We are the tale

The overriding theme during the Sunday morning plenary sessions was ‘Who owns the story?’ In a world where issues of cultural appropriation and misappropriation are raised, how can a writer approach telling a story about a culture that is not their own?

The flow of stories around the world was the subject of the first session with Elizabeth Laird, Jamila Gavin and Beverley Naidoo. All three spoke engagingly about their experiences of hearing the threads of stories meandering along trade routes and across oceans.  The art of the storyteller looms large for all three and they told of their own journeys to collect stories and pass them on to their own readers; of how storytelling in many cultures is not for children and children are driven away if they try to listen.  How is it, they asked, that storytelling has been infantilised?

Whilst travelling across Ethiopia meeting storytellers and collecting their stories to be published for Ethiopian children, Elizabeth Laird found a traditional of storytelling made richer by isolation. ‘I had no idea.’ She said, ‘what riches I would uncover.’  Jamila Gavin spoke of the link between folk tales and biblical stories and asked the question, which came first?  As stories travelled along trade, silk and spice routes, how did they shift and change to reflect the culture of those hearing them and then passing them on in their own interpretations?  Beverley Naidoo told of how stories of Mmutla the clever hare journeyed across the ocean to be told by slaves ripped from their homeland, Mmutla transforming into Brer Rabbit. So was the slave experience reflected in the stories they told; stories where animals are humanised and humans dehumanised.

All three are accomplished storytellers in the written form and it was three accomplished storytellers in the oral tradition that followed them on to the stage to brilliantly illustrate that culture and language are no barrier to understanding the story. Michael Harvey had the audience in stitches with his tale of Jack who, given more and more difficult tasks by the King, was only saved by his own cunning and kindness. Michael told his tale in a mix of Welsh and English, alternating language without translation. The audience were happy to follow along and even participate when necessary. When his story was over, Sonia Nimr told him that the same story is found amongst Palestinian folk tales, reiterating what the first session had stated over and over. Sonia herself first told her tale in English and then told it again in Arabic. ‘Are you following?’ she asked us. ‘Yes!’ we replied.  Finally, Mongolian travelling storyteller Dashdondog Jamba sang and recited his tales in Mongolian and, despite what I imagine was an audience with few Mongolian speakers present, we all understood the intend and sheer joy of the story though probably not the words themselves.

Dashdongdog JambaIn the second session, Patsy Aldana spoke with great vigour about her own cultural heritage and how she believes that the human face of globalisation is migration. When the publishing scene is predominantly white and obsessed with vampires, how much does the cultural identity of the writer matter? She posed questions on the authority of voice and the appropriation of voice. ‘What right,’ she asked, ‘do you have to tell my story when I cannot tell it myself?’ It was these questions that have led her to search for writers and illustrators who could tell their own stories, and then publish them through Groundwood Books, the publishing house she founded in 1978. ‘Homogenisation of books,’ she said, ‘is dangerous for our society.’
Following Patsy and ending the plenary sessions of the Congress, Michael Rosen also spoke passionately about the need to embrace multicultural literature. ‘Why is it,’ he asked at one point, ‘that some people think being interested in other cultures makes your life less?’  Michael then went on to regale the audience with stories and poems from his own rich cultural heritage. Growing up in East London with Jewish Communist parents he touched on political activism, parenting and, in one memorable story, corned beef! With typical humour and candour, he had the entire audience laughing along with tales of Harold and Connie as they raised their family in a time of huge change and cultural upheaval. The perfect way to end the Congress, with the joy of listening to storytellers doing what they do best, engaging their audience and leaving them wanting to hear more.Michael Rosen

Photography by Jack Dix Davies

Universal Reading – Shaun Tan at the IBBY Congress

As Shaun Tan spoke from the stage in the Great Hall on Saturday morning, images from his picture books, such as The Arrival (2006), The Lost Thing (2002), The Red Tree (2001), and The Rabbits (2000) among others, displayed on the large screen behind him. Sometimes, Tan directly commented on the inspiration or origin of the drawings; while at other times they more served as a backdrop to his talk about migration, otherness, interpretation and art.

Knowing that the majority of the audience would be familiar with his texts (and we were, if the queue for signing during the tea break was anything to judge by!), Tan instead chose to talk about ways of approaching his texts, making it very clear where the reader stands in the meaning-making process of picture books.

