International understanding through children’s books - Internationalism, the universal child and the world of children’s literature - children’s literature

Children’s literature

2. Internationalism, the universal child and the world of children’s literature


Emer O’Sullivan


International understanding through children’s books


Paul Hazard’s concept of literature as an agent of communication between the children of the whole world was enthusiastically adopted, especially in post-war Western Germany and America. International understanding through children’s books was one of the most discussed topics among German-language children’s literature professionals in the 1950s and 1960s. The personification of this ideal in the immediate post-Second World War years was Jella Lepman, the energetic woman who returned, in a US Armed Forces uniform, to the war-devastated German homeland she had been forced to leave as a Jew, and set herself the task of providing a source of spiritual sustenance for the starving children. Her rallying cry to the world in 1946 as she went about organising an international exhibition of 4,000 children’s books from twenty nations, the majority of whom had still been at war with Germany one year previously, was: ‘‘Lassen Sie uns bei den Kindern anfangen, um diese gdnzlich verwirrte Welt langsam wieder ins Lot zu bringen. Die Kinder werden den Erwachsenen den Weg zeigen’ (Lepman 1964: 51). (The English translation is shorter on passion and rhetorical effect: ‘Bit by bit ... let us set this upside-down world right again by starting with the children. They will show the grown-ups the way to go’ (Lepman 2002: 33)). As an idealist dedicated to the practical realisation of what she believed, Lepman was tireless in her activities for children at the International Youth Library (IYL) in Munich, which she founded, and in canvassing publishers to ensure that international children’s literature of quality got translated into German. She was convinced that the only hope for world peace lay in children learning about and understanding other cultures and nations. Hence the first mission statement of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), founded by Lepman and others in Zurich in 1953, ‘to promote international understanding through children’s books’. But she and her colleagues were also concerned about the availability of good books to children around the world, and IBBY is dedicated to eradicating illiteracy and engaging in projects to promote good reading habits and improvement of publications for children all over the world. What Carl Tomlinson calls the ‘International Children’s Literature Movement’ (1998: 8) is closely bound with IBBY and has many sung and unsung heroes, such as children’s librarian Mildred L. Batchelder, whose name has been given to an award presented by the American Library Association to a US publisher for the most outstanding translation of a children’s book.

In the face of much talk about internationalism from the 1950s on, it is easy to sympathise with Jella Lepman’s successor at the IYL, Walter Scherf, and his exasperated lament in 1976 that countries and cultures, in the world of children’s literature, actually knew very little of each other ‘in spite of our using the word internationalism ten times every day’ (Scherf 1976: 140). This statement still holds true today, as a look at figures on translations will show.

What children’s literature can realistically contribute towards international understanding is a question which has not yet been - and perhaps cannot be - answered satisfactorily. There is no doubt that literature, when read in an empathising mode, can contribute towards creating a bond between a reader and people from a country or culture read about. Katherine Paterson bears witness to this in her Hans Christian Andersen Award acceptance speech in 1998. As an eleven-year-old she read Struggle is Our Brother, about Russian children in Stalingrad facing the Nazi destruction of their city, and she ‘became their sister in the struggle’ (Paterson 1999: 21). When she was told a few years later that she must hate and fear the Soviet Union she could not, ‘because Struggle is Our Brother had given me friends in the Soviet Union - friends that I cared about and could not bear to see harmed’. Paterson believes that literature can serve as a sort of shield against propagandist lies and cultural and racial prejudice:


we must give our children friends in Iran and Korea and South Africa and Serbia and Colombia and Chile and Iraq and, indeed in every country. For when you have friends in another country, you cannot wish their nation harm.


The potential of literature to foster intercultural understanding by the reader adopting a foreign perspective is currently an important area of investigation in foreign-language teaching research. Only observations based on reader-response analysis will be able to tell us if and exactly how literature and reading can contribute towards this goal.

Studies on the formation of children’s images of other nations and ethnic groups and of the changes in those images would not suggest unqualified optimism. In addition, the translated literature of other countries, cited as a main site of exposure to foreign cultures, is often so heavily adapted that the ‘foreign’ elements supposed to foster understanding between nations are obliterated or heavily adapted. Notions of international understanding through literature are also often belied by the findings of reading research which show, for example, that most adults are unaware when reading a translation. It is therefore little more than wishful thinking when Mildred Batchelder claims, ‘Children, who know they are reading in translation the same stories which children in another country are reading, develop a sense of nearness with those in other lands’ (Batchelder 1972: 310). How could children have such superior knowledge about literary processes? Can they really know and understand what a translation is? And can their self-consciousness of the reading situation realistically extend to knowing that they are reading the same stories as children in other countries? In a statement such as this it is the idea rather than any practical realisation of international communication through books which predominates.