Children’s books are a fine place to seek refuge, their pages a vital way of reading, mirroring and anticipating reality, history, and the voices of history.
Borrowing a concept dear to Antonio Faeti (the Inattuale, the philosophical power or value of that which does not follow current trends), we may ask the pages of books to respond to suspended questions, to speak to our aphasic hearts as, today, we witness a war unprecedented for someone like me, who has basically known Europe to be peaceful over the last few decades.
The reader’s selective gaze finds (and necessarily seeks) clues, signals and references that, between historic memory and topicality, declare a state of belonging, picking up essential links that speak to the soul of what truly matters: childhood or, in other words, the human being. In all ages, signs of humanity associated with resistance abound in storytelling as it weaves bonds, represents cosmic reality (to use a Montessorian term), builds common, life-sustaining terrain for us all, for and with nature because literature – especially children’s literature – has an intrinsic vocation for peace, life, memory, survival and the human species’ cosmic sense of belonging. Perhaps, as the theorists of neoteny claim, storytelling, language and culture arise precisely out of the need – ascribed to Ananke, the goddess of Necessity, who as James Hillman writes is a deity perhaps useful to remember today – to protect children and future generations, to pass on knowledge to them, and to foster their independence and potential destinies.
Although war had not yet broken out, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a clear and looming threat when the BolognaRagazzi Award jury of professionals and experts (including Yuliia Kozlovets, director of the Book Arsenal Festival, an international event based in Kiev), met to award the Fiction category prize to the book À qui appartiennent les nuages? a mournful Canadian memoir of war seen through the eyes of a little girl many years afterwards, using the powerful mnemonic device of photography (Orecchio Acerbo published the Italian version of the book). Black clouds, explosions and the fires of war move across the page with an expressive power undoubtedly heightened by the circumstances through which we are currently living. Overlapping, they evoke the absolute need today to protect children from raw media images, preferring narratives capable of mediating, sorrowful as it may be, the encounter with the experience of war as something viable and recountable, rather than images that directly reference the horrors unfolding right now.
This book explores the lead character’s emotional, personal, inner space. Collective historical events forever condition individuals of this and future generations: the people who witness those clouds and fires with their own eyes, who witness the waves of pain and destruction rippling outwards until they become the memory and testimony of literature. Endless rows of fleeing people, the rhythms, postures and emotions of lives disrupted, fill the pages of this book because this, it seems, is what war is: a devastating fury that bludgeons and replaces important things, wildly disrupting the scope and scale of life, imposing unnatural positions on bodies, forcing time to contain or exclude actions of love and care in impossible measure, breaching individuals’ fundamental needs and rights. And all the while, our children keep asking questions. The soul can survive and find meaning through memory; looking skywards, deep wounds can discover a horizon to heal, carry on and start over.
And if clouds are made of smoke (cloud syrup, as the great illustrator Janosch would have it), the ensuing rain becomes not just water but bodily fluid. Specifically and cosmically, we are plugged in to nature: body and nature and biological truth are what we are. I write this as I hold a Spanish book, Fluidoteca, a special mention the Opera Prima section, hearing the unbearable news that cities are being deprived of water. The book focuses on how much of us is water, how we function, we mucous, liquid, aquatic and fragile beings, aquaria of emotions and electricity. Ever-attentive to minute details and interconnected phenomena, through a refined graphic synthesis the author’s scientific gaze brings earthly, concrete and poetic substance to the complex and delicate reality of the human body. Right from the neologism of the title, the words flow graciously, naming the body as it pays homage to how it works. Indeed, the words for the body are a tool for mindfulness, listening, and recovery of our organic humanity. This pedagogical lesson on the body feels like an essential message: in the body, embodied, rooted, grounded, moving gracefully, being together and travelling through this world, global citizens whose role is to build peace, starting from our own bodies.