‘Readers are co-creators,’ he said. ‘I’m actually quite careful to leave my stories half-finished so that you, the reader, can be involved.’

Tan went onto the discuss the difference in approaches between critical literacy and visual literacy. He leaned slightly more towards the visual approach as he felt it offered the the reader space to ask the two important questions when faced with something they ‘didn’t get:’ How does it make me feel? And, what do I think about it? 

‘Your own thoughts and feelings are the most important,’ Tan said.

A focus on feelings was a theme throughout Tan’s plenary session as he returned to it again and again with each picture book example. He stated that his initial concept for The Arrival was to tell ‘a universal migrant story’, comprised of real-life details from research he had done regarding migrant stories from around the world. Tan soon realised, though, that it would be impossible to create a truthful story that meshed all the different people, personalities, purposes and experiences he had found. So, he instead attempted to answer a different question: How do I make it feel truthful?

To this question, Tan responded, ‘A way to be truthful sometimes is to go in the opposite direction, into fantasy.’

Readers of The Arrival will know that this is what Tan has done: the truth inhabiting the fantastic where the language is universally foreign, huge black serpents oppressively roam the streets, and a tadpole-like creature can suddenly appear on your bed in an offer of friendship. And yet these realistic incongruities do not matter because we, as readers, emotionally respond and relate to what Tan has created.

But it wasn’t just with The Arrival that Tan hoped to achieve this kind of empathy: he wants to leave space in all of his work for the reader to be curious about another’s experience.

‘Curiosity is actually a kind of empathy,’ Tan said in his closing remarks.

It was in this way that Tan further fanned the curiosity flame on day three of the IBBY Congress, reminding the delegates of what is possible when we gather and continue to learn from each other.

Humour in Translation – Second Day of the Congress

Why translate children’s books? This was the topic of Emer O’Sullivan’s Plenary Session talk on Friday morning. From my seat in the rafters, it appeared as if the audience members were enjoying the journey O’Sullivan was taking us on as she dissected her own question and regaled us with examples of translated children’s books. This was a thorough overview of the days to come of the Congress, nuanced and highly-informative.

And then something unexpected happened: O’Sullivan made us, the audience, laugh.

It was a knowing laugh: this group of delegates could not only see the humour in the French asserting that their children had “too much common sense” after WWII to believe that Pippi Longstocking could lift up a horse in translation (they changed it to ‘a pony’) but they had been there. This was a room full of translators, publishers, authors, academics and others who had been in those gridlocked conversations over the appropriateness of a one, singular translated word.

O’Sullivan followed this example with another: Axel Scheffler’s udderless goat drawing entitled “The Scissors of International Coproduction.” It appeared the US version of one of his picture books preferred its sitting goat sans-udders…

Indeed, not just translations, but translators were a much-heard topic of commentary, too. O’Sullivan praised them, quoting Gillian Lathey, as the ‘unsung and often unpaid heroes’, ‘the great disappeared.’ The following panel with Aidan Chambers and Bart Moeyaert had slightly differing opinions on the translators each author had worked with in translating their novels. Chambers proclaimed that he had ‘discovered some of the strange things translators do’ while Moeyaert welcomed translators who shared his view to ‘please be [his] second self.’

And then it was the translators themselves on stage as Daniel Hahn and Rosalind Harvey discussed their choices in translating a piece of Eliacer Cansino’s writing from Spanish to English. Insightful and enlightening about the translation process (choices for this word over that, passive voice vs. active, etc) between the two translators, the conversation was also peppered with humorous remarks:

On including a piece of information regarding a character, not known at this point in the story, Harvey defended her choice:

RH: ‘That’s cause you didn’t read the book.’

DH: ‘It’s cheating if you read the book.’

The chair remarked that he had needed to ‘teach Microsoft Word so many swear words.’ Harvey & Hahn shared some of the mistakes their audio dictation has made:

RH: ‘For foxes’ sake!’

DH: ‘Excremation point.’

Hahn on one of the various uses for italics:

DH: ‘Italicising things signals to people that they are in another language, so that red fish becomes rrred feesh.’

