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ILB 2022

Christoph Rieger: “A good book is a good book”

Christoph Rieger, who runs ILB’s International Children’s and Young Adult Literature section, on this year's festival highlights.

Christoph Rieger has run the ILB’s International Children’s and Youth Literature section since 2011. Photo: Nora Mengel

The Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin (ILB) is a festival designed for the whole city – and that includes those Berliner*innen who are not yet completely grown up. Every year, the festival includes an impressively diverse programme of events geared towards children and young adults, often including guest appearances by headline acts from the festival’s adult wing. Multilingual, diverse and participatory, the ILB youth programme brings the spirit of the festival to the city’s kleine Leseratten via school events and public readings.

As the ILB begins its second bumper week of programming, we caught up with Christoph Rieger – the Potsdam native who has run the ILB’s International Children’s and Young Adult Literature section since 2011 – to hear about what young people and their parents can still look forward to seeing.

Congratulations on a great opening to the festival! How was the launch?

We had a wonderful start, with a keynote address by the American writer Angeline Boulley. She is a Native writer from the States, and something special about her is that she made her literary debut at the age of 55 – so it took her many, many years to get her first book on the market. The book, Firekeeper’s Daughter, is very special because it’s a story written by someone who actually has a Native background. And in the children’s book market in the US, it’s still not so easy for Native authors to get published.

She won a lot of awards for it, and the Obamas’ production company is now producing a Netflix series. So she gave a very inspiring speech on the main stage. Then, on the weekend, we had a huge reading celebration at die Gelbe Villa with illustrators and writers from all over the world presenting their new picture books. This week we are looking forward to many more events, mostly here at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

We’re not sitting here in some ivory tower: everything goes back to the audience.

Is there anything particularly special about this year’s programme?

One absolute difference is Corona. The last two festivals were really complicated when it came to hosting so many people at the same time. This year, we are just really happy to be back on these huge stages where we can hold professional readings for hundreds of people. It’s really special.

When it comes to formats, every year is special because we have, on the one hand, readings for huge crowds at the Berliner Festspiele, and on the other hand these workshops where conductors from different artistic disciplines – slam poetry, rapping, acting and so on – come in to work with school classes on topics that are in the books. After the workshop, the author will come and the workshop participants will present what they came up with. As an international writer, if you come to Berlin and see one of these presentations based on your book, it is always very special. So doing all this without Covid restrictions is a relief.

What are some of the highlights still to come?

There are so many! We have an event with Bernardine Evaristo, where she will present Girl, Woman, Other in front of almost 1000 young people – although it has already sold out. As a children’s programme, we are very privileged to be a part of the main festival because, from time to time, we can pick some writers from their programme and ask them if they would like to do something for young adults. So we are very excited to see her speak about the topics raised in her book with this audience.

We also have a British writer who is performing – his name is Sam Thompson and he wrote a wonderful book called Wolfstongue. It is a very philosophical book, which on first glance just seems to be about on a young boy who has difficulties speaking, but if you look closer, you find that it tells much about exclusion, the power of language and overcoming boundaries. There will be hundreds of schoolchildren coming.

Multilingual, diverse and participatory, the ILB youth programme brings the spirit of the festival to the city’s young readers via school events and public readings. Photo: Sánchez, Geisler, Stommen, Wiesner Photo © Bernhard Ludewig

What else?

Then we have a wonderful artist from Switzerland named Lika Nüssli, who will be presenting on Wednesday and Thursday. She wrote and illustrated a wonderful comic with the name Starkes Ding (Strong Thing”), it’s not been translated into English. This is a very personal story about her father who, when he was a child in Switzerland, was working as one of these Verdingkinder, a child who would be sold from one farming family to another in order to work for them.

I mean, a good book – a good comic, a good picture book – is worth reading no matter how old you are.

This comic is a very moving reconstruction of the father’s experiences, and you learn a lot about one dark chapter of Swiss history. A third highlight is an illustrator from Spain – his name is Tàssies. His book is called Noms Rabat, which means “Stolen Names”, although it hasn’t been translated into English yet. It is a very, very artistic book, and it handles bullying and its consequences in a way that not so many children’s books or pictures books are dealing with it.

It seems unique that children and young people can come to the ILB and see top adult authors doing events just for them…

Yes, it’s very special. Having all these wonderful writers here at the festival anyway makes it much easier for us to organise. Of course, we always check which writers would work well and which topics would be interesting for us to cover. Every year we will pick some great authors to do it, and the interest among young people is usually huge, because of course the topics in these books are interesting to teenagers. I also think the labels of “children’s literature” and “young adult literature”, they help to sell books but, I mean, a good book, a good comic, a good picture book is worth reading no matter how old you are. A good book is a good book.

The lineup is very international, and not just with authors working in English. Is that important for young people to encounter?

Absolutely. In the children’s market for books in translation, of course, most of the translations are from English and especially from the US. And that’s fine. But there are also many translations from other languages, and it’s very important to us to represent these different languages. At our events, if the author is not a native English or German speaker, we really try to let them also speak in their mother tongue – which does mean having a translator on stage, but I love it when the audience gets to say, wow, this is how Norwegian sounds, this is how Catalan sounds. What makes the festival so rich is having so many different languages come together.

How do you design the programme?

For me, the book fairs are very important – Leipzig, Frankfurt, the Bologna children’s book fair. With Corona, it changed a bit, but the traveling is starting again. We also have strong connections to almost all the German children’s publishers, and many international publishers, just to see what they are planning. It is a huge network of people that I speak with, and I get a lot of recommendations. And then it is my task as manager to make a selection that is artistically interesting and diverse, but that also works for young people. Every year, I will read around 400 to 450 books to see if they are interesting for us.

Of course, this is only half the job – the other half is trying to organise an actual festival that makes people excited and want to come. We are not sitting here in some ivory tower: everything goes back to the audience. If we get the crowds, then we know it’s working out. And we talk to the teachers afterwards – we want to be sure that everything is working for the younger audiences. That’s really our goal, to have an event where young people afterwards say, “Okay, maybe I was forced by my teacher to go to the Literature Festival – but then it was really inspiring, it was funny, it made me see something differently.” When that happens, that’s how we know that we’ve chosen the right book and the right writer.