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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Library Appreciation Day: Meet the International Youth Library. It’s a Bloody Castle!

Regular readers of this blog may have heard me mention a little place called the International Youth Library in Germany.  In my excitement I probably just sputtered words like "Library!" and "German!" and "Castle!" and "Kids Books!"  This is the disadvantage to being an enthusiastic person.  So today, I’m making it up to you.  Yes, today is Library Appreciation Day!  Shelli Johannes-Wells has the round-up of all the wonderful library-related posts out there today.  AND if you would like to donate books to be included in book baskets that she will send out, you can email her as such.

Back to the castle.  When I mentioned the IJB I got an email from buddy Carter Hasegawa.  He points out to me that he has a buddy at the IJB working on a three month fellowship and would I like to speak with her?  Would I?  You bet!

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet the distinguished Sara Hudson who will be joining us to today to tell us a little about what I am going to call the greatest children’s library in the entire world.  Turns out, she’s a fantastic writer.  This is remarkably fun.

Fuse #8: Okay.  So as your average everyday American I know shockingly little about the International Youth Library (or Internationale Jugendbibliothek Munchen).  To start us off, what can you tell me about it?  Insofar as I know it’s a great big castle in Germany filled with children’s literature from all over the world.

Sarah Hudson: You got it in one.  Now, clearly, any story about a great big castle in Germany, filled with children’s literature from all over the world, must start off "once upon a time," ja?

Thus: Once Upon a Time, and Not So Far Away, there lived a feisty, tenacious, visionary named Jella Lepman.  Seeing as this story takes place in the land of the Brothers Grimm, rather than the Corporation Disney, our heroine dons neither ball gowns nor glass slippers. Jella was an outspoken, prominent German Jewish woman in the 1930s. Active as a journalist and leader of a women’s group of the German Democratic Party, she fled to London to escape Nazi persecution after Hitler assumed power.

Nine years later she returned under completely different circumstances: a German woman, wearing an American military uniform, holding the rank of major, returning home a stranger, and bearing the lugubriously long title "Adviser on the cultural and education needs of women and children in the American zone."

The occupation forces, buttons bursting with American zeal to sweep away pesky dust clouds of defeat, despair, and destruction of culture that descended upon the lives of German people during the war, found themselves woefully unsure how to actually wield the broom. In turn, they asked Jella to return to Germany, the lone female in a special American army group, to determine what the unknown German female and child population "needed."

[Evidently soldiers who met Jella when she arrived were as flummoxed about dealing with a female as the American army en masse felt about dealing with German women and children en masse.  Jella’s autobiography, A Bridge of Children’s Bookswell worth reading, by the by – relates the fantastic story of her first day on the job, the plane trip to Germany in an American military transport.

From her American colonel escort, attempting a rather peculiar small talk from the other side of the bucket seat they shared: "And if you were reincarnated, what would you rather be, a man or a woman?"

Jella: "Assuming that’s a purely hypothetical question, I suppose I can answer in the same spirit.  Preferably neither.  I’d like to be a titmouse or a sunflower."

Needless to say, it wouldn’t be the last time Jella left someone speechless.]

The complicatedly simple question American question posed to Jella: "What do German women and children need?"

Jella’s simply complicated answer: "Children’s books."

From these ashes would rise the International Youth Library (IJB).

Jella spent the rest of her life devoted to the conviction that "if one is to believe in peaceful coexistence, the first messengers of that peace will be children’s books."  Unperturbed by the response she received (roughly paraphrased: "Sounds good.  Will it be a problem if we give you no money?") she convinced folks across twenty countries to donate over 4,000 children’s books, plus children’s illustrations, drawings, poems, and stories, for the International Exhibition of Children’s Books in Munich. It opened its doors in 1946.

By 1949, supporters as diverse as the Rockefellers, the German government, the American Library Association, the United Nations, and Eleanor Roosevelt had met and thrown their support behind Jella and her vision of understanding through the circulation, translation and access of children to books and artwork from across the world.  Authors, illustrators, publishers, and libraries around the world, including P.L. Travers, Astrid Lindgren, Erich Kästner, and Mildred Batchelder, supported her next idea, an International Youth Library.  Children from dozens of countries got together, and mailed their own paintings and drawings to the children of Germany and this new international library.  They were displayed in all their diversity when the IJB opened its doors in September 1949, along with 8,000 donated volumes in 23 languages.