Even in the parallel sessions, the funny side of the work that people are doing comes through. In Session 12, Translation & Adaptation, Naomi De-Malach spoke about translating children’s books from a more classical Hebrew to modern Hebrew: ‘We have a section in our libraries that is called ‘Books that Children Don’t Read.’ Can you imagine a section of children’s books which children don’t read?!

Of course, what De-Malach went on to explainthat children today know a different version of Hebrew than what their parents learned, given that the language is still so new–made perfect sense. What struck me about her comment, indeed all the comments that got a laugh throughout the day, was the delight and humour in this kind of work.

Saci Lloyd said in her lunch time talk that she was moving back to comedy in her writing. When asked about this later, she stated that, with her research, ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry with this stuff.’ What was most joyous to me about the day was the opportunity, after countless hours of solitary toil over with extreme dedication and purpose, to share not just what we know but also those moments of discovery that make us giggle when we’re alone–with an audience who can sympathise.

Art, Entertainment, Politics & Authors

Throughout Friday’s IBBY Congress sessions, I was struck by the off-hand comments by writers and translators slipping in their reasons for writing or translating. Diverse as the languages represented in the audiences, the individuals presenting may have been largely speaking on the subjects of translation and migration, but the crafting of language was not far out of reach.

Aidan Chambers spoke passionately about writing as an art form, stating ‘I’m not writing to a reader at that moment… What I’m creating is an object.’

Author and translator Deepa Agarwal stressed that the original author of the Hindi novel Chandrakanta wrote to entertain readers–not to give them another politically didactic story of the late 1800s.

In contrast, Momentum author Saci LLoyd was clear about her purpose in pursuing her craft and the reality of that path. ‘I’m a political writer… It is not always easy being a political writer,’ she said. ‘My whole life is a trying to find a way to sex up the dossier!’

After a sparsely attended lunchtime poster session, I briefly caught up with Lloyd to hear more about icebergs, stewardship and a global perspective.

EG: You said in your talk that “Dystopians are watching for icebergs.’ What icebergs are you on the look-out for?

SL: Climate-change…There is always one guy in the audience, at the beginning of a talk, that wants to own a Lamborghini and is set on it… and then by the end of the talk he is starting to come around, OK maybe I could own an electric Lamborghini…. I’m not anti-technology. It just doesn’t have to be a march towards a super capitalistic future, but one that stays modern and exciting and in a sustainable world.

EG: Is that what you want to get across to those who come to hear you speak?

SL: Most of who is at these kind of events are librarians. Librarians are the revolutionary 5th columnists.

EG: You spoke of wanting to instill stewardship in your readers, can you say more about that?

SL: It’s a progressive modern vision of what could be. I could write about I think people are deeply interested in but it has to speak to people. It is a difficult call to action. All forward looking movements have a difficult call to action–big movements are about big ideas. It’s moving from Homo sapiens to Homo Connectus. When we are truly interconnected then it is very hard to treat other people badly.

Thank you to Saci LLoyd for taking the time to speak with me, and to all the other authors and presenters from Fridays sessions for your inspiration.

First Day of the Congress – by Alexandra Strick

The first day of the 33rd Congress at Imperial College London was a resounding success and I’m honoured to be blogging about it.

450 plus delegates from IBBY branches all over the world and others gathered in the prestigeous Great Hall for the Opening Ceremony. Illustrating the Congress theme to perfection, a small troupe of children from Theatre Peckham was the first to take to the stage. Their songs and dance were from a production based on The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, adapted from Kate DiCamillo’s 2006 children’s book about a china rabbit on a voyage of discovery.With most of the roles played by children, some as young as five, the cast displayed more confidence and poise than many a seasoned adult actor.

Once the audience had given the cast several (well-deserved) rounds of applause, the stage was taken by IBBY UK Congress Directors, Ann Lazim and Kathy Lemaire, who formally welcomed the delegates to the 2012 Congress. Ann reiterated the extent to which Theatre Peckham epitomised the theme – Peckham being a highly multicultural area of London and the play itself having ‘migrated’ from a book.

The Opening ceremony went on to recognise three key IBBY members for their contributions to IBBY – Ana Maria Machado from Brazil, Peter Schnek from Austria and Urs Breitenstein of Switzerland were awarded honorary membership.