Bodies and hands star in Father’s big hands, who received a special mention, a wordless book that, with grace and simplicity, presents juxtaposed images of a man looking after his son, and, on the facing page, looking after his father. Caressing, supporting, washing, changing and healing hands take the lead in these poetic images from everyday life. The child grows, his father’s body reveals the signs of age. Care is the substance of affection, hands the loving language of epidermal contact, touch the quality of the soul with the delicacy of primary sense in this enchanting book – the hands of those we love are unforgettable. We all experienced how important human touch is when touch was off-limits. In this beautiful representation of the cycle of life, reciprocity and the continuity of the roles we fill, our perception of being in continuous metamorphosis invites us to stop and observe the importance of our tiniest gesture and key relationships, the fragility and strength that unite every stage of life.
The non-fiction award went to volcanoes, Monstres Sacrés, earthly fires worthy of our contemplation and recounting, given the sense of the sublime these natural phenomena elicit. So spectacular are they that we may consider them prodigious, not just for the deep sense of wonder they arouse in the human soul but the endless stories and myths reaching back into the mists of time that they have spawned. These earthly fires seem tame, friendly, true natural divinities for us to protect when compared with the fires of war, threatening atomic explosions whose consequences are beyond our worst imaginings.
To my eyes, a square, monumental, imposing, outsized Swedish book shaped like an art catalogue stands out among the books that missed out on an award, Vi går till parken. (We Go To the Park / Playgrounds). All-round author Beatrice Alemagna, French-born but Bolognese by adoption, and up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, produced these extraordinarily intense and pictorial panels, creating a stage for childhood and a vital, topical reflection on spaces, the collectivity and childhood – something we can no longer postpone after two years of worldwide pandemic. We all remember the debates on basic needs during lockdown, at least, I know we do in Italy: walking the dog, buying tobacco, allowing individual exercise, buying in more food. But when it came to children, there was more or less nothing. Only sparse voices and dramatically isolated situations spoke out about kids’ need to move around, breathe, play, meet up, live experiences and learn out in the world, outside the home, as children of the community, not just their parents. When the parks were not actually locked shut, children had to be smuggled in like stowaways to run around like dogs, playing in the ghostly silence of pandemic spaces. We disinfected swings, slides, tiny hands… We smiled at new-born babies in masks; we held them up at our windows to feel the sunlight. We thought twice about telling other adults we were taking the children out for fresh air. As for their games, what a minefield: ball games, no; hide and seek, yes; solo yes; together no. This book is a major tribute to children’s relationship with places, first and foremost the park. This illustrated and narrated sort of essay of the Pedagogy of place is a long-overdue pedagogical consideration of our urban environment. The beautiful text by Sara Stridsberg says In the park, anything can happen. Sometimes so much happens that the whole world is overturned. Sometimes nothing happens at all.It doesn’t matter. We just want to go there. Displaying a metaphor for the world of children and the intolerably insufficient space cities dedicate (more accurately, relegate) to their lived experience. In the most fortunate instances, parks are flanked by libraries. Enclosed they may be, but libraries can function as spaces for the political liberation of the bodies and subjects that frequent them, in pro-active dialogue with one another other by rights and with the spaces of the surrounding world. Essentially political and poignant, this historical document and poetic tribute has, perhaps because of its complexity, escaped all categories, despite most certainly standing out among the 2215 candidate books from sixty-two different countries. In recognition of this work, the BCBF has decided to give Beatrice Alemagna a newly-established award: the “Extraordinary Award for an Extraordinary Artist”.
The New Horizon special prize went to Laimes bērni (The Laime Children), a brilliant jungle adventure alongside an explorer that makes ideal reading lying down somewhere cozy, on an imagination-fired journey to discover faraway places. We await a translation from Latvian of the little novel, whose graphic and pictorial approach delivers a carefully, accurately, well-thought-out and even cheerful world; we applaud the success of a small, independent publishing house and a young, already-successful author whose previous stories have been adapted into animated films and comics.
