Excerpt from Keynote Presentation to the 36th IBBY International Congress — Athens, Greece
August 31, 2018
On November 20, l959, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. It states that every child on the planet has the right to live, to play, to be with their parents, and to be educated. Nearly 60 years later, millions of children have been killed in wars, millions more orphaned and injured, millions are hungry, millions are married off while they are still children, and play is a concept unknown to many.
As a writer for children, I look at the world and wonder, “What is the role of children’s literature in all this?” I think I’m beginning to know. We create the world we have through our decisions. Our decisions are shaped by stories — the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we choose to believe that others tell us about ourselves, about our limitations and what we should fear.
The best of children’s literature seeks to inspire young readers to create their own story of who they are and how they want their world to be.
Research has shown that children’s attitudes can be shaped and enlightened through exposure to books. They can grow empathy toward animals and toward the suffering of other people. They can learn to see people who seem ‘different’ as just the same, with the same capacity for love, joy and pain as the child herself.
The books we read when we are children certainly stay in our minds, even when we become adults. As kids, we read our favourites over and over and over again, until the words and images they create are as familiar as our own breath. My hope for my own books is that the children who read them when they are young will carry the compassion they hopefully learn from them into their adult lives and their adult decision-making — whether to be kind or to lash out, whether to give a helping hand or let their government drop a bomb.
The best of children’s literature can help create a Day Before — a Day Before the order is given to toss chemicals in a river. A Day Before the order is given to massacre a village. A Day Before the order is given to manufacture a new batch of guns that will be used to shoot up a school, a church, a gay bar, a country music festival. A Day Before the order is given to move a child-abuser to a new county and new victims. A Day Before the order is given to bomb a school bus full of eight year olds returning home from a much-needed outing. We must have a Day Before!
The best of children’s literature can remind us who we are when we are at our best. It can remind us we need not be afraid of differences, and that we have the power to create beauty out of pain.
I believe that we are responsible for the information that gets into our heads. If we are raised on nothing but Nazi philosophy, then we have an excuse for being Nazis. But the moment an alternative piece of information enters our brains, then we are making a choice. We are choosing which story to follow.
Good children’s literature can provide that alternative piece of information. It can provide a new way of looking at the world. It can be a welcoming, sturdy branch that says to the child, “You have the power to choose bravely.”
Good children’s literature is not the sole key to a sustained, livable future for all, but it is certainly one of the keys. The more good books we can get to children, authored by more voices from every part of the earth, the better chance we all have of achieving that great Day Before.
— Adapted from a keynote speech given by Deborah Ellis at the 36th IBBY Congress in Athens, Greece to be published in full in Bookbird www.ibby.org