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Waiting for Refugee Aid To Grow Up


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Supporters of Ukraine at Warschauer Strasse station in Berlin, September 20. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Fotofantastika

A Heartfelt Imbalance

Since late February, when Vladimir Putin began his barbaric invasion of Ukraine, international publishing industry news has frequently featured stories about terrific programs providing books for Ukrainian refugee children.

Generally, 5,000 copies or more of these titles are printed in a given European book market, often thanks to generous donations from book-business professionals and others. The books then are provided to humanitarian-aid organizations to be handed out at border crossings and other points at which Ukrainian refugees are gathered either to live or to move forward to settlement elsewhere.

These efforts are highly commendable, of course. They can help to further the kids’ war-upended educational programs, to keep the children distracted with stories during nerve-wracking experiences, and to connect these youngsters to their own language, putting the comforts of their mother tongue within reach at a time when that language–which is not the same as Russian–is a natural, defining element of an assaulted nation’s character.

What the campaigns and efforts to mount these programs for Ukrainian children seem to reveal, however, is that the big heart of the world publishing industry is warmed far more easily by the idea of children’s books and their readers than by the need for books for adults in such a nightmarish situation.

It’s the adults, after all, usually mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, who have had to flee with the kids, leaving behind their husbands, lovers, uncles, brothers to are required to stay and fight. And while putting a book into the hands of one of those kids might help keep her occupied for awhile (a big help to Mom, of course), there has seemed to be little interest in the emotional and intellectual needs of the women who are caring for these youngsters. Books for Ukrainian adults just haven’t caught on as a humanitarian gesture, even as these valiant adults are the ones who really know what’s going on back at home, who understand their plight and are trying to keep the children healthy, taken care of, and as calm as possible.

At Frankfurter Buchmesse last month, for example, there wasn’t only an address from Volodymyr Zelensky, but the Ukrainian first lady, Olena Zelenska, made a visit to the trade show in person. There, she did an evening on-stage interview for adults, but her first event was to appear with Elke Büdenbender, wife of Germany’s federal president. The two first ladies’ focus was a fundraising campaign for refugee children, Better Time Stories. That program is backed not only by Zelenska and Büdenbender but also by Doris Schmidauer, first lady of Austria, and by Princess Laurentien van Oranje of the Netherlands.

Independent of the Ukraine crisis, this past weekend’s programming in Indonesia at the 33rd International Publishers Congress from the International Publishers Association included a discussion of reading promotion in many cultures. The focus immediately went to children. In developing the discussion, we tried to widen the perspective to include the fact that so many adults have left reading behind in a flight to the streamers and other entertainment. But there was little interest in talking about how to help adults find their way back to reading despite obvious attrition among adults who were formerly readers.

What About the Adults?

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Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

There’s of course little to say here by way of analysis or revelatory rationale. Sympathy and empathy run for many of us more easily to the plights of children in trouble than adults, even when it’s clear that adults have done nothing to create or deserve a catastrophe, and even when they’re the ones doing the heavy lifting of trying to face an enormous struggle while trying to care for those kids.

It would seem that the imaginative skills and expressive grace of people in book publishing might make them better able than others to recognize that an over-emphasis on children and overlooking the needs of adults is illogical and unnecessary. But it appears we’re not there yet. The projects for children keep rolling along.

Those projects are good. They are right. They’re generous. And they’re to be supported.

And what about the adults?

Have you seen other instances in which children are emphasized in cases of need and adults’ struggles are left unanswered? What do you think drives this? And why are book people seemingly so fixated on children’s aid in times of such obvious culture-wide stress as is happening in Ukraine and in refugee centers?

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives, the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com

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