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peace through children’s books?

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Understanding conflict

Some of the books dealt with the harshness of war, sensitively presented for young people to appreciate the grim realities without being robbed of hope for the future.

Children are exposed to so much violence. In some cases it is real - their communities are at war. In some cases it is found on television, where ‘conflict resolution’ often means the victory of the ‘strong’. In this environment, is children’s literature the last best hope for peace?

I wonder how many readers know about IBBY? Certainly, a number of teachers will be acquainted with the International Bureau on Books for Young People, but others may like to know something about this unique institution founded by Jella Lepman in the aftermath of the second world war when she contributed to the reorientation of education in Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend IBBY’s biennial Congress in New Delhi last year; 400 authors, illustrators, educators and publishers from 44 countries assembled to discuss peace-promoting books.

The Congress is the occasion for presenting Hans Christian Andersen Awards to an author and an illustrator who have made ‘a lasting contribution to literature for children and young people’. Delegates exhibit and discuss a range of material published in the spirit of Jella Lepman’s original aim: to promote tolerance and international understanding by encouraging cross-cultural publication of good quality children’s books.

After years of preparation by the Indian Section of IBBY, the congress was nearly wrecked by India’s testing of nuclear bombs. Denmark proposed an alternative site and several Sections hesitated to send delegates, but in the end common sense prevailed since the organisers of a conference on ‘children’s books for peace’ could hardly be held responsible for their government’s bomb tests. However, the Japanese government refused to allow the empress of Japan to attend and give her keynote address. In the event, her very moving speech had to be delivered by a video presentation.

hello dear enemy
There was an excellent exhibition of international picture books for peace and tolerance entitled Hello, dear enemy! Some of the books dealt with the harshness of war itself, sensitively presented for young people to appreciate the grim realities without being robbed of hope for the future. But most of the exhibits dealt with the pre-conditions of war: ‘intolerance, xenophobia, prejudice against being different, misuse of power, oppression and violence against people and property’. There were some 200 beautifully illustrated books in 23 languages (though many available in English or English translations). they conveyed their messages of tolerance, solidarity and justice in ways understandable in some cases for three-year-olds and upwards.

Issues dealt with included Apartheid and the coming of democracy to South Africa, human rights, bullfighting, racism, atomic weapons, disarmament and domestic violence. Many of the books used humour to demolish hypocrisy, greed, prejudice and pride. A number distanced the argument skilfully by using anthropomorphic animal characters. Some turned readers’ preconceptions upside down, as for example The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, the gentle bull who didn’t approve of aggressive behaviour.

The winners of the Hans Christian Andersen Awards were the author Katherine Paterson (USA) and the illustrator Tomi Ungere (France), both in their different ways contributing to tolerance and understanding. Katherine Paterson, a bilingual American raised in China, has a unique insight into both cultures, a capacity for empathy resulting from this, and an understanding of isolation which enables her to communicate effectively with young people seeking to come to terms with themselves and society. Tomi Ungerer is a satirical artist whose drawings challenge orthodoxies, question authority and encourage individual critical thinking. Instead of killing robbers and giants his characters reform them!

Many will have seen the work of the UK nominees for the Award: Shirley Hughes (illustrator) and Anne Fine (author). Shirley Hughes’ delightful drawings illustrate simple domestic themes and minor crises for toddlers; Anne Fine’s stories help young adolescents cope with the conflicts and traumas of broken family relationships, sympathetically revealing the different points of view that create domestic dissonance and suggesting through skilful plotting and characterisation how this might be surmounted.

Appreciation of nature and care of the environment is a major theme in the work of Ruskin Bond, the Indian nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. His stories ‘emphasise the necessity of living in harmony with nature’ or show how cultural differences can be set aside through mutual appreciation and solidarity.

Biographies of notable workers for peace and justice such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were displayed and discussed. Others reminded participants that traditional myths and folk-stories still have a valuable role to play in young people’s self-discovery and confidence building.

Some of the speakers made us very aware of the problems of book provision in developing countries. Travelling libraries in India might distribute books by means of camel carts, bullock carts, bicycles, buses and boats. Festivals, traditional puppeteers and book-related pilgrimages help to promote the value of books for young people; but there still remains the problem of cost in poverty-stricken areas. In China, children lucky enough to possess books are encouraged to take them into school to create class libraries.

Other speakers - notably those from Sri Lanka and Kosovo - pointed out the importance of stories to bring some peace and harmony into lives of children in war zones. For many children, stories read and told to them in the cellars were the only clues to sanity and enchantment available to them while adults bombarded the streets above them.

For children in the West and Japan affluence sometimes militates against literary satisfaction. The anti-educational influence of video games and television violence was raised on a number of occasions. Research into television emissions suggests that young people are likely to witness some 25,000 murders a year in Europe (or 100,000 in America). Even ‘children’s programmes’ are often full of aggressive ways of solving problems. Given this environment, a speaker from Slovenia saw children’s literature as ‘the last chance for peace’. For her, good children’s books can provide ‘an oasis of peace ... where conflicts are solved without violence and where the weak and good become winners’.

I feel sure that the IBBY Congress and the continuing work of IBBY sections can make a worthwhile contribution to UNESCO’s aim of working internationally to achieve ‘a culture of peace’.

Rex Andrews
This article first appear in The Friend


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