This interview originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of NoveList's Kids & Books. To sign up for this and other newsletters, click here.
The Head of Youth Services at the Northport-East Northport Public Library (NY), Doris Gebel is the 2012 President of the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY). A past member of the International Relations Committee of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), Doris also served on the 2003 Batchelder Award Committee for the best-translated children’s book of the year.
JC: How did you get interested in international children’s books?
DG: My undergraduate and double master’s degree is in anthropology, and I have always been interested in other cultures. In 1975, I took an international children’s literature course from Dr. Margaret Porch in the Graduate Library School at Case Western Reserve University. This was before USBBY, and Dr. Porch asked us to join the Friends of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). I did because I was fascinated with the subject and I loved the class, which was the real beginning of my interest in internationalism and children’s books. My thesis, under the guidance of Professor Arlene Mosel who wrote Tikki Tikki Tembo, was a survey of African folklore for children. A few years later, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with the great international children’s folklorist and storyteller Anne Pellowski at the Information Center on Children’s Cultures at the U.S. Committee for UNICEF.
JC: What is International Children’s Book Day?
DG: Founded by the International Board on Books for Young People in 1967, International Children’s Book Day is a “celebration to inspire a love of reading and call attention to children’s books.” Each year national sections of IBBY apply to sponsor the celebration, which includes selecting a theme and asking a prominent national illustrator to create a poster and a distinguished children’s book author to write an inspiring message. This year, International Children’s Book Day is sponsored by IBBY Mexico with the theme, “Once upon a time, there was a story that the whole world told.” Juan Gedovius has illustrated the beautiful poster and Francisco Hinojosa has written the inspirational message. I am very excited that USBBY will be the sponsor of International Children’s Book Day in 2013. Ashley Bryan has agreed to create the poster and author Pat Mora will write the message.
JC: When is International Children’s Book Day observed?
DG: IBBY’s suggestion is that International Children’s Book Day be observed on April 2nd, Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday. However, schools and libraries can celebrate it anytime during the month of April. In fact, some national sections of IBBY choose to celebrate International Children’s Book Day in conjunction with their national library week or other significant events related to children and literacy.
JC: Since it culminates on April 30th, is there an overlap with Día de los niños, Día de los libros?
DG: I think there is a natural tie-in with Día. If you go to Día founder Pat Mora’s website, you’ll find an interview she did with me last year when she asked the same question. I think Día has become a very important opportunity for us in this country, and I don’t want to take anything away from it. But since both Día and International Children’s Book Day are celebrated in April, I think we can make it a full month of observances of international children’s books and literacy.
JC: Why should schools and libraries in the U.S. observe International Children’s Book Day?
DG: I think the bottom line is that we’re a globally connected world. As a result, it’s critical that children be introduced to wider worldviews. Being part of an international celebration of children’s books can connect young people in ways that are meaningful and significant.
JC: Are international children’s books widely available in the United States?
DG: The Batchelder Award was created to recognize publishers that bring distinguished international books to the U.S. Two additional ways to identify these books are the Outstanding International Books (OIB) List, published each year in the February issue of School Library Journal and available on the USBBY website. USBBY has also edited a book series of four annotated bibliographies, Bridges to Understanding, published by Scarecrow Press. These resources provide information about more than 1,000 books originally published in countries other than the U.S. but subsequently published here, and also includes essays and articles. However, access to the wide range of children’s books from around the world can still be a challenge.
JC: Can you say more about this?
DG: To illustrate my point, a patron who teaches in a school with a large Indian-Pakistani-Afghani population came into my library last night. The father of one of her students had told Indian trickster tales that the class really enjoyed. As a result, she was looking for the stories, which we happened to have only because a colleague had visited India and brought books back. However, they were flimsy paperbacks, almost of newsprint quality, with illustrations that weren’t very glitzy. The teacher wanted to know why the bookmaking wasn’t better and why the stories were so hard to find.
JC: What did you say?
DG: I told her that the quality of the bookmaking can be a reason U.S. publishers are reluctant to bring some international books, especially non-western ones, to this country. We have very different expectations about what children’s books should look like. But I added that even when the quality is better, the style of the art and cultural differences inherent in the stories can be off-putting to an American audience. If these books can’t find an audience in the U.S., then they don’t sell. If they don’t sell, U.S. publishers aren’t going to bring them here. It’s a bad cycle, but at the same time, this situation makes it all the more important to introduce international books to children at a young age so they can develop an appreciation for the literature and the cultures they represent.
JC: Are there any simple or inexpensive ways that teachers and librarians can access international children’s books?
DG: The International Children’s Digital Library is a great way for teachers and librarians who don’t have easy access to international books to provide them to children. The site has free, online books in dozens of languages. In fact, I just went there and saw featured titles in Persian/Farsi, Mongolian, and Maori. Since the illustrations and typeface in these online stories is very clear, visitors can read them online and also search by language to find even more. They are also accompanied by suggested craft activities, which is also very helpful to adults working with kids.
JC: Can you share one or two International Children’s Book Day programs that have been successful in your library?
DG: USBBY helped bring two traveling exhibitions of children’s books, “Children Between Worlds” and “Hello, Dear Enemy” that originated at the International Youth Library in Germany, to 12 sites in the U.S.. I was fortunate to have these books on display in my library for a month, an exhibition we supported with a number of programs. We sponsored International Game Night for elementary school students and their families featuring board games like Parcheesi, Mancala and Chinese Checkers. Our preschool programs were built around translated children’s picture books and related craft activities. For our big family event, storyteller and author Heather Forest shared engaging tales from around the world related to peace and tolerance. Designed as a professional development tool for teachers in our community, we also offered a workshop focused on how to use award-winning children’s books to promote international understanding. We were able to use the IBBY Honor List books, a collection which USBBY also brought to the U.S.
JC: Have you done any stand-alone programs?
DG: In conjunction with the CSLP summer reading theme last year, “One World, Many Stories,” we had a program for children ages 7-10 called “International Playground Games.” Using Children’s Games from Around the World by physical educator Glen Kirchner as a resource, we had a group of 20 kids and our helpful teen volunteers play games from other countries in our large, indoor meeting room (It was a very rainy summer!). These playground games included “Kitchen Ball,” a relay game from Botswana; “Balls and Boxes,” a tossing game from Jamaica; “The Conductor,” a Romanian children’s game; and “Geometry Class,” a guessing game from Argentina. Anyone can read about this program and others related to International Children’s Book Day by visiting the USBBY website, where they’ll see -- among others -- one program related to multicultural folktales and another about international poetry developed by two of my colleagues at the Northport-East Northport Public Library. All of them were a lot of fun!
NOVELIST CONNECTION: Are you looking for engaging picture books and fiction to open up the world to children and teens? In the search bar in NoveList K-8 Plus, enter “International Books,” then click on Search. On the results page, click on the Lists & Articles tab for bibliographies of top-notch titles with settings around the world for younger kids, older kids and teens, respectively.
The Immediate Past President of the Association for Library Service to Children, Julie Corsaro is a writer, reviewer, and a children’s literature consultant, as well as a NoveList contributor, and the editor of NoveList's Kids & Books.