Jella went on found IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People, in 1952.  She also saw the IJB become an Associated Project of UNESCO and UNICEF, and created the Children’s United Nations.  Bursting at the seams with a hefty 350,000 plus volumes in 120 languages, the IJB finally moved to its current location, Schloss Blutenburg (Blutenburg Castle), in 1983.

Hmm.  And they lived happily ever after.  In a castle.  A Disney ending after all …

Fuse #8: Ye gods.  That’s amazing.  I feel an overwhelming need to grab her autobiography pronto.  Now why are you there?  Word on the street has it that you are doing a three month fellowship in the IJB right now.  That sounds unspeakably awesome.  What do you do all day?

Sara Hudson: 
You wake up.  Time for work.  Your destination?  A sixteenth century castle.  Home of the world’s largest international children’s book library.

You hop on your bike, loaned to you by the library for your entire residency.  You pedal down one of Munich’s maze of bike and jogging paths.  Yours cleaves to a merry river, which runs all the way from your house to the park surrounding the castle.  The early April air still breathes crisp winter breezes, and you pass only a few early-rising Münchners, a pair of women striding by swinging ski poles; a sleepy girl walking two jaunty dogs; a hatted Bavarian man, who reveals a snow white-thatch when he lifts his hat and offers you a solemn, "Grüß Gott," the traditional regional greeting.

You reach the castle lake. Yes, there are swans in it.

You ride into the castle courtyard.  To your right, the lending library.  Above it a hall, filled with rotating exhibits of original artwork, currently the sensual, spooky Suzanne Janssen.  Another exhibit, "Mauern," fills the hall connecting two wings of the library to your left. The Italian-organized exhibition, "Walls," marks the twenty year commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The courtyard sits quiet now, but by lunchtime cheering children will chase each up and down the stone paths, as their mothers stand next to strollers filled with newly borrowed books and catch up on the latest news.  You’ll wave to them mid-day, as you cross the courtyard to the tiny, homey, castle restaurant for lunch, where IJB staff and fellows can eat a full German meal together, at a reduced library rate, every day at 12:30 sharp.

(Ed. Note: this is Germany, where the trains run on time, you cross the road only when the little green man says go, and when lunch is at 12:30, it means lunch is at 12:30.)

You enter the library on the right, greeting various library staff who pass through the display area, kitchen, and up and down the stairs to the administrative offices.  The library is like a family, and despite the continual rotation of fellows, every member of the staff goes above and beyond to make you feel welcome and one of them.  Another exhibition escorts you down the hallway between castle wings, where you enter the reading room. The enormous, sunny, high-ceiling-ed place you will call your "office," decorated in wall to ceiling reference books. In over a dozen languages.  All about children’s literature.

"Does the clock ever strike midnight?"  you may wonder.  "Will the coach turn back into a pumpkin?"

And that would be a … ‘NO.’

As an IJB fellow, you’re given your own reserved desk for your entire stay, an blessedly enormous expanse of space, the size of which remains unheard of in almost any institution, office, or library (or many homes, for that matter.)  You’ll see how quickly it becomes piled high, however, thanks to the journals, reference books, and most importantly, chapter and picture books from around the world and across the century that you amass.

Fellows spend their days dancing between the 3 R’s of their proposed project(s): Reading, ‘Riting, and Researching.  For example, I’m working on two parts of my dissertation here, both related to my belief that children’s literature and related visual ephemera are a crucially neglected archive of print culture that connects children, citizenship, and literacy to questions of belonging to, and exclusion from, national, racial, and cultural citizenships.  So an IJB day might see me move from reading library holdings of twentieth children’s books published throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, to rummaging through and writing notes about the paintings, illustrations, stories, and book reviews by children (an extraordinary, and often amusing archive of child reader responses) to chatting with staff and specialists about specific collections or countries, to searching the enormous, multilingual reference library to follow up references to articles and journals to which I’ve never before had access.

[I do hope you weren’t planning to eat that pumpkin…]

Fuse #8: Not I.  Now can anyone apply for this fellowship?  For that matter, can anyone visit the IYL?

