What I learnt from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Bologna Children's Book Fair

I’m sitting in a little cafe in the centre of Bologna. I’ve just drank the best coffee I’ve ever had from Caffe Terzi and soon I’ll be catching a plane back to my family.

The last couple of days have been overwhelming and wonderful in equal parts. The fair itself was ENORMOUS! More than five huge pavilions populated with stand after stand of children’s books. I just need to sit here for a moment, and process it all.

It’s hard to relate the whole experience, but I can give you a little impression.

Things I learnt at Bologna Children’s Book Fair, 2016

The children’s book industry is serious business

While you probably have a few favourite children’s books you read with your kids, and many of those books are likely to be fun, silly, sweet and cute, behind the scenes is a WORLD of people wheeling, dealing, collaborating and working hard to bring children’s books to life. The fair wasn’t really for authors, though authors and illustrators have a fine time soaking it all in and making connections. It’s primarily for publishers and agents to meet with each other and showcase work in a bid to sell international rights for their books.

Publishers and even some agents spent thousands building impressive stands, and displaying the best of their work. They spent each day of the fair in meetings, and probably the evenings as well. Many of these meetings are planned for months. Next week is London Book Fair, and many pay even more to relocate their stand to London and do it all over again.

It’s no wonder it’s serious business. Children’s book sales make up a significant portion of the publishing economy, and sales increase each year. Titles like the Tree House series, Wimpy Kid series and of course most books by Julia Donaldson take in millions of dollars each year. Even in The Netherlands the new Tree House book by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton came in at Number 1 of all books, not just children’s.

My husband often comments that we shouldn’t get all hung up on things in relation to kids books. They are books for kids, after all. Not so serious. But I’m not so sure. I think it is serious business, encouraging children to read and reading to kids. Children’s books are instrumental to their language development, but also make a significant contribution to their emotional development and the way they see the world. And reading together with kids form an irreplaceable bond between you. Of course the children’s books themselves don’t have to be serious…but that’s a whole other conversation.

The children’s book industry is huge

Being at the fair made me feel like a tiny drop in a giant ocean. Of the thousands of stalls at the fair and the hundreds of books on their shelves, most publishers only display their latest and/or greatest books. And as there is another fair next week in London, not all publishers were at the fair.

For every book published, there is an author, illustrator, editor, publisher, designer, marketing team, international rights team and countless others. That’s a lot of people involved in the making of each book. And that’s not even mentioning the digital book world.

There were huge stalls from Slovenia, Romania, Brazil, Korea, and of course Germany, Italy, China, UK, US and France. And Australia had their little corner.

There are many talented illustrators in the world

The fair is largely for illustrated books. There is fiction, apps, toys etc but illustration is the focus. There are so many talented illustrators out there. I loved the Cambridge School of Art stand. These Masters students aren’t even published and yet the handmade books they created for the fair were a stand out.

Many of these students, and yet to be published illustrators walked around the fair with their portfolios in the hope of being picked up. I admire their courage, to hand over their portfolio over and over. Many were met with a straight up no. One French illustrator I met said that in her first presentation, her illustration was heavily critiqued. And yet there she was, lining up for another critique.

Here’s a clip of some of the illustrations trending at the moment, taken from the illustration exhibition.


After being at the fair for two days, I have a clear picture of the kind of illustration I like. It’s beautiful. Artful. Transcends. Often quite abstracted. Usually handmade (rather than digital). Often fine. The stuff I like is heavily represented in Europe, particularly France, Italy and Spain. I hadn’