In the aftermath of World War II, one of the guiding principles of Jella Lepman, founder of the International Youth Library (IYL), was to promote peace, tolerance and intercultural understanding through children’s books. The current children’s and young adults’ picture book exhibition ‘Guten Tag, lieber Feind’ (Hello, Dear Enemy), celebrated its homecoming to the IYL on 15 November 2014, having travelled throughout the world to great acclaim since 1998 and it most certainly subscribes to this ethos of promoting values of peace and international understanding. It also raises awareness about the tragic effects of war, the loss of family, home and security, particularly on children.
Even before visitors reach the exhibition upstairs in the so called Treasure Chamber, they are accompanied on the stairwell walls by thought-provoking quotations on war and peace by diverse writers, organisations and thinkers such as André Gide, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, UNESCO and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, encouraging reflection on the importance and necessity for peace and international co-operation.
The exhibition space itself, effectively simulating a war zone, immerses the visitor in the atmosphere of a no-man’s land of watch towers, shelters and sandbags. It encourages young and old alike to empathize with the settings depicted through word and image in the many posters and international selection of picture books on display. Many of the picture books, all of which visitors are welcome to pick up and browse through, are quite recent publications, although some classics are to be found too, such as Erich Kästner’s Die Konferenz der Tiere (in English: The Animals’ Conference) published in 1949. All the works deal with war-related themes – the destruction and futility of war, exile and refugee experiences, the impact of conflict on the individual and on families, peace and hope. In many cases the picturebooks use humour, parables and animal characters or offer messages of humanity and hope to convey these themes in a child-friendly manner.
One particular picturebook that I found both moving and engaging was the Belgian children’s writer and illustrator, Claude K. Dubois’ 2012 picturebook, Akim Court (Akim Runs). The 2014 German translation of this award-winning picturebook* (Akim Rennt) is available to read in the exhibition and contains the original illustrations. Using very few words and beautifully understated but powerful images Akim Rennt relates to the story of the effects of conflict on one little boy, called Akim, when war comes to his village and in the ensuing chaos he is torn away from his home and family. With great skill and subtlety, Dubois encourages the reader to imagine the terrifying effects of war on Akim and how he must run to save himself. Her picture book also fosters empathy with all those who suffer such a fate, for this is not just the story of one child but of all children who are victims of war. Touching and though-provoking it offers too a message of hope in its depiction of the kindness of strangers and in highlighting the crucial work of humanitarian organisations in helping refugees of war. It comes as no surprise then that this book has been supported, both by the German-based organisation Pro Asyl and Amnesty International.
The exhibition ‘Guten Tag, lieber Feind!’ runs until 31 October 2015 in the International Youth Library, Schloß Blutenburg, Munich.
Áine McGillicuddy, Ireland
Fellowship holder, December 2014
*Akim Rennt is the recipient of the Katholische Kinderbuchpreis 2014 and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis 2014