Feature Articles

A WORLD OF WONDERS: DANISH CHILDREN'S LITERATURE by Valerie Coghlan

(Poetry Ireland News, May/June 2003)

Dublin is privileged to be host to a travelling exhibition of Danish children’s books during May 2003. The exhibition has been brought to Ireland by IBBY Ireland and Dublin City Public Libraries. It is on display in the ILAC Library in the centre of Dublin, which means that the exhibition will be seen by many of the library’s 2,000 daily visitors. A high proportion of the books in the exhibition are picture books, and artwork from these is mounted onto the large display panels in the centre of the library. All of the 46 books exhibited are also available for examination.

IBBY Ireland has a commitment to bringing books from around the world to the attention of an Irish audience. IBBY (which has sections on well over 60 countries worldwide) was founded in the aftermath of World War II in the belief that children’s books can foster international understanding. A Bridge to Children’s Books, the autobiography of IBBY’s founder, Jella Lepman, was republished in 2002 by IBBY Ireland in conjunction with the O’Brien Press. It explains how Lepman, motivated by a strong conviction about the role of books in breaking down prejudice and intolerance, founded IBBY – and also the Youth Library in Munich.

Hans Christian Andersen is the name most associated with Danish writing for children. Although he is not directly represented in the exhibition (none of the works on show is earlier than the Twentieth Century), it is not fanciful to say that the imaginative depth and narrative grace of Andersen’s work is evident in the work on display. Jan Mogensen has reinterpreted Andersen’s stories, but he is best known in translation for his ‘Teddy’ picture books for young readers which are presented the exhibition.

The majority of the books are picture books, making the exhibition very accessible to non-Danish speakers. Visitors to the exhibition may also be familiar with the work of Ib Spang Olsen, who has been a great inspiration for younger picture book artists. In contrast to Olsen’s light lines and watercolours, the anarchic style of Ole Lund Kirkegaard and the rich detailing of Hell Vibeke Jensen’s collages for En Kuffert I Marokko (A Trunk in Morocco) will also attract much attention. Some books, like Jensen’s are almost wordless, allowing the pictures to carry much of the narrative. And it should be stressed that many of the picture books on display are by no means for younger readers.

One section of the exhibition specifically features books for older children and young adults. Some of these are contemporary in setting, and address concerns familiar to Irish readers. Others are set in a Scandinavian past with references to the great sagas and myths.

As well as a fine tradition in the creation of books for young people, Denmark has long been recognised as a leader in children’s librarianship. This caring attitude towards children is very evident in ‘A World of Wonders’, and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see such an outstanding exhibition. It is well worth a school visit, and will spur teachers and students into many creative follow-on activities. It will also leave indelible memories of the wonders of Danish children’s books on all who visit it. The exhibition runs from the 7th May to the 29th May.

Valerie Coghlan co-edits Inis, the Children’s Books Ireland magazine, and is the librarian at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin.

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