Internationalism and Radical Writing for Children

By Kimberley Reynolds, Newcastle University (UK)

‘… in times of great change, some of the most radical ideas about what the future ought to be like will be located in books for the next generation’ (Juliet Dusinberre, Alice to the Lighthouse, 1987, p. 34)

‘Radical children’s literature’ is the term I use to describe texts for children and young people that encourage progressive social change. Social transformation is not simply a matter of desire or legislation; it requires new visions which themselves depend on new forms of knowledge and ways of seeing the world. Radical children’s literature seeks to stimulate such visions. In Britain, the first half of the twentieth century saw one of the most active periods for the production of radical children’s literature. It was then that a number of publishers, writers, artists, politicians, scientists and social commentators included children’s literature in their efforts to break the cycle of boom and bust economics based on exploitation that resulted in serial conflicts and mass hardship. They believed that change could only come about by transforming the ways society was organised and that to do this, the rising generation had to be given the skills, knowledge and understanding to effect and sustain change.

Britain’s radical children’s literature reflects the ethos of the internationalist movement of the early twentieth century. ‘Internationalism’ has largely been supplanted by the word ‘globalisation’; International Children’s Book Day (ICBD) is a good time to think about that shift in usage. While ‘globalisation’ is sometimes used to talk about the way information technologies and travel can bring people from many parts of the world together, it is essentially an economic phenomenon designed to promote ‘trade, transactions, capital and investment’.[1]

Internationalism, by contrast, is specifically concerned with peace, cooperation, inclusion, sustainability, human rights and justice. Internationalism gave birth to, among other things, the League of Nations, the United Nations and the International Board on Books for Young People, known as IBBY, which organises ICBD.

Aerial view of the International Children's Library in Munich. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Aerial view of the International Children’s Library in Munich. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

IBBY was founded at the end of the Second World War to promote international understanding through children’s books. It was the brainchild of Jella Lepman, who with her children fled to Britain from Nazi Germany. Lepman had her own radical vision of a time when the children of the world would learn about each other and other cultures through children’s books. Children’s books, she argued, could help avoid future wars and create a more fair and equitable world. Like many aspects of internationalism, to our globalised eyes Lepman’s project seems highly idealistic, but the time was right for idealism and transformative visions. As well as IBBY and ICBD, in 1949 Jella Lepman established the International Youth Library in Munich, which aims to hold a copy of every children’s book and every academic study of children’s literature published in the world. The International Youth Library supports the work of children’s literature scholars and organisations, including IBBY, and the modern discipline of children’s literature studies owes much to the same internationalist ethos that inspired Lepman and the creators of radical children’s literature during two world wars. In 1932, for instance, the French scholar Paul Hazard’s Books, Children and Men reviewed the classics of world’s children’s literature and identified the shaping influence of books on children’s lives. Since children grow up to become the adults who control the future, he declares that the best of children’s books should be universally available and mobilised to help cultivate healthy, thinking children everywhere. The best books for children, he maintains, preserve their capacities for fresh, inclusive ways of experiencing the world and the shared reading experience would create what he described as ‘a world republic of children’.
Palaces on Monday by Marjorie Fischer. Courtesy of

At a time when international relations with Russia are particularly strained, it is worth remembering that for decades, the vast Soviet project which followed the 1917 Revolution was at the centre of internationalist thought. The American reporter, Lincoln Steffens, famously summed it up when he said of his 1919 trip to the Soviet Union, “I have seen the future, and it works.”[2] This sense of excitement and belief that a new way of living together was being forged in that country is reflected in works of radical children’s literature from that period, some of which were imported from the Soviet Union and give some insights into the pace and scale of change as well as the underlying optimism of the post-revolutionary years. Others were written by visitors from the UK and the USA and published to tell children and young people in those countries what it was like to grow up in Soviet Russia. Typical of these is Palaces on Monday (1937) by the American writer, Marjorie Fischer. It tells the story of some British and American children who arrive in the USSR to join their parents who are working there. As they travel across the vast Soviet land they discover that life there is much more exciting and rewarding than it had been in the depression-era West. They visit a wonderful Park of Culture, jumping from its parachute tower, watching children run a miniature railway, and thrilling to the opportunities to experiment with things mechanical, scientific and artistic in open-access fully equipped areas designed to cultivate children’s interests and abilities.

‘Boys and Girls Bring in the New World’ in 'An Outline for Boys and Girls and their Families' (Victor Gollancz 1932), edited by Naomi Mitchison. Courtesy of Oxford University Press.
‘Boys and Girls Bring in the New World’ in An Outline for Boys and Girls and their Families, edited by Naomi Mitchison (Victor Gollancz 1932). Courtesy of Oxford University Press.

They are astonished that so much is invested in children and that children are seen as important because they represent the future. Even more surprising is that girls as well as boys are full participants and viewed as capable of taking on any task. We can get a sense of how such books affected their readers from the cultural historian Sheila Fitzpatrick, who remembers that when she read it as a girl in 1940s Australia, it made her think, ‘what fun people seemed to have there…how totally unlike anything in Melbourne – that they should have a collective expectation of a better future’.[3]

Russia is just one of the topics covered by radical children’s books in their drive to promote peace and to reimagine the world in more fair and sustainable ways. I work through a great many examples in all genres in my book, Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Publishing for Children, 1910–1949 (Oxford University Press, 2016) and samples from a great many of these books will shortly be available from the anthology Reading and Rebellion (Oxford University Press, 2018) I have edited with Jane Rosen and Michael Rosen. Although there is now much more competition for children’s time and attention than there was when radical children’s literature and internationalism were coming to the fore, children’s books are still an important way in which we tell children about the world and give them the visions and vocabularies to shape it.

Kimberley Reynolds specialises in Children’s Literature Studies. She was President of the International Research Society for Children’s Literature from 2003 to 2007, and in 2013 received the International Brothers Grimm Award for contributions to the field. She was the first Honorary Senior Fellow of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Kim sits on a number of influential boards and committees in the UK and internationally. She has been a Trustee of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature, since 2004 and served on the V&A Trustees’ committee with responsibility for the Museum of Childhood and the board of the charity Booktrust (Chair, 2004–2008) for 10 years. She was a founder-member of the UK’s Children’s Laureate on whose steering committee she continues to sit, and has advised and contributed to many children’s literature broadcasts, programs, films and other projects, including for the British Library and the British Council.

[1] ‘Globalization; Threats or Opportunities’ International Monetary Fund, 12 April 2000 (corrected 2002).

[2] In his biography of Steffens, Peter Hartshorn notes that the journalist used this phrase and variations on it numerous times. Peter Hartshorn, I Have Seen the Future: A Life of Lincoln Steffens (Counterpoint, 2011).

[3] Sheila Fitzpatrick, My Father’s Daughter: Memories of an Australian Childhood (Melbourne University Press, 2010), pp. 69–70.

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