Sarah Hudson:
You don’t need to be a high-highfalutin” children’s book scholar or an internationally-recognized illustrator to come to the IJB.  For example, I’m a PhD student working on my dissertation. The IJB awards fellowships every year to about a dozen people from around the world, and the fellowship is open to all.  Past fellows include authors, illustrators, librarians, students, professors, editors, and others interested in or working with children’s literature.  Fellows travel to Munich from across the world, and fellowships run between one and three months.  If you are a fellow during the spring, you accompany the IJB to the Bologna Book Fair; if you are here in the fall, you attend the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Language proficiency helps in looking at international children’s books, of course, but one of the most distinctive features of the IJB is the support they offer, and the extent to which they stretch themselves, to ensure Jella’s idea that children’s books from everywhere should be accessible to all.  The only language requirement for the fellowship itself is some level of proficiency in either German or English, so that you can use the library catalogs and basic resources.

For the rest of your work, one of the many incredible things the IJB offers is not only the largest collection of international children’s literature at your fingertips, but also all the language aid you could need to access it all.  At any time, you can wander through the castle to the offices of the various Lektors, the language specialists, and ask them about  specific books, or about library collections in general, to translate a title, to help you read a picture book, or to talk to you about any number of country and language specific questions.  The IJB has staff on hand at all times who speak Spanish, English, German, French, Hungarian, Russian, Portuguese, and Italian to start, in addition to part time staff that speak and work in collections in other languages.

I should also add, from the get-go the IJB bore no relation to old-school ideas of a tomb-like library, ruled by the bespectacled librarian lady, waiting to catch you in a "shhh" moment.  Erich Kästner called it a "university for children," and that’s perhaps a start for understanding how different the IJB was and is from other libraries.  The fellowship program is actually only one small part of IJB work.  To this day it continues the tradition started by Jella Lepman of encouraging and fostering children’s interactions with the books.

In addition to the scholarly collections, the IJB has the aforementioned lending library, which children and adults from across Germany come to visit and borrow books.  Plop down and choose what country’s books you might like to look at today.  Italy?  South Africa?  Mexico?  They’re all there.  There is a printer’s shop and a painter’s studio, multilingual story hours, puppet theater, book quizzes, art classes, a children’s choir, exhibitions, author visits, a permanent museum dedicated to Michael Ende, and the Erich Kästner Room, with roughly 500 international first editions of the beloved "Emil and the Detectives" author’s work.

The IJB reaches beyond Germany, organizing a number of traveling exhibits, including one of its most famous, the exhibit "Hello, Dear Enemy!" (a play on the delightful sequel to Jean Webster’s "Daddy-Long-Legs," and one of my beloved childhood reads, "Dear Enemy").  It needs no introduction among the many authors, illustrators, and publishers familiar with its annual "White Raven" book selection and exhibition. Every year the library language specialists read thousands of books from across the world, and name (this year) roughly 250 as "White Raven" books, which are revealed and presented at the Bologna Book Fair.  The "White Raven" selection might be best understood as something equivalent to the international version of the Newbery/Caldecott.  They represent the most noteworthy books for all ages, drawn from around the world, and White Raven selections serve as recommendations for translations, teachers, librarians and libraries, and publishers and future purchases.  This year the White Raven books represented over 40 countries.

A library deserving appreciation, bar none.

Fuse #8: I was wondering what the ratio of languages is in the IYL.  Is there a single dominating language, or would you say that it’s pretty equal between countries.  Does everyone get represented?

Sara Hudson:
The IJB currently houses over a half a million books, and it works to its utmost to gather as many books from as many countries in as many languages as it possibly can.  But its collection is shaped by its methods of acquisition: all books in IJB collections are donations, from publishers, from organizations, from individuals, and from institutions who support its mission.  While the staff actively pursues donations, their holdings eventually depend on who and what countries send titles.  One of the staff could give a more precise and informed answer than I, and I’d be happy to inquire, but I’d say unofficially from my own research in the collections, the strongest areas are (naturally) German, followed by English (with an excellent representation of U.S., British, Canadian and Australian books, hard to find all four together, generally), and in no particular order, Western and Eastern European languages, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, Slavic and Baltic languages.  The Latin American countries vary in predictable ways, with Mexico and some of the larger South American countries better represented than some of the smaller Central American countries, at least in my own research thus far.   The challenges of a donation system are obvious with many smaller countries, as well as countries without an established history or industry of publishing who simply produce less books each year.  Despite those challenges, the library works to over come them; for example, they have a fair number of titles and collections from countries in Africa, and in a multiplicity of local languages.

