Wednesday, September 28, 2016

IBBY Congress report 2016

This was my first time at an IBBY Congress (IBBY stands for International Board on Books for Young people) so I wasn't sure what to expect, other than a lot of people passionate about children's and YA bools from all over the world. It certainly was that - more than 500 of us. We gathered in Auckland, NZ this year, the first time the Congress has been held down this way for 20 years.

The program was huge, with dozens of speakers, poster presentations and events such as the Literature Quiz and the Hans Christian Andersen awards dinner. I was lucky to be one of those presenting (on my PhD topic of fairy tales) - each part of the program with presentations like mine was in streams of six, with four people in each, so at any time you had 24 topics to choose from! It was a bit hard skipping between streams but you could do it if you tried as people mostly kept to their time slots.

The best way to sum up the Congress is to give you some of the quotes and things people talked about. NZ author Kate De Goldi was outspoken as always about important issues. In the opening session she talked about how series are dominating the market these days, crowding out the rest, "the fictions that shape a moral compass". There was mention of this many times over the four days - the ways in which fiction impacts young readers and how important it is to give them quality books, but not "worthy" books. If you're not sure about the moral compass bit, think about the books that impacted you as a child - how did they change the way you thought about the world? How did they change the way you thought about people "other" than you? More than ever, I think we need books that show kids "the other" in ways that promote understanding and compassion instead of fear and prejudice.

Witi Ihimaera said clearly, "Children are not the problem - adults are." If we think technology is taking our kids away from us, then chase them, catch them up and tell them stories. Trish Brooking talked about the UN Rights of the Child and said "children's literature operates as both a window and a mirror". I loved the exhibition of what were called "silent books" - these are books with no words. They tell the story with pictures and thus are able to be read by anyone, no matter what language they speak or read.

A very good session was the one moderated by Kate De Goldi with Leonard Marcus and Julia Eccleshare, both of whom are well known in the children's literature world. Leonard for his work in the USA (books, criticism etc) and Julia for being the Guardian children's book editor (although she does lots of other stuff, too). In the end most of the quotes I wrote down were from Julia! They talked about the different histories of children's and YA books in the US and UK. Julia said she thought adult commentary freights children's books with messages they don't read for - "children read for the interior life of the characters".

She railed against the lack of good editing these days (a familiar theme) and said writers are not being given enough time to write and develop better books. She said the marketplace doesn't allow you to rest or be silent for a while - if you stop, the market (sales) algorithm goes against you. That's a scary thing for a writer to hear! There were discussions about what Kate called the "tsunami" of YA fiction, a lot of which is not very good (her words, and someone near me muttered, "Who's she saying is not good?"). Julia replied that it's feeding off itself and she wasn't sure who the readers are. (Note from me - other speakers later talked about the readership of YA being 16-35).

Finally they talked about Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak's picture book), and Julia said that it's from the child's point of view, which is why children feel safe about it and adults don't. I thought it was strange that adults still feel ambivalent, so she says, about this book when it's been a classic for so long. Adults decide what makes a classic. So ...

In another session there was a great discussion about culture. One speaker was Nahoko Uehashi a Japanese fantasy writer, who said "culture is something we acquire after we are born and as we grow up". She talked about how those who belong to the majority never have the experience of being judged for their authenticity, and that "culture does a fine job of showing how you and we are different ... but stories bring us together, transcend the bounds of different cultures". She said some great things, including, "I want my readers to soar above their own self".

Katherine Paterson was also there as a guest, although she was only in one panel session, sadly. She talked about being astounded at the echoes in her books of favourite stories from her childhood, such as The Secret Garden and The Yearling. She said, "The spaces [in the story] are so important - the reader gets to write the book" and that Terabithia is a country created in the reader's imagination. Other guests included Markus Zusak, who has a new book coming out soon (Bridge of Clay), and Sir Richard Taylor. Taylor gave two presentations with Martin Baynton about Weta Workshops, and their work is amazing - evrything from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to The Wot Wots!

Another highlight was the play of The Whale Rider, done with puppets. This isn't a blow-by-blow summary of the Congress - apart from anything else it was too big to cover even half of it. I tend to write down things that strike me as insightful rather than take copious notes these days!