Just back from a magical three days full of all things children’s-booky at the biennial Congress of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People http://www.ibbyireland.com/store/c1/Featured_Products.html) in Athens.

Delegates from many of IBBY’s 76 member countries shared their love of children’s books that cross cultures, and a belief in the power of literature to light the way towards a kinder, gentler, more holdy-handy world. And if that sounds too Disney, there was plenty of exploration of darkness too: the wars, displacements, hunger, trafficking and other horrors that face so many children.

In her talk ‘Before they Give the Order’, author Deborah Ellis (The Breadwinner etc., deborahellis.com) spoke of books as prevention not cure. Children brought up on stories about very different lives and perspectives will grow into global citizens – politicians, lawyers, truck drivers, teachers, parents, business leaders and shopkeepers – with empathy, compassionate curiosity and the ability to connect with different cultures. This generation of peace-lovers, she said, will be equipped to resist and drown out the voice of anyone who ‘gives the order’ to shoot, abuse, ethnically cleanse and hate in so many other terribly human ways.

Gregory Maguire (author of Wicked etc. gregorymaguire.com) looked at ‘The Light Within the Story,’ describing fairy tales as beacons of ‘heroic generosity … small and intense like garlic’. They endure, he said, because they champion love, kindness, justice and mercy. (Of course they do a good line in sexism, ageism, ugly-ism etc. but those criticisms were for another time.)

While preaching and moralising stick in the throat of children’s books, I believe they do have a duty: to offer some kind of hope, whether a glimmer or a blaze, that gives the reader something to aspire to – literally, to ‘breathe on’. Something that lights another little step towards how the world should, and maybe even could be.