The Bologna Breakdown: What Exactly Is the Bologna Children’s Book Fair?
When I was a young librarian, newly minted, I had a crazy dream. Essentially, I wanted to create an organization or a website or maybe even a conference that could bring together all the different aspects of children’s literature. Imagine, if you will, a place where children’s librarians, teachers, scholars of children’s books, international enthusiasts, collectors of books, bloggers, reviewers, authors, illustrators, publishers, agents, and more, could all come together in one spot to appreciate, celebrate, and discuss children’s literature in all its myriad forms. Such an idea still does not exist, but at least there is one place in the world where, at the very least, there is a bit more of a meeting of the minds when it comes to children’s books than you might find elsewhere.
Welcome to The Bologna Children’s Book Fair!
As mentioned yesterday, I’m currently at the Bologna Book Fair in Italy. It is the world’s largest international rights fair for children’s literature.
All well and good, you say, but “international rights”? So… what, it’s just a bunch of agents and editors talking shop, trying to sell books to other agents and editors in other countries? Ah, yup. That’s precisely what it is.
Why then would a children’s librarian care diddly over squat about the whole affair? Sounds deeply boring, doesn’t it? I’d agree with you too, except the Bologna Book Fair has in the last few decades grown to be so much more than simply about selling rights. It did not take long after its inception for people to realize that this fair provides a marvelous opportunity for the meeting of minds. As such, the Fair has grown to provide this amazing mecca for children’s literature enthusiasts, the like of which you simply cannot find anywhere else.
To get your mind around the fair itself, it’s helpful to get an understanding of all the different parts. Now I’ve already mentioned the rights aspect, and that’s clearly on display. You don’t have to travel far to see men and women in suits at tiny tables discussing sales and e-rights and god knows what all (and they’ll have to forgive me this exercise in vague summaries of their jobs since, as I say, I don’t really understand it all). But there are a lot of other parts to the fair and they break down in this way:
- Art Shows
- Panel Discussions and Presentations
- Masterclasses and Workshops
That’s a rough simplification but it gives you a bit of an idea. Let’s tackle each one.
Art Shows – This was by far my favorite part of the fair the last time I visited. Art exhibits abound at the Bologna Book Fair and can be easily broken down into the following categories:
- The Illustrators Wall: Essentially, this is a free-for-all. A marvelous cacophony of illustrative talents. Some published. Some not. Imagine if SCBWI at one of their annual conferences allowed any illustrator who wanted to, the chance to display their art on a gigantic wall, hundreds of feet long. I don’t know that it necessarily leads to anyone getting published, but there’s something to be said for the democracy of it all, don’t you think? Sad you can’t see it? Don’t be. These days they also have a Virtual Illustrators Wall for you to peruse. The artists representing America are particularly fascinating.
- Art from this year’s featured country – Every year a single country is selected. Back in 2011 it was Lithuania. This year, it is Sharjah I will confess to you that I didn’t know much about this country prior to learning of their honor. Small research, however, led to this statement on the site of the Sharjah Book Authority:
“There’s a story about His Highness Sheikh Doctor Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah.
When Sheikh Sultan was a boy his father, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Saqr Al Qasimi (may God grant him mercy,) gave him a golden dagger as a gift. Now, Sheikh Sultan had a deep reverence for books. So much so that at 12 years old he mortgaged that dagger, that priceless family heirloom, to buy books.
It is that enthusiasm in the search for knowledge that drives us.”
There is just so much to pick apart here. The golden dagger. The fact he mortgaged it at 12.
But back to the exhibit, this should prove fascinating. It’s a chance to see art that probably will never make it to the States. For me, that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.
- Artwork and Book Exhibitions – Then there’s the other art, strategically placed, showing illustrations from all over the world. Generally speaking, Americans do not show up much in these exhibits. I originally believed that this was because they don’t submit their work. I mean, the last time I came to Bologna I saw art for the book Jemmy Button, a book that would be officially published in the States two years or so later. However, I was relieved of the notion that Americans aren’t submitted thanks to a new feature. A room in Bologna’s Salaborsa library is, this year, hosting the thousands of books submitted for the 2022 BolognaRagazzi Award. And, surprise! There are a lot of familiar American faces in there. Yet the sole American in the final list of 2022 Winning Illustrators is a Ms. Tilda Rose. You can find the Illustrators Exhibition info here as well as a whole host of exhibitions. The info on the Braw Amazing Bookshelf submissions is here.
Awards – The star of the show. Now the great big, gigantic award that is most important is the BolognaRagazzi Award. Last time, in sweet foolishness, I assumed that any book that won this highly sought off prize would receive an automatic pass to be published in America. With bated breath I waiting for that year’s winner, a cinematic noir take on Aesop’s Fables, to appear in the States. I’m still waiting. This year, I’ve no confidence that the winners will ever come Stateside but by gum I’ll try to let you know about them, just in case.
