Unusual Birds in a Book Castle

by | Oct 3, 2023 | IBBYLink Autumn 2022

Claudia Söffner

The International Youth Library, its ‘White Ravens’ List and Other Treasures

A medieval castle inhabited by thousands of literary ‘birds’? This sounds like a fairy tale from ancient times. However, Schloss Blutenburg (Blutenburg Castle), situated on the outskirts of Munich (Germany), is very much alive and kicking. It is the home of the Internationale Jugendbibliothek (International Youth Library – IYL), the largest library specialising in international children’s and young adult literature in the world. Founded in 1949 by IBBY co-founder Jella Lepman, the IYL has developed into a unique institution that has a lot to offer to its visitors.

A shot from the lake of Blutenburg Castle.

​The IYL: specialised library, literary gallery, children’s literature venue and more

The library’s holdings of more than 650,000 children’s and young adult books in over 240 languages span five centuries. This includes about 67,000 historical books, 30,000 volumes of international research on children’s literature, as well as 130 current subscriptions to research and trade journals. Thanks to the generous book donations the IYL receives from publishing houses, organisations, private donors, etc., its collection grows annually by around 9,000 books.

Literary and aesthetic quality are important criteria for inclusion in the archival collection, as are originality and diversity. Yet a representative selection of popular bestselling books is also taken in because, after all, one of the library’s objectives as an international archive is to document the status quo of literature for young readers around the world, and to capture local and international trends and new directions in the development of children’s and youth literature in their countries of origin.

As a public library, the IYL caters for both an international audience and the local community: on the one hand, its research library allows access to the entire archival collection of primary literature as well as all the secondary sources about children’s literature; on the other hand, the children’s lending library makes 30,000 children’s books in over 20 different languages available to be borrowed free of charge.

Through the fellowship programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of the Federal Republic of Germany, the IYL encourages research about literature for children and teenagers in an increasingly networked world. Each year, up to 18 scholars are invited to spend several weeks at Blutenburg Castle to work on academic projects that they have already started in their home countries. For their research, they make use of the international collection of primary and secondary literature.

The promotion of children’s literature

Merely collecting and loaning the books was never what the IYL was after. From the beginning, the collection has also enabled the library’s team to perform outreach work aimed at children and adolescents as well as adults. The work is carried by the conviction that children’s and young adult books form an essential part of the cultural life of a society, and that they must be preserved, documented and promoted. Thus, one of the IYL’s top priorities is to further international cultural exchange through the promotion of international children’s literature via various events and projects.

Extracurricular sites for education play an important role in children’s development because children can engage creativity free from school pressures and expand their experiential horizons. Every year the IYL conceives a programme of in-house and travelling exhibitions, readings, workshops, artist and writer talks, panel discussions, presentations, conferences and other events. The aim is to address current questions and topics in international children’s literature, to display the diversity of children’s literature and to celebrate the books’ high linguistic and aesthetic qualities.

In addition to these events, the library also contributes to the field of children’s literature from around the world via publications, such as the annual ‘White Ravens’ catalogue and the multilingual children’s poetry calendar ‘Der Kinder Kalender’.

Children’s Calendar of 25 June 2018 –Concrete Poetry.

The ‘Kinder Kalender’ – a poem for every week of the year

Inspired by an exhibition of international illustrated children’s poetry that was curated at the IYL in 2009 for the library’s 60th anniversary, the children’s calendar was first published in 2011. It is a large-format weekly calendar featuring 53 poems in their original languages and a German translation, adorned by the original illustrations from the books in which the poems were published. In order to find the most suitable, varied and enjoyable poems, the IYL staff sift through dozens or even hundreds of illustrated poetry anthologies from the library’s collection every year and then collaborate with the calendar’s publisher (as of this year Moritz Verlag in Frankfurt) to make the final selection. A one-of-its-kind publication, which has garnered several awards and an enthusiastic following, the ‘Kinder Kalender’ is a treat not only for families but also for teachers and their pupils. It offers a playful and visually attractive way of encountering different languages and allows children and adults alike a glimpse into the peculiarities and the diversity of children’s poetry traditions around the globe.

The ‘White Ravens’ catalogue

The IYL’s most important publication is the annual list, a catalogue that showcases books from many different countries. The IYL first introduced the German name ‘Weiße Raben’ (‘White Ravens’) in the 1960s to label outstanding books that it was keen to recommend for translation to publishers. At that time, there was no regular printed publication yet and the reviews were written in German. Initially created as simple lists or brochures, the ‘Weiße Raben’ were first published as a bound catalogue in 1984 to be presented at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, featuring 226 children’s books from 40 countries. In 1986 the annual selection was published in English for the first time and renamed ‘The White Ravens’.

Its target audience was – and still is – people interested in the field of children’s literature, whether they are professionally involved in it in publishing houses, libraries, bookshops, the area of education and similar fields, or whether they simply engage with it as parents, book lovers or for other reasons. Publishers, for example, can find information on new books they might want to include in their list as translations, while librarians will find guidance for expanding their library’s foreign-language holdings. It is true, of course, that numerous institutions and organisationsaround the world review and recommend children’s books. What makes the ‘White Ravens’ special, however, is its international focus: The list does not feature books from just one language, one country or one region, but highlights many facets of the immensely diverse international children’s literature market.

