A Bridge of Children’s Books

Jella Lepman begins her story immediately after the end of World War II, when she was asked to return to her native Germany, from where she had fled to England, to become an ‘advisor on the cultural and educational needs of women and children in the American zone’. She set about interpreting this role in her own highly individual way, and soon discovered that people had a hunger for the kind of books that they had been deprived of for twelve years under the Nazi regime, and that children were the most in need.

Lepman’s idea was to ‘set this upside down world right again by starting with the children. They will show the grown-ups the way to go,’ and, with great determination, she set about creating an exhibition of children’s books from many countries. This exhibition evolved into the International Youth Library in Munich, whose present director, Barbara Scharioth, supplies an afterword for this edition. As well as being a collection of children’s books in many languages that can be visited by researchers and other interested adults, the IYL has always been a home for literature-related activities for children, and Lepman writes both movingly and humorously about her experiences organising and participating in these. A significant proportion of the book is devoted to the setting up and development of the IYL and this is documented in photographs as well as words.

Less is said about the development of IBBY, but the conference which was the foundation for its establishment is described. The most recent president of IBBY, Tayo Shima, contributes an introduction to the book, and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson a foreword.

This is the story of a remarkable woman and an important document in the history of international children’s literature. The significance of this new edition is that it reminds us that Jella Lepman’s vision is just as relevant today, when children in so many parts of the world are still denied access to good-quality literature, for economic reasons and because of political strife caused by adults.