Chieko Suemori was then invited to tell the Congress a little about an innovative project to provide picture books for the children of the Tsunami-affected area of Japan. Being herself a resident of the area. Chieko told us first-hand about the devastation caused by the events of March 2011. She described how she realised she had to do something. Remembering past efforts such as those following the Indonesian disaster, she set up an appeal for books which was met with great response. 2,300 picture books were soon received, to help children in the affected area. Out of the sadness, she explained, ‘we need strong and happy and hopeful children’. Chieko urged delegates to visit the stand and come to the (very) early bird session on Saturday morning.

IBBY UK’s Ian Dodds then invited members of the congress to adjourn to attend a lively ‘Where’s Wally’ tea party downstairs. Here we all enjoyed a huge cake and celebrated Wally reaching the ripe old age of 25.  Walker Books told of Wally’s own travels and migrations as well as his impressive record-breaking antics (Ireland delegates let out a resounding cheer when it was announced that Dublin was the venue for the event featuring the largest ever number of people dressed as Wally). Returning to the Great Hall, John Dunne welcomed three of the UK’s Children’s Laureates to the congress to talk about the role and their respective achievements.

Michael Morpurgo was first up, paying tribute to editor Aidan Chambers and describing how the concept of the Children’s Laureate was first born – over a discussion (and a glass or two of claret) he shared with Ted Hughes. Sadly the Poet Laureate himself did not see the dream realised, dying before Quentin Blake was announced as the first Children’s Laureate.

The Children’s Laureate is all about ‘speaking about what you care about for two years’ and in doing so inspiring government, teachers, children and society at large. It’s a great way to focus our minds and heads on what is out there for children, helping them to grow into readers.

Michael described his loathing for the idea that one’s love of books could be quashed from an early age by being ‘marked’ on reading. He described how he used his laureateship to take his love of books around the world, for example travelling to a remote island of Scotland to talk to twelve children and visiting the Cremlin to see 400 librarians eating caviar with first ladies Mrs Putin and Mrs Bush (as you do!).

Anthony Browne then took over, to share some of the experiences and priorities during his tenure as Laureate. Anthony was keen to use the opportunity to encourage children to try the Shape Game – a simple activity which he and his brother loved as children, and which ‘makes artists of us all’. Anthony explained that drawing ‘isn’t about making a glass of water look like a glass or water’. It’s rather about trying to share something.

Particularly compelling was the chance to view a picture from Anthony’s own childhood, in which his surrealist tendencies were already apparent, even at the tender age of six. His image of a pair of legs showed a pirate peeping out of one shoe and a second tiny pair of feet disappearing into the top trousers. Anthony insisted that he doesn’t ‘create’ stories himself. They come from somewhere else. They come to us like dreams. They emerge from the events we see, the stories people tell, from other people’s books, from newspapers and art.

He adeptly demonstrated how famous artists have also played the Shape game – a statue by Picasso was the perfect example of one thing looking like another, creating sometime from something. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ said Anthony. Creating books is all about borrowing, adapting, stealing!

Interestingly, both laureates agreed that children’s books were at risk of being marginalized – Anthony being particularly concerned about picture books and the tendency to try to drag children away from them and on to ‘proper’ books as early as possible.

It’s true that visual literacy is often underrated. Anthony’s books provide a feast of visual stimulation, full of quirky details and hidden messages (and even a few elements which Anthony admitted he couldn’t explain, he just included for the fun of it).

Anthony showed images from his book A Walk in the Park which features four different perspectives of the same events, showing how everyone sees things differently. It’s a perfect example of the way his books boast numerous nods towards ‘spot the difference’ puzzles and of course the Shape game itself.

Julia Donaldson then introduced herself as the ‘reigning’ laureate, sporting the famous medal to prove it. She started her ‘set’ with a lively song (accompanied by husband Malcolm on the guitar) developed during their busking days in Italy – and with heavily pasta-inspired lyrics!

Julia described her three priorities as laureate, drama being one of them. For a lot of children, she explained, drama is a vital way into stories. The local library is also one of things about which she ‘cares passionately’. She shared her concerns about the plight of libraries in this country. As she pointed out, it’s no doubt better to have library run by volunteers than no library at all but surely when our libraries are losing valuable professional expertise we are heading in the wrong direction and cannot simply dress this up as being part of the Big Society.  Supporting deaf children was the third of Julia’s particular priorities as laureate, having hearing aids herself and believing strongly in deaf children’s rights to enjoy books.