Its internationality is also the reason why, right from the beginning, the ‘White Ravens’ was designed as a recommendation list rather than a literary award. An award would require an award jury, but due to the fact that each catalogue introduces books in more than 30 languages, there was no way the IYL would have been able to appoint a jury whose members jointly judged the quality of children’s books in all these languages. Consequently, each of the IYL’s in-house and freelance children’s literature specialists, who select the books, relies on his or her own expertise and experience, but also takes into account recommendations from experts from around the world, including several IBBY sections.

It is important to note that only a book that is physically part of the library’s collection can be a ‘White Raven’. As mentioned above, the collection development at IYL depends entirely on free copies donated to the IYL. Therefore, books that the library does not receive cannot be selected for the ‘White Ravens’ catalogue.

There are no fixed criteria for the selection, but, over the years, the IYL team has developed traditions regarding the evaluation of children’s literature. Naturally, the experts share information about new books and their reading experiences with each other, discuss trends and follow the (international) discourse on children’s literature. For the ‘White Ravens’ selection, the quality of text and illustration are crucial. Other aspects – such as innovation, originality, new topics or book design – influence the selection too.

Until 2013, the catalogue continued to be published in spring for the Bologna Book Fair, where the books were displayed at the IYL’s booth, featuring short reviews of 250 new books. Then in 2014, major changes were implemented to render the list even more attractive and user friendly: the number of books promoted was reduced to 200 titles, allowing the printed catalogue to contain images of the book covers along with bibliographic information, reviews, subject headings and indexes; and it is now produced in a larger format with a modern design in full-colour print. In addition, the time of publication was shifted from March to October. Thus, each new ‘White Ravens’ catalogue is now first presented to publishers at the Frankfurt International Book Fair with an event in front of a professional audience; the following spring, all the 200 books featured in the list are then displayed at the IYL’s booth in Bologna. Thereby the team is making the most of two powerful international book fairs to promote the books to children’s literature professionals.

In order to provide an even wider audience with the chance to look at and work with the books selected for the list, each set of ‘White Ravens’ books is also available as a travelling exhibition. For a small handling fee, universities, schools, libraries and other institutions can order the most recent selection to be sent to their premises. Institutions often exhibit the books – with or without copies of the catalogue – for several weeks, with some even offering a number of workshops based on selected titles. The IYL’s travelling exhibitions are not only available in Germany, they also journey to countries in Europe and other parts of the world.

The catalogue relaunch in 2014 also coincided with the implementation of the ‘White Ravens’ database, which can be accessed online from the IYL’s website (https://whiteravens.ijb.de/list). The platform offers the data of all ‘White Ravens’ books from the 2012 edition onwards and allows users to search for titles, for example, by person, language, country, or subject. Today, each annual ‘White Ravens’ list presents books from about 50 countries published in over 30 languages, thus the data for a total of over 2,000 books is currently available on the database.

The latest feature to bring the ‘White Ravens’ books to the attention of an even wider audience was the creation of a special ‘White Ravens’ Instagram account in 2021. These days, once the list is launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the social media team starts posting each of the titles from the current list as #ravenoftheday with its cover picture and review at @thewhiteravens.books.

The ‘White Ravens’ Festival for international children’s and young adult literature

As the IYL is constantly searching for new ways to promote high quality international children’s literature, the team was delighted when, in 2009, a grant offered by the Bavarian government enabled them to curate a new children’s literature festival. Organised and run biennially since 2010, the ‘White Ravens’ Festival was conceived with a focus on international children’s literature – just like the majority of the IYL’s endeavours. Named ‘White Ravens’ Festival after the term the IYL has been using for many years as a designator for unusual and innovative children’s and young adult literature, the five-day event is connected by name to its ‘older sibling’, the ‘White Ravens’ catalogue. It offers a stage to a mixture of famous and lesser-known writers (as well as a small number of illustrators) from Germany and abroad.

Photograph from the 2021 White Ravens festival.

The ‘White Ravens’ Festival creates a forum for international children’s and youth literature with Blutenburg Castle as its main venue; yet festival visitors can also experience invited authors and illustrators at a variety of teen and cultural centres, schools and libraries all around Bavaria. Aside from a series of public events in the evenings and at the opening weekend, the heart of the festival is its programme of author readings and performances for school classes.

The ‘White Ravens’ Festival typically features a diverse range of languages, topics and literary genres, which duly reflects the wealth of extraordinary contemporary children’s and young adult literature from around the world. The festival’s international roots are much cherished by its visitors both young and old. For children and adolescents, the festival offers a good opportunity to interact with a writer up close and thus gain a lively glimpse into his or her creative process. The authors welcome the chance to talk to their German readers, and to meet and discuss issues with colleagues from other countries.

Both its staff members and visitors from around the world often describe the IYL as a ‘book castle’ that protects a great literary treasure, a treasure that must be valued and promoted. It is for this reason that the library opens its doors and windows wide, to invite inside all those who have are passionate about children’s and young adult literature to enjoy these literary gems.


Text, photographs and all illustrations: Copyright © 2022 Internationale Jugendbibliothek.

Claudia Söffner is a trained bookseller and has an MA degree in English and Comparative Literature and English Linguistics from Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (Munich University). Since 2001, she has been the English literature specialist at the International Youth Library, where she enjoys working with a broad range of books from Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, the US and various other countries from around the world.