BolognaRagazzi may be the beautiful baby everyone talks about, but other awards abound. Americans, as it happens, do rather well when it comes to the Astrid Lindgren Award (which is the largest monetary award given to a children’s book creator in the world) and the Hans Christian Andersen Award (this year’s committee was headed up by American and fellow Evanston-resident Junko Yokota), as well as a host of smaller ones as well. You can see the full listing of awards here.
Panel Discussions and Presentations – You know how when you attend a conference, say PLA or ALA or TLA, there are just so many amazing panels going on that you feel you’re only seeing the slightest sliver of them all? Multiply that feeling by a thousand you’ll have an appreciation for what goes on in Bologna. Even before I left America I made a list of some of the ones I wanted to see. Here’s a smattering what I wrote (and bear in mind that this was even before I got the full catalog of what will be on offer):
Innovators of African publishing – On policies, investments and programmes underway to innovate and promote African publishing; In their own words: storytelling to protect vanishing African languages
Authors Café – On the role of governments, publishers and authors in preserving and promoting endangered indigenous languages, given the primary role played by children’s publishing in coping with this loss; and Developing African reading culture beyond the classroom
Authors Café – On the commitment required of governments, booksellers, teachers, publishers and families in spreading the culture of reading to the new generations.
1:00 – Accessible books to give everyone the opportunity to read
1:30 – Yuval Noah Harari will be at the Illustrators Cafè – to announce his new project for pre-teens.
2:00 – Is the round table International (online) Conference of Independent Children’s Bookshops, with a focus entirely devoted to the global comics market.
You see my problem?
Masterclasses and Workshops – These may not be as pertinent for me. From what I can tell, a lot of these are directed at other artists. I will, however, look in to them in terms of figuring out if any are useful to children’s authors. Often they feature creators from other countries whose works actually have made it to American shores. Still, not sure how useful something like How to Self-Publish in Italy may be to me in the end, though.
Booths – Booths, I repeat! Now these are swell. Basically, you get to look at books from other countries on display in different booths. I will be using my time to create a post for you that will be entitled something like BOOKS THAT NEED TO COME TO AMERICA or some such. I’ll provide as much publication information as possible. And maybe, just maybe, some scrappy little publisher will see what I’ve displayed and take an interest. Hey, it could happen!
Gelato – And it is at this point that I confess to you that I’ve a bit of an ace up my sleeve. Lest you fear that poor Betsy is all alone in Bologna and must dine alone every evening at the ungodly hour of 9 p.m., this is not the case. I mean, the dining at 9 p.m. will probably be true (try eating here at 7 sometime and witness the expressions of utter and complete bafflement that accompany such attempts) but not so much the lonesome part. For you see, I have myself the best possible companion to guide me, introduce me, and generally help me out.
Americans, by and large, are nationalistic. I’m sorry, but it’s true. In the children’s book world we do very little to reach out to nations abroad. We do not submit our art to the Bologna Book Fair. We rarely translate other nations (and when we do it’s overwhelmingly from two continents along: Europe and Asia). Oh sure we have our own branch of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) here in the States, have you joined yet? Do you yourself read Bookbird, the international publication of children’s literature, with any regularity? If not, why not?
You may recall Junko Yokota, mentioned previously in this post as having headed up the Hans Christian Andersen Award this year. Junko’s different. She is the very rare individual capable of heading up a Caldecott Award committee one year and an international committee another. She has visited more international children’s libraries than anyone else I know. Here’s a story: When I moved to Evanston, IL I did not realize until the gears were in place that Junko and her wonderful husband Bill Teale were residents of the same town. After I arrived, I confessed to Junko that in an act of sheer hubris I had agreed (foolish girl) to write a chapter on “Illustrated Picturebooks” (if “picturebooks” is all one word then it’s an international concept, FYI) for a scholarly publication. I was, suffice to say, out of my depth. Junko, however, took one look at the project and saved my proverbial hide by co-authoring it with me. For this, I owe her my life.
So, naturally, when I found out that the Bologna Book Fair’s press office was offering me a free ride to town, I asked Junko if she would be there. Not only was she coming but she immediately proceeded to set me up with meetings with people from all over the world. With any luck, I’ll be able to tell you more quite soon.
Of course, amongst her other talents, Junko is an expert on Italian gelato. This is important. Without copious gelato, I do not know that my reports would be adequately accurate. And accuracy, as I’m sure you know, is key.
My job, now, is to do a bit of analysis. The last time I attended this fair I was seven months pregnant and the year was 2011. How have things changed in the interim? What has been added? What has changed for the better? For the worse?
Want to join me virtually? There’s live streaming of a lot of the presentations, conferences, meetings, etc. here. Granted, there’s also a heckuva time change, but if you happen to find yourself up at 3 in the morning, join us! It could be fun!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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