She described her ‘progress to date’ in relation to all three objectives. In terms of deafness, she is listening to deaf children and supporting programmes like Sign 2 Sing and the young deaf poets of Life and Deaf. Pulling together the other two areas (drama and libraries) Julia wowed everyone by performing an unforgettable rendition of ‘A Squash and a Squeeze’ with the help of audience volunteers (in some cases volunteered by Julia). Particularly memorable performances were given by a South American goat and an Asian cow. As if this were not enough, Julia ended her ‘set’ by performing the Gruffalo in a medley of different languages.

Between the three of them, Julia, Anthony and Michael no doubt guaranteed the future creation of new Laureates all around the world. And on that note, John Dunne informed delegates that Children’s Laureates have already been announced in Wales, Australia, Ireland, Sweden, USA.

The final session of the day was the presentation of the IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Awards 2012. The winners were Abuelas Cuentacuentos – Grandmother Storytelling Programme, Argentina (an amazing project involving older people in reading to children) and SIPAR, Cambodia (a stirring and clearly long-term programme helping to provide books, libraries, schools, teachers and training, following the four years of genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge).

The day ended with two highly insightful and often moving presentations from the two award recipients, both projects demonstrating the vital role of books in helping children to carve out brighter futures for themselves.

The first day of the congress provided the perfect balance of reflection, celebration and recognition, praising all those who build bridges between books and children.

Alexandra Strick
Consultant Booktrust and manager/founder Outside In.

Tales from the Children’s Laureates

The first day of the IBBY Congress 2012 has kicked off what promises to be an exciting event. Sessions this afternoon included the official IBBY Congress 2012 Opening Ceremony and the introduction of three of Britain’s Children’s Laureates: Michael Morpurgo OBE, Anthony Browne and Julia Donaldson MBE.

These keynote speakers outlined their roles and achievements during their time as the UK’s Children’s Laureate, as well as reflecting on the theme of this year’s IBBY Congress, Crossing Boundaries. Michael Morpurgo’s anecdotes of his travels to schools in Scotland, Russia and South Africa as the Children’s Laureate 2003-2005 were entertaining and well received, as was his moving rendition of ‘Only Remembered’ from the theatre adaptation of his book War Horse (what a voice!). Anthony Browne gave a visual presentation of what he calls the ‘Shape Game’, using one of his own childhood drawings to demonstrate how pictures can evolve from a child’s – or talented artist’s – imagination, and went on to give examples of this from his own work. Natural entertainer and current Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson began with a rendition of ‘Basta Pasta’, a song that sprang from her love of silly song writing and a menu in Siena, and closed with a riotous performance of her celebrated picture book The Gruffalo in German, French and Scots.

Although all three speakers championed the role of Children’s Laureate for promoting and celebrating books for young people, their presentations highlighted the continued need for advocacy of children’s literature. Morpurgo stressed the importance of extending the visual and storytelling experience beyond the classroom and Browne lamented the increasing tendency to push children away from picture books in the British education system, in order that they read more “grown up” books. Julia Donaldson also announced her upcoming tour of 36 British libraries from John O’Groats to Land’s End, in celebration of all that libraries have to offer the community, following recent closures and staff cuts.

I thoroughly enjoyed this start to the Congress. The different delegates from each continent chosen to perform the roles of farmyard animals as part of Julia Donaldson’s audience participation slot and Anthony Browne’s own interpretation of his self-conscious paintings particularly stood out. I look forward to what the rest of the Congress will bring.

Twitter hashtag for IBBY Congress 2012

Less than one week to go until the start of Crossing Boundaries: Translations and Migrations, the 33rd IBBY International Congress. If you are coming to the congress and would like to tweet about it, or if you can’t attend but are interested in following tweets about it, we suggest using the hashtag #IBBY2012.

We look forward to seeing you there and/or reading your tweets!

Launch of IBBY Congress 2012 Blog

The 33rd IBBY International Congress starts next week! During the Congress our team of dedicated bloggers will be providing a constant stream of news and reports from the sessions, events and social occasions.

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