures by the Russian Andersen award illustration winners Tatjana Mawrina (1976) and Igor Oleynikov (2018). The other exhibitions included the 2020 IBBY Honour List, the 2020 HCA Awards, the 2019 IBBY Selection of Outstanding Books for Young People with Disabilities, the 2019 IBBY Silent Books selection, BIB’19, Nami Concours 2021, Migrations: Open Hearts, Open Borders and BOLO 2020 (Big Ones Little Ones). A fascinating digital exhibition featured the history of IBBY national sections: Then and Now. This was a great way to catch up on how IBBY has grown and how it has really influenced the development of children’s literature around the world. Along other walls participants could follow the stunning illustrations by Oleynikov for his recent book ОхотанаСнарка (The Hunting of the Snark), by Lewis Carroll.

The 2020 IBBY Honour List was presented over midday via a film showing the 179 nominations from 60 IBBY sections. This is always a popular event and this year the film was accompanied by well-known Russian music. Eight nominees were in Moscow in-person and they collected their diplomas and a memento of Moscow from the stage. Representatives from the nominating national sections who were present also collected their nominees’ diplomas. A special lunch was given to the representatives and nominees at a local restaurant.

On Saturday evening, the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen gala evening took place in Dom Pashkov, which is an elegant neoclassical mansion overlooking the Kremlin that was formerly a private home and now a beautiful venue for special events. It is now an art museum as well as housing the rare books of the Lenin Library. It was a perfect venue for the gala evening!

The evening was interspersed with music and speeches. The Jury President, Junko Yokota joined from Evanston, IL, the author winner Jacqueline Woodson joined from New York, the illustrator winner Albertine joined from near Geneva in Switzerland. Ms Lee representing the sponsor Nami Island Arts & Education Inc. send a pre-recorded message with a film of events and activities that Nami Island conducts throughout the year. The two Andersen medals will be presented at a later date when we can meet in-person. The evening event was streamed around the world to the online participants, and those participating in-person enjoyed a wonderful dinner, and even some dancing afterwards!

The final congress day included another 14 oral sessions as well as a final plenary session. Andersen Award winner Roger Mello from Brazil enthralled the audience by talking on the topic of Illustrator reader, reader illustrator. The second session was given by inspiring Argentinian writer, storyteller and creator of the country’s first children’s public library Maryta Berenguer, who spoke live from Buenos Aires.

The inaugural IBBY-iRead Outstanding Reading Promoter Award ceremony took place in the main hall of the library. We were delighted that one of the winners of the 2020 Award was in Moscow and participated in-person – Marit Törnqvist, Swedish artist and reading promoter living in the Netherlands.

The next presentation was of the history and current activities of IBBY journal Bookbird. A Journal of International Children’s Literature. Valerie Coghlan joined the congress from Dublin and Evelyn Freeman joined from her home in Ohio. Valerie and Evie, and together with former Bookbird Inc. Board President Joan Glazer, presented the latest publication: Bookbird. A Flight Through Time.  They gave a fascinating insight into the history of Bookbird and its connections to IBBY and the International Youth Library in Munich.

During the three-day congress, 42 oral sessions took place amongst the books of the library, all were in the hybrid format with speakers logging in from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Chile, China, Cyprus, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Turkey, UAE, UK, and the USA. Many more participated in-person from Armenia, Belarus, Brazil, Chile, Estonia, Finland, Iran, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Norway, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and many from Russia.

The closing ceremony took place at the library on Sunday evening. Angela Lebedeva moderated the closing ceremony  that included speeches from the director of the library Maria Vedenyapina supported by her granddaughter Anna and Vladimir Grigoriev Vice-President of the Russian Book Union and the Chair of the Congress organizing committee. Anastasia Arkhipova thanked all the members of the Scientific Committee for their excellent work. On behalf of the IBBY President, the IBBY Executive Committee and IBBY members across the world, Liz Page warmly thanked IBBY Russia and the many organizing committees for their commitment, hard work and resilience during these difficult times to prepare such a splendid IBBY Congress.

The Closing Ceremony also included “passing on the baton” to the 38th IBBY Congress that will be held in Putrajaya, Malaysia in September 2022. After a delightful film highlighting the regional dances of Malaysia and a welcome by the President of the Putrajaya Corporation, the Malaysian Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Dato’ Bala Chandran, accepted a token “baton” to ensure the smooth transition to the next IBBY World Congress. The closing event was full of music and dancing. A children’s singing group representing many characters from well-known stories, such as Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, the Mad Hatter, Alice and many more, performed live on stage.  Another group of young people also gave a musical performance. Then to close the congress, the Moscow Cossack Choir took the stage and treated the participants to very energetic singing and dancing – complete with swords!

The whole Congress was a great and important achievement. IBBY has had a national section in Russia since 1968, later in 1998 a branch was established in St Petersburg. This is the first time that the world of IBBY has been able to celebrate in Russia, albeit as a hybrid event. A huge and heartfelt thank you goes to everyone at Russian IBBY/Raising Readers for preparing such an interesting, wide-reaching and thought-provoking event.