- Bookbird 1957-1962—The Beginnings of the First International Journal for Children's Literature
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Fall 1956: A member of the board of directors of the Rockefeller Foundation came to visit Jella Lepman in Munich. He told the sixty-five-year-old founder of the International Youth Library and of the International Board of Books for Young People about a world-wide project for developing countries, initiated and financed by UNESCO, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other American foundations. The aim was to support the developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in their modernization and industrialization efforts in the areas of economics, politics, and culture. Could Jella Lepman have imagined participating in this project and incorporating children's literature? Lepman did not hesitate. The temptation to spread the word about the power of children's literature to promote international understanding and peace further around the world was far too great. In her autobiography, A Bridge of Children's Books, Lepman remembers: "This would be a unique opportunity to spread the idea of international understanding through children's books to countries that were just coming into their own. Once more, fate was knocking at my door." Back then, no one would have guessed that this memorable meeting would mark the beginning of the journal Bookbird.
Fate had knocked at Jella Lepman's door before, in 1945, when the US military administration asked the German-Jewish émigré and journalist to leave her British exile and to return to Germany as Special Adviser for Women's and Youth Affairs. Lepman, born in Stuttgart in 1891 and raised in an upper middle-class family with a manufacturing [End Page 75] business, had been active as a journalist and politician for many years in her home town. In 1936, she was forced to flee the Nazis and subsequently settled in London and only reluctantly returned to Germany a few months after the war had ended in Europe. Following a tour of the destroyed country, she came to the conclusion that children's books from around the world should be collected and dispatched as "peace ambassadors" to a world exhausted by war. Children's books were to build a bridge between peoples and transmit values such as tolerance, respect of the other, and curiosity for the unknown. It is this visionary conviction that inspired the many projects which Jella Lepman successfully completed with admirable determination over the subsequent years.
In the spring of 1946, Munich hosted its first international post-war exhibition, organized by Lepman and featuring four thousand children's books from fourteen countries. In September 1949, the International Youth Library opened its doors to a young public hungry for books and soon became a center for the collection and promotion of children's literature from around the world—a place for exchange, encounter, and discussion. Jella Lepman, founder and director of this institution, organized a meeting in November 1951 under the title "International Understanding through Children's Books," bringing together more than two hundred scholars, educators, authors, publishers, journalists, booksellers, and librarians from many countries. This international meeting was also a pioneering event. Despite clashes of opinion, it publically demonstrated for the first time the power of international cooperation for the promotion of children's literature within the utopian context of world peace. It also brought together like-minded people who, under the leadership of Jella Lepman, decided to found an international curatorial board for children's books, which was officially founded in 1953 in Zurich as the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY).
Within a few years, Lepman initiated projects and initiatives that paved the way for the internationalization, social valorization, and modernization of children's literature. Since her term as director of the International Youth Library came to an end in 1957, the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation to set up a special program for the promotion of children's literature in Asia, Africa, and Latin America was very welcome. Lepman was eager to put her personal connections and her long experience in international networking to use in this new project and to spread her vision...