Librarians at Bologna – Part 1: Books as Mirrors

Continuing with our current literacy focus, and thinking towards World Literacy Day on September 8th, this is the first of three posts focusing on and beyond a session at this year’s Bologna Book Fair…

In my first post following our return from the Bologna Book Fair, I highlighted the session organised by the IFLA (International Federation of Libraries Associations and Institutions). The session was organised by the Netherlands Public Library Association and they called it “Invitation to JES: Join – Enjoy – Share”. Despite not being librarians, Aline and I were made very welcome and we really enjoyed chatting to the librarians afterwards. In fact, the various informal discussions got so lively that we were asked to keep the noise down – well, makes a change! As well as our Dutch hosts, there were children’s librarians there from all over the world: Australia, Colombia, Croatia, France, Italy, Japan, Senegal and Tanzania. The atmosphere was buzzing!

We had two speakers: the first, Patsy Aldana, the current president of IBBY, gave us a fascinating talk entitled “Books as Mirrors” in which she traced the history of multicultural book publishing in her home-country, Canada, where her own Groundwood Books has been so ground-breaking (for more on multiculturalism in Canadian publishing, see here). Her childhood in Guatemala without books to mirror her own experiences, mean that she also has a personal affinity to the world of multicultural books. It had been a very painful struggle, she said, to define the role of the writer: who could write legitimately about what? Those white people who had been the only published writers of books under the multicultural umbrella would ask, “Why can’t I write whatever I want? Who are you to tell me not to write about your experience?” and were being asked “What right do you have to steal my story – the world you’re describing is not real”.

This situation is now much resolved in Canada but there are still real concerns. “Children need books that are windows and books that are mirrors,” she said: and unfortunately there is uneven access for children to these kinds of books. What happens to children who never see themselves in the books they read; and one step further, what happens when children are not taught to read in their own language? It is an enormous disincentive to the desire to read. She pointed to the work of some “fabulous” small publishers from all over the world and urged us to visit their stands at the fair – such as Tara Books from India, Ekeré from Venezuela, and Editions Bakamé from Rwanda, (which shared this year’s IBBY-Asahi Reading Promotion Award). Small publishers need our support because so often it is their books which give “that flash of recognition – That is me!”

Citing the example of an Iranian librarian in Sweden who is able to ensure that children of Iranian background can access books attuned to their experience and outlook, Patsy concluded by saying that librarians are the people who can be relied on to bring books to children. Librarians can insist on quality – for without quality it is hard to foster a love of reading and provide the key to the mirror/window.

I think there’s plenty to chew on there and I will post about the second speaker in Part 2!

6 Responses to “Librarians at Bologna – Part 1: Books as Mirrors”

  1. Aline Says:

    Thanks for posting about this, Marjorie. The IFLA session was indeed an important one. So wonderful to be surrounded by so many people who share the same goal of bringing children and books together! They were a very enthusiastic bunch, no doubt!

    In terms of publishing books that truly reflect our multicultural societies, I think Canada is really ahead of the game. For over a decade now Canadian publishers have been consistently putting out a lot of multicultural quality narratives and reference material. Let’s hope it can keep doing it and being an example for the rest of the publishing world.

  2. Janet Brown Says:

    The concept of books that are mirrors and books that are windows is a powerful one–and the thought of stealing another culture’s experience by writing a story that is not one’s own is one that merits a lot of thought and discussion as well. Let’s talk about this.

  3. Marjorie Says:

    Yes, I agree. It is still a major area for discussion.

    In an interview with PaperTigers in January last year, First Nations writer Larry Loyie said the following:

    “It’s very upsetting to me to find books on First Nations cultures that are not accurate or honest, because many people will read them and believe them. Many non-First Nations people have appropriated First Nations stories and written books that are now out there, for anyone to read. They believe they have captured the truth but, in my opinion, most of them are far from it. My frustration with these books inspired me to write the truth about my culture as I remember it. I am thankful to have an excellent recollection of my childhood and about what I was taught. Besides that, I always double check everything that I write. “

  4. Swati Says:

    Yes, it can be very frustrating to find books which are about the world around you, yet not about you, not touching a chord in your own life. The young child with no books to serve as bridges between his/her motherland and the adopted nation feels doubly isolated, for this duality of real life is reflected and reinforced in the world of literature. Yet, I am looking at the world of small publishers from the opposite end – from the eyes of the poor child in his/her own country, barely literate, with precious little in the name of libraries – what do we have for that situation? Small publishers may be excellent, but they are also useless till they are accessible to the masses – from this point of view. For instance, NGOs like Pratham or Eklavya have a better chance of being read in India than Tara books. Until they encounter the power of marketing, and fail to make a mark.

    Incidentally, I am linking to this post in mine today at Thank you for your thought provoking blog.