Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) fought off competition from 245 illustrious candidates from 68 countries and regions to land the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) for children’s literature.

With a prize of five million Swedish kronor (A$725,000) the ALMA is the largest award of its kind in the world and is given annually to a person or organisation for their outstanding contribution to children’s and young adult literature.

There have been two previous Australian winners of the prize – author Sonya Hartnett in 2008 and writer and artist Shaun Tan in 2011.

ILF works with remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities nationwide, is community-led, and responds to requests from remote Communities for culturally relevant books, including early learning board books, resources, and programs to support Communities to create and publish their stories in languages of their choice.

ILF CEO Ben Bowen, says the Foundation grew out of a stark need for books within Communities and was originally mostly concerned with raising funds and getting books shipped into those remote Communities.

“It’s evolved from that premise, so while we’re delivering 130,000 books a year into about 400 different Communities, we’re now also doing work with those Communities around publishing stories in either their home languages or bilingually,” he says.

“So they’re telling original stories, and having them published for commercial reasons as well to generate income, and they also can do translation work – so they may choose to work on a book like, for example, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and look to translate that into a home language to support their own literacy and education needs.”

The announcement was made in a program broadcast live from Stockholm on Tuesday into the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy. 

A former professional triathlete and fitness coach, Bowen is a proud Aboriginal man, a descendent of the Wiradjuri Nation with family links to the Gandangara, Dharrawal and Yuin Nations.

Born and raised on the Gadigal and Wangal lands of the Sydney basin, he has worked nationally and internationally, collaborating with both Indigenous Communities and government to create opportunities in education, health and economic development.

This is the third time ILF has been shortlisted for the award, the last time it was nominated was 2014, and its success this year, Bowen says, is an acknowledgement of just how far they’ve come.

“It’s really showing the maturity of the organisation now, the work that we’re doing in creating that safe, culturally valuable Indigenous publishing place,” Bowen says.

“Originally we were using label makers to translate books and do that sort of work for us, and now they have turned into commercially viable books where, for example, our head of publishing was in Bologna this week for the Prize announcement, and she’s talking to international agents about global rights for selling these books overseas now.

“So it’s gone from ‘let’s capture stories’ to ‘how do we really show the value of these stories and share the value of languages more broadly?’”

The jury, Bowen says, were impressed that ILF is not a deficit organisation, but that it is focused on the strength and the impact of getting the amount of books they are getting out.

“But not just any books, culturally relevant books,” Bowen says.

“And the fact that we’re sourcing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creators in these large booklets is generating a marketplace for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islanders in the publishing industry.

“So we’re having this bigger footprint than what the organisation size stipulates.”

ILF works in more than 400 Communities. “Our focus is really not so much the capacity development, it’s about how do we collaborate and how do we unlock what Communities already have and then enable that,” CEO Ben Bowen says.

Bowen says the award is an acknowledgement that the eyes of the world are on the way ILF and its Communities have been able to turn oral languages into published written word, while still maintaining the integrity of the language and the culture.

“So that’s the piece where we’re world-leading - oral-based Indigenous Communities around the world are all looking to see how they can apply what we’re doing in their own contexts.”

Bowen says all involved with ILF are deeply honoured to receive the award.

“It’s hard to actually capture the impact of it,” he says.

“We all got together to celebrate this afternoon and it was a conversation that we’ve been having for probably 10 years now.

“We know we’re doing an amazing piece of work, and we're privileged enough to be working with Communities on this space.

“We often say that we feel privileged to be paid to be doing this sort of work, so for it to be acknowledged on this global stage is something we can't actually really capture the impact of that.”

With regards to Indigenous rights, Bowen says Australians often look to New Zealand or the United States or Canada around treaties and progress, “and there’s always this conversation that these guys are a ways further down the road”.

“But we’ve been saying for a period of time, the work that Communities are doing in this language space, is world-leading – and the ALMA Award acknowledges that.

“We shouldn’t be looking elsewhere in the world for this sort of stuff, we’re doing it right at home.

“It’s not just an accolade for us as an organisation, but also the volunteers and communities and elders that all shape the work that we’re doing.

The prize funds will be used to support the ongoing ambition of the ILF to support Community literacy aspiration through publishing and providing culturally relevant books and resources. PHOTO: Wayne Quilliam

Bowen says any success the organisation has is down to its connection with those it serves.

“Throughout the lifetime of the ILF, we have had the privilege of being invited into Community and entrusted to support their aspirations through providing culturally relevant books and literacy resources and publishing their stories in the language they choose,” he says.

“This isn’t possible without the support of our donors, supporters, volunteers, Ambassadors and Community partners that enable an organisation of around 30 staff to support literacy in over 400 remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.”

In the wake of a devastating referendum result for many Indigenous Australians, the prize win is another indicator of the tireless and life-changing work being done around the country.

“Literacy is a fundamental human right for everyone … and shouldn’t just be bound to language, it really needs to be that process of a skill set that can open the world to people,” Bowen says.

“And, look, we’re having this conversation, post referendum, and people keep saying, ‘what are we going to do in response?’

“We’re not responding to a referendum, we’re staying in the space that we’ve always been championing or had a vision of where we want to go.

Bowen says his organisation is simply still on that path – and any successes come off the back of many generations of hard work and insightful leadership.

“That momentum is just building all the time,” he says.

“So, it is an amazing time for us, and hugely opportunistic time for us to be in positions of leadership and be able to have some impact in this space.”

For more details about Indigenous Literacy Foundation, click here, and for more information on the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, click here.