Since the first of September I have been at the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (IJB) in Munich, Germany. Why? As part of a larger cross-cultural study of diversity in children’s literature, I’m exploring how multiculturalism functions in Germany, via German picture books — chosen in part because they pose the smallest barrier to my limited (but improving!) German, and in part because what we read when we are young can have a profound impact on the adults we become. We read these books when we are still figuring out who we are and what we believe.
As it turns out, being in two places at once is more difficult than you might think. I’ve been teaching an online class (more labor than an in-person class) and appearing at K-State meetings via video (Skype/Zoom/WhatsApp). Or perhaps I should say “being in many places at once?” In addition to the IJB research, I have worked on other ongoing scholarly projects, given talks in Stockholm (Sweden) and Aarhus (Denmark), and moderated a panel at a conference in Atlanta (USA).
Though I’ve been stretched even thinner than usual, the experience has been worth it. The IJB is the perfect place for my research.
The largest library of its kind, it has over 600,000 children’s books in 150 languages, and 30,000 works of scholarship.
In addition, the library strives to advance the mission of its founder, Jella Lepman (1891-1970): she believed that children’s literature is one of the best ways to promote peace, respect for others, and international understanding. I share her belief.
I’ve also learned much beyond the walls of the fifteenth-century castle in which the library is housed. Visiting eight of Munich’s over 80 museums has taught me much about German art, culture, and history — especially Germany’s willingness to confront its fascist past (which, yes, has many lessons for America’s present). When I was growing up in Massachusetts, we took a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village, a nostalgic reconstruction of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century America. From nice White people dressed in period costumes, we learned how to make candles, and we drank apple cider. We did not learn about genocide against Native Americans or learn that Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to legalize slavery. In contrast, Munich schoolchildren go on field trips to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site (12 kilometers north of the IJB) and to the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism — both of which I visited during my trip here.
Yes, the country could do better in confronting the legacy of German colonialism. And, as of about a month ago, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, who are racist nationalists) now has representation in all sixteen German state parliaments. The rise of nativist con-artists is a global problem. But it is encouraging to see here the institutional persistence of memories that rebuke their lies and misinformation.
Founded in 1949, the Internationale Jugendbibliothek does a version of this work in its advocacy for international cultural education, via promoting good books for young readers. Embodying that international spirit, its staff and the fellows who study here come from around the world. During my three months at the IJB, I’ve met — and befriended — people from France, Iran, Japan, Lichtenstein, the Philippines, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Tunisia, Ukraine, and of course Germany.
Getting to know people from around the world has not only expanded my own perspective, but has developed professional relationships and friendships that will last throughout my life.
I will leave you with a phrase I saw on a shoulder-bag in Pasing train station one morning: “Lesen gefährdet die Dummheit,” which means “Reading endangers stupidity.” While combating ignorance does of course depend upon what we read, I nonetheless endorse the optimism of that statement. Fight stupidity. Keep reading.
— Philip Nel, University Distinguished Professor