Fuse #8: Finally, what will you be doing once your time there is through?  Would you ever think on going back?

Sara Hudson: Ah, the zinger of a question!  The latter I can easily answer.  Yes.  Absolutely.  Without a doubt.  Haven’t even left, and already I wonder how I might return.  I’m perched six weeks into my fellowship, but it took all of about six minutes to realize that I could spend six years here and still be unearthing riches from the IJB with all the zeal of a Professional Children’s Book Treasure Hunter.

(Which may or may not be an actual profession, but I fret not.  Details!)

In short, I would love to come back, and I certainly hope I can find a way to do so in the future.

As for the former question.  Excellent one, ’tis, but an excellent answer I still lack.  Adventuring of some kind, to be sure, and in some country of the children’s book world, most definitely.  I’ve never grown up or out of being that stereotypical bibliophilic child reader, sneaking books at the table and under the bed, in the barn, and before, between and beyond homework, choir, sports and clubs.  At the end of fourth grade I was voted by my classmates "Most Likely to Be A Librarian;" even at nine years old, we well know some things, like PB&J on the lunchroom’s meatloaf day, are obvious choices.  But for the moment, in some way, shape, or form I know I want to help people, be part of a community, and to bring children, books, and my joy of reading together.  The fun of it will be figuring out exactly how!

Fuse #8: Sara, you are a wonder.  I’m not the only one who has learned a thing or two today.  Ironically, Munich is the only German city I’ve visited, and that was only because my honeymoon train ride went backwards when it should have gone forwards (long story).  When I go back (and it is now definitely a "when" and not an "if") it will be my intended final destination.

Thanks again to Sara Hudson for joining us.  Vundabar vundabar vundabar.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. David Ziegler says

    Wonderous indeed! Thank you (and Sara) so much for imparting this information in such an enthusiastic and fun way! Will be taking further looks at the White Raven books.

  2. Junko Yokota says

    Sara, what a delightful telling of the story that is the IYL! And Betsy — would you add a link for ordering Jella’s autobiography from USBBY website, publications link?
    (I tried to embed the actual link but I got an error message . . . )

  3. Junko Yokota says

    Sara, what a delightful telling of the story that is the IYL! And Betsy — would you add a link for ordering Jella’s autobiography from USBBY website, publications link?
    (I tried to embed the actual link but I got an error message . . . )

  4. Carter Hasegawa says

    Yowzzah, that’s some interview. Incredible.

  5. I can’t do it from work, Junko, but I’ll try when I get home tonight. In the meantime, if you take out the h-t-t-p the comment section will allow you to list the website.

  6. lisainberlin says

    Wow, that’s just a hop skip and a jump from where I am. Meet you there!

  7. Shelli (market My words) says

    happy Library Appreciation day to you too! 🙂 Great post! Thanks for the shout out!

  8. Jenny Schwartzberg says

    Thank you for this interview! I long to spend time at the IJB someday.

  9. rockinlibrarian says

    This is The Most Awesome Thing I Have Ever Heard.

    The story behind it, the fact that it exists, what Sara does with her day… EVERYTHING.

  10. George O'Connor says

    So that’s where you got to! Congratulations, Sara! Sounds awesome. Hope they have my books!

  11. Linda Pavonetti says

    Thanks for your enthusiastic blog about the IYL. I was lucky enough to spend 3 months there in 2005 and want to return to the idyllic setting and amazing collection soon! For those who would like a taste of the IYL, there will be a conference there to highlight the White Ravens book list. For more information, you can go to the USBBY web site, the IBBY Partners and Friends tab, to find out more about this conference. There is a downloadable pdf with all the details.

  12. Ramey Channell says

    Elizabeth, This is truly wonderful! I had never heard of Jella Lepman. I wish I could visit the castle! Thanks for this amazing story.