With all the current enthusiasm for barriers – from Brexit to European fences keeping out refugees, to Trump’s proposed wall bordering Mexico – today marks a wonderfully welcome anniversary of bridge building.
70 years ago, on July 3rd 1946, the International Exhibition of Children’s Books opened in Munich. With books from 14 European countries on loan, and paintings by children around Europe on display, it sounds like a fun library event. But the date and location made it momentous. The Germans had surrendered only a year before and the country, not to mention most of Europe, was in tatters. The only reading matter for German children had been Nazi propaganda; any books questioning the regime or its values had long since gone up in smoke.
Those children were the future of the country. If they were to rebuild it from the ruins of Nazism, they needed exposure to new ideas – cultural tolerance, kindness, international understanding – that would encourage a different world view. And what better vehicle than stories that could sweep them away from the misery of daily life, from the bombed out streets and schools, the lack of food and fathers?
Everything about the exhibition was amazing, from its backing by the American army, to the agreement from countries so recently at war to send books to Germany, to the European postal services working at all. Most amazing of all was its organiser. Jella Lepman, a Jewish journalist, had fled to London after Hitler came to power. She was asked to return to Germany just 5 months after the Nazis surrendered to advise the occupying American army on the cultural and educational needs of German women and children. Imagine the terror she must have felt at the thought of setting foot in the nation that had massacred 6 million of her people. Imagine the incredulous laughter that could have met their request. And in her book A Bridge of Children’s Books, she admits that:
‘had only adults been involved, I would not have hesitated to say no. The word ‘Re-education’ rang hollow in my ears, too, as far as adults were concerned. But children – did that not change matters? I found it easy to believe that the children all too soon would fall into the wrong hands if no help came from the world outside.’
Seven years later, Lepman founded the InternationalBoard Books for Young People (IBBY) in Zurich. Now in 76 countries, IBBY promotes understanding through children’s books, through its awards and activities such as reading promotion, setting up libraries, organising storytelling events, supporting children affected by war or natural disaster through the Children in Crisis fund, and many other projects.
What a testimony to courage and vision that, sixty-three years later, IBBY members in 76 countries are building ever stronger bridges through children’s books. Thank you, Jella Lepman, for a simple ‘yes’ that transcended personal safety and pain to benefit thousands of readers, young and old, rich and poor, around the world.