Some things are universal. Education, healthcare, nutrition—these are valued around the world by parents and educators as essential for children. And children’s books are universally used to encourage children to learn to read and to help create mutual understanding and respect. Although sometimes it feels like we are individually trying to reinvent the wheel, once in a while someone comes up with a brilliant idea to support others who are trying to achieve similar universal goals.
If you have read Kathy Stinson’s book, The Lady with the Books: A Story Inspired by the Remarkable Work of Jella Lepman (Kids Can Press, ISBN 978- 1525301544), you will be familiar with Jella Lepman. She was a German journalist and a parent who loved books. In 1936 she was able to leave Nazi Germany with her children and move to London where they became British citizens. Subsequently, Jella worked as an advisor at American headquarters in post-war Germany, answering questions relating to books for children and young people. In 1946 she organized an exhibition in Munich of children’s illustrations and books from twenty countries, hoping to unite others in the quest to share children’s books.
Eventually, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Jella established the International Youth Library in Munich. In 1951 she organized a meeting in Germany under the title International Understanding through Children’s Books, which ultimately resulted in the formation of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).
Now IBBY is a worldwide, non-profit organization that represents an international network of people in over eighty countries, committed to bringing books and children together. Several Canadians have served as chair of this global organization.
Even if you had not yet heard of IBBY, you will undoubtedly be familiar with its tools and ways of promoting children’s literature. As a nongovernmental organization with official status in UNESCO and UNICEF, IBBY has a policy-making role as an advocate of children’s books. IBBY is committed to the principles of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its Children in Crisis Projects provide funds for disaster relief such as following an earthquake (Turkey, Syria), a tsunami, or wars (currently Ukranian children). While the Red Cross brings in medical supplies, IBBY brings in books to support educators, families, and children by setting up emergency tents or mobile libraries.
Another tool IBBY uses to promote international children’s literature is the Hans Christian Andersen Award—the highest international recognition given to an author and an illustrator of children’s books. These awards recognize lifelong achievement and are presented every other year to an author and an illustrator whose complete works have made important, lasting contributions to children’s literature.
IBBY Canada is one of more than 80 National Sections. Initiated in 1980, IBBY Canada has members across the country connecting educators, writers, librarians, publishers, and others. Its programs include the Frances E. Russell Award for research and/or publication on Canadian children’s literature, the Elizabeth Mrazik-Cleaver Canadian Picture Book Award for an illustrated book, and the Claude Aubry Award given for significant contributions to Canadian children’s literature in English and French. IBBY Canada also administers the Joanne Fitzgerald Illustrator in Residence program, which offers a published Canadian children’s book illustrator a month-long residency at a public library.
Since 2018, IBBY Canada has partnered with Toronto’s Christie Refugee Welcome Centre and COSTI Immigrant Services in a program of storytelling for refugee children. The program includes a virtual component. They also actively promote From Sea to Sea to Sea, a program which celebrates Indigenous picture books across Canada.
Every two years, IBBY holds a World Congress, bringing together children’s literature professionals, educators, readers, publishers, and others. With speakers from many countries, this is a chance to connect and learn about books from other countries as well as to share Canadian books for children in its broadest sense. I have been lucky enough to attend the IBBY Congress in Greece, The Netherlands, and China and to share my Canadian books with kid lit enthusiasts from around the world, making lifelong friends in the process.
IBBY’s most recent Congress was held in Malaysia in 2022. The 40th IBBY World Congress will be held in Ottawa in September 2026 with the theme, Listening to Each Other’s Voices. This will be a chance for Canadians to connect with the world of children’s books. You can sign up for the IBBY newsletter, become a member, and find out how you can attend the 2026 Congress on the IBBY Canada website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Margriet Ruurs is the author of over 40 books for children and conducts (ZOOM) school presentations: margrietruurs.com
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.