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1. Librarians at Bologna - Part 1: Books as Mirrors

Continuing with our current literacy focus, and thinking towards World Literacy Day on September 8th, this is the first of three posts focusing on and beyond a session at this year’s Bologna Book Fair…

In my first post following our return from the Bologna Book Fair, I highlighted the session organised by the IFLA (International Federation of Libraries Associations and Institutions). The session was organised by the Netherlands Public Library Association and they called it “Invitation to JES: Join – Enjoy – Share”. Despite not being librarians, Aline and I were made very welcome and we really enjoyed chatting to the librarians afterwards. In fact, the various informal discussions got so lively that we were asked to keep the noise down – well, makes a change! As well as our Dutch hosts, there were children’s librarians there from all over the world: Australia, Colombia, Croatia, France, Italy, Japan, Senegal and Tanzania. The atmosphere was buzzing!

We had two speakers: the first, Patsy Aldana, the current president of IBBY, gave us a fascinating talk entitled “Books as Mirrors” in which she traced the history of Multicultural Book publishing in her native Canada, and in which her own Groundwood Books has been so ground-breaking (for more on multiculturalism in Canadian publishing, see here). It had been a very painful struggle, she said, to define the role of the writer: who could write legitimately about what? Those white people who had been the only published writers of books under the multicultural umbrella would ask, “Why can’t I write whatever I want? Who are you to tell me not to write about your experience?” and were being asked “What right do you have to steal my story – the world you’re describing is not real”.

This situation is now much resolved in Canada but there are still real concerns. “Children need books that are windows and books that are mirrors,” she said: and unfortunately there is uneven access for children to these kinds of books. What happens to children who never see themselves in the books they read; and one step further, what happens when children are not taught to read in their own language? It is an enormous disincentive to the desire to read. She pointed to the work of some “fabulous” small publishers from all over the world and urged us to visit their stands at the fair – such as Tara Books from India, Ekeré from Venezuela, and Editions Bakamé from Rwanda, (which shared this year’s IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award). Small publishers need our support because so often it is their books which give “that flash of recognition – That is me!”

Citing the example of an Iranian librarian in Sweden who is able to ensure that children of Iranian background can access books attuned to their experience and outlook, Patsy concluded by saying that librarians are the people who can be relied on to bring books to children. Librarians can insist on quality – for without quality it is hard to foster a love of reading and provide the key to the mirror/window.

I think there’s plenty to chew on there and I will post about the second speaker in Part2!

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