The Lady with the Books: A Sto­ry Inspired by the Remark­able Work of Jel­la Lepman

Kathy Stin­son, Marie Lafrance (illus.)

  • Review
By – December 17, 2020

Most read­ers will not be famil­iar with the life of Jel­la Lep­man, the pio­neer advo­cate for children’s lit­er­a­cy who found­ed the Inter­na­tion­al Board on Books for Young Peo­ple (IBBY). A Jew­ish refugee from Nazi Ger­many, Lep­man returned to her home­land in 1945, com­mit­ted to mak­ing books acces­si­ble to Ger­man chil­dren. She viewed this task as essen­tial to pre­vent­ing future wars. The Lady with the Books is not a biog­ra­phy, but rather a fic­tion­al­ized hybrid. The basic facts of Lepman’s career are reflect­ed through the char­ac­ters of Anneliese and Peter, two Ger­man chil­dren for whom Lepman’s books bring a wel­come respite after the destruc­tion of the war years.

Lep­man chose to dis­tance her­self from her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on bet­ter­ing the lives of Ger­man chil­dren; many Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, work­ing as she did, with the Unit­ed States Army of Occu­pa­tion, devot­ed them­selves to help­ing the thou­sands of sur­viv­ing Jews liv­ing in dis­placed per­sons camps. Stin­son omits dis­cus­sion of Lepman’s eth­nic­i­ty in her sto­ry, although she does clear­ly iden­ti­fy Lep­man as Jew­ish in the book’s back­mat­ter. This beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed tale con­veys an impor­tant uni­ver­sal mes­sage of how books can make a dif­fer­ence in children’s lives.

Lafrance’s pic­tures show Ger­mans clear­ing rub­ble and expe­ri­enc­ing mate­r­i­al depri­va­tion. Anneliese and her moth­er stand in their kitchen; her moth­er gen­tly holds a large teapot while Anneliese dries a plate. A lim­it­ed col­or palette of only blue and brown gives a dream-like sense to the scene. Yet when the author remarks that the teapot had sur­vived the bomb­ing with just one dent,” young read­ers will have no way of know­ing that the bomb­ing was part of the Allies’ defeat of the Nazi regime. The author is aware of this con­tra­dic­tion by cre­at­ing a back­sto­ry about Anneliese and Peter’s fam­i­ly, in which their father had died while resist­ing the Nazis. While this would have made them an anom­aly with­in the Ger­man pop­u­la­tion, it does pro­vide an oppor­tu­ni­ty for read­ers to iden­ti­fy with sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters. When Lep­man reads the clas­sic pic­ture book The Sto­ry of Fer­di­nand to a group of chil­dren, Peter asso­ciates Fer­di­nand the bull’s paci­fism with his own experience.

The book exhi­bi­tion which Lep­man orga­nized even­tu­al­ly became a per­ma­nent affair known as the Book Cas­tle” in Munich, hous­ing a world-class col­lec­tion and ref­er­ence library of children’s lit­er­a­ture. When Anneliese and Peter vis­it the hall of books, they are over­whelmed by the rich­es they find there. Lep­man is depict­ed as a kind and ele­gant old­er woman, while the books in the back­ground are delib­er­ate­ly gener­ic, with styl­ized let­ter­ing which does not cor­re­spond to any actu­al alpha­bet. When the chil­dren return home, even their bed­time sto­ries and dreams are filled with fan­tasies derived from their vis­its to the book hall.

In read­ing this book with chil­dren, care­givers and edu­ca­tors, espe­cial­ly those in a Jew­ish set­ting, will want to raise ques­tions about his­to­ry and fic­tion, and to intro­duce age appro­pri­ate infor­ma­tion about World War II and the hero­ic efforts to return Jew­ish books and rit­u­al objects to their com­mu­ni­ties. In a detailed after­word, Stin­son describes Lepman’s lega­cy of advo­ca­cy for chil­dren and the pow­er of books to effect change. She writes that Lep­man was giv­en the job of help­ing Ger­man chil­dren whose lives had been so bad­ly dis­rupt­ed.” Stin­son and Lafrance’s book is a reminder that Anneliese and Peter are also vic­tims of Nazism, and their sto­ry can be the begin­ning of a valu­able conversation.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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