Bologna Presentations: Worldwide Photography in Children’s Books and An Incredible New Award
I have a confession to make to you. This, as you can see, is the bookstore at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. It offers just the smallest, slightest sample of books on display at the fair:
With this embarrassment of riches, what could I have possibly purchased? So glad you asked! Honestly, I could easily have spent untold gobs of cash, but these were the things that truly stole my heart. The first, a version of The Little Prince illustrated by the incomparable Beatrice Alemagna. The second, this large, luscious, lovely board book:
And that second book? An honor winner of a very important award.
You see, 2023 marked the first year that Bologna awarded a special photography prize. The Bolognaragazzi Award 2023 Photography Special Category is notable for a number of reasons. First and foremost, recognition of photography as art has had an uphill climb for centuries, and I include children’s literature in that statement. So to see, of all places, the Bologna Book Fair recognize it as separate and important is nothing short of remarkable. Also notable? The jury. None other than our very own Junko Yokota, noted children’s literature scholar and a massively talented photographer (please check out her Instagram feed sometime for a thrill) served this year.
With all this in mind, I made special time to see a panel discussion consisting of Junko, author Flavia Bomfim, and Thierry Magnier, publisher of Editions Thierry Magnier.
The first person to speak was Flavia whose book had been an honor winner this year. She was the only creator present, speaking on behalf of her Brazilian publication O adeus do marujo (The Sailor’s Goodbye). The book tells with poetic verse the story of João Cândido Felisberto, a sailor and leader of the 1910 “Revolt of the Lash” (which is one of the better historical names I’ve encountered). Though he served in the Brazilian navy, João faced prejudice from the white sailors. After experiencing increased freedom in Newcastle, England for a time, he returned to have secret meetings with other sailors in the hopes of stopping the corporal punishment imposed in the Navy. The revolt officially began after a sailor received 250 lashes instead of the Navy regulated 25. After the revolt, the government swore to change things. Fun Fact: They were lying, and proceeded to imprison, torture, and kill the dissenters. João survived and today is cited as a hero of the Labor movement.
None of which I knew. None of which, I suspect, a lot of Americans know. And now we’ve a book about a Black Brazilian hero! But what I haven’t mentioned in any of this is the fact that in addition to her heroism, João was also an artist. He created embroideries during his lifetime. Here’s one:
This is where Flavia comes in. She saw these and had an incredible idea for a book. One that combines the texture of embroidery with the art of cyanotypes to tell this story. So she did her due diligence. She looked at his art and identified themes that she could pull from in her own embroidery. The bird, the flowers and plants, etc. Note how the bleeding heart from above appears multiple times below:
In integrating his art, Flavia explained that she felt she was collaborating with João to tell his story. She imagined she was sitting next to him, the two of them embroidering together.
Then she explained, in brief, her work transferring the photographs to fabric.
By the way, researching this turned out to be more tricky than you might think. Because he’s considered such a hero today, the government is not crazy about discussing their role in his torture. So to find information, which the government of Brazil has hidden, she had to go to those newspapers instead.
I was having a little difficulty understanding Flavia’s translator, but from what I can tell this book is one of a trilogy of titles. Also, it was important for her to touch on both the facts and the fables that have sprung up around this man over the years.
This image, in particular, was one to which Flavia ascribed the most importance:
It’s a moment when João is reading about the revolution. Flavia says, “It is important to put together the poetry and the reality of this moment.”
For my part, this was my own favorite picture. Just look at what she’s is doing with photography and thread:
Looking at these images, it occurred to me that much of what I love about this new award is that it opens itself up to photography in conjunction with other artistic mediums, and doesn’t restrict its winners to doing traditional photos alone.
So how has this book been received? Flavia explained that in Brazil she is often asked if she thinks this book is actually made for kids. After all, it’s covering a fairly harsh history. But she pointed out that while the Black Brazilian population is significant, their histories are rarely discussed in literature for children. It’s important for kids to see this man from their history and to know how he suffered to get them where they are today. It’s important for them to see his story.
Someone else in the audience chimed in, and pointed out that there’s been an increased understanding of his work as art in Brazil recently. Then someone from Ecuador said that finding books with Black heroes is difficult in her country as well, and that she’ll be using this book in her classroom in the future. Flavia noted, though, that when presenting this book to European publishers, they sometimes find the book “too specific” to Brazil to show any interest. That’s why, when Nami Island (remember when I told you about its amazing international children’s book festival?) told Flavia that she would be featured as part of their celebrations, she was amazed. The Nami Island organizers understood that a story specific to a country like Brazil is not a down side. In this case, it is an advantage.
The next book we discussed was another honor winner, and a very different change of pace. Cache-Cache Cauchemars by Jean Lecointre is (as the copy from the prize states): “The artist offers a very contemporary version of photomontage technique with his scanned, cut, assembled, and then digitally-coloured images. He plays with the ambiguous relationship that photography has with reality by transforming domestic environments into places of nightmare. In so doing Lecointre reveals the theater that is in the child’s mind whenever playing or dreaming, and transforms children’s fears into moments of humor.”
Publisher Thierry Magnier was quick to note right from the beginning that the medium reveals the fact that the book plays with what is and is not real. Of course, the truth of the matter is that photography has been used in children’s literature for a long time now. Still, Thierry had an interesting philosophy about the art. Photography for adults is disturbing because it touches on what is real and adults have a hard time with that. Illustrations, in contrast, are false, and adults have an easier time. But because adults are frightened of realism, that is why the artform of photography has never really taken off in children’s books.
As he spoke, it occurred to me that Mssr. Magnier’s photo philosophizing is perfectly conjoined to this tale of both terror and humor. Artist Jean Lecointre utilizes a kind of photo montage/collage technique to its best, dark advantage. In this story, children are usually the ones that best detect the monsters and ghosts all around us (like seeing a stain on the ceiling as monstrous). A young girl sees these things but her older brother tells her repeatedly that there are no monsters. They go all around the house until, finally, he’s convinced her. She falls into a sweet, dreamless sleep. Meanwhile, out her window, her brother is carried away by the very monsters he’s been claiming are not real. It’s the kind of story unafraid to touch on frightening things that folks like Sendak and Ungerer would have appreciated and it successfully pulls off that unnerving quality Magnier outlined. Of course what he wants to do most is establish a taste for photography in kids. Our visual culture even encourages them to do so. Think of the teens as they take photos with their iPhones all day long. Yet the books Magnier wants to make are the ones unafraid to use photography with fiction. The art doesn’t have to reflect reality.
At which point I had to jump away to attend another panel. I never got to hear Junko discuss the remaining two books, Qui veut jouer avec moi? (Who Wants to Play with Me?) by Claire Dé or Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams’s Photographs Reveal about the Japanese American Incarceration by Elizabeth Partridge and Lauren Tamaki. I’ve already reviewed the Patridge/Tamaki book in the past, so no worries there, but I just want to note briefly here (and I’ll be much longer in a different post soon) the importance of Qui veut jouer avec moi?
In my city we’ve a healthy Caribbean community, and more than once they’ve asked why we don’t have more children’s books in French. This remarkable board book is everything they’ve been asking for for younger children. I want desperately to keep it all to myself, but I will be donating it to the Evanston Public Library when I return to work on Monday so that loads more children can appreciate it the way that I have.
Because sometimes, photography is too important to ignore.
Filed under: Bologna Children's Book Fair
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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