Suzy Lee puts childish, untameable, unconquerable joy and laughter together with music – an infinite source of inspiration for artists and poets on the page of her extraordinary Summer. This book by the Korean author well-known for her wordless books (La trilogia del limite, first published in Italy by Corraini), is driven by graphic and pictorial research. The power of Vivaldi’s classical music, accessed from the back cover via a QR code on this wondrous tome, pays authentic homage to the close relationship between silence and listening, between childish laughter and unspeakable reality. Childhood is, after all, about heartfelt resistance, smiles and the salvatory properties of play; childhood’s raison d’être may be found in every metamorphosis, transformation, and (sometimes imposed) shift in meaning.
Children’s somersaults are a good metaphor for the inward acrobatics necessary to cope with the bewilderment and impossibility of systematic destruction. We are beings intrinsically devoted to creation, construction, and transformation, skilled in spotting rainbows in a water spurt, music in silence, or new dances of meaning in disorientation. The way forward is listening, turning to the vital power of storytelling, looking up and wondering what makes us human and then defending that through sensible and even senseless acts of ethical and aesthetic resistance… such as children’s books.
We conclude our walk with Les Reflets d’Harriet, a book that, as it happens, is about children’s souls, how they are put together and, as the poets write, how they encompass multitudes. A remarkable debut as an all-round author, a courageous and happy tribute to the depth of children’s souls and the glorious complexity of growing up through a process of ongoing knowledge acquisition and acceptance of one’s own inner characteristics, this book by French author Marion Kadi, already an illustrator for top US press titles, took the prize for best First Work.
Harriet sees more than one reflection in the mirror. After a lion dies on page two, Harriet’s lion reflection decides to adopt her and embody her “lion soul”, as the BRAW jury that gave the book the award so graciously puts it. This wild soul encourages and frees the girl from fear and blockages, even if it comes with an aggressive, hard to handle, hard to tame and hard to accept side. The figure of the lion in this book is so masterful because of the style of illustration: its fluid and dynamic forms are immediately entertaining, mimicking the process of becoming that is the path of personal growth. Showcasing expressive confidence at textual and image level, this picture book is felicitously endowed with “beat”, the dynamic quality Maurice Sendak so lauded. It also seems to knowingly take its place in the history of image-based children’s literature. As French bookseller Gwendal Oulés says in his blog, the theme of children’s reflections recalls past works like Histoire de Julie qui avait une ombre de garçon, a pioneering 1975 picture book about a little girl with a boy’s shadow. An heir to this vein, renewing the story in an eco-feminist take, Kadi approaches the political issue of dealing with ambivalent reflections in a new and contemporary way, adopting very lively Fauvist-style illustrations that dart around like aquatic reflections. Embracing the themes of wildness and ambivalence, central and crucial to feminist thought and reflections on childhood (women and wild monsters have not yet had their full say), she declares it is has always been unavoidable and necessary (I would add, for both individuals and the community) “apprendre à vivre ensemble”, to learn to live together.
In its second year, the Poetry category features a number of outstanding works selected from an ever-growing international bookshelf that includes many fine bilingual booklets. The winning book, Immenses son leurs ailes is a notebook of perfect, measured, sober, dry poems of extraordinary power, dedicated to the lives of Syrian children progressively disrupted by war. Spanning everyday reality and symbolism, this book by two migrant authors, travellers and poetic curators, imbues these children narrated in stories and indeed history with truth and heft: children who, in photo-reporters’ images, in the pictures we see on the news, seem to be at one with the war, the face of horror, proof of the tragic contradiction of killing humanity, the unbearable paradox of destroying something that is growing, children in tears, children waving behind glass, yes, these same children who have always and always will have immense wings, far broader than any fire, smoke or war. This is the story poetry recounts, what childhood recounts, the story History tells... As new young refugees arrive in our country, images of inexhaustible hope amid the desperation, they prepare to shake the smoke and fire from their wings, their immense childlike wings ready to carry them soaring towards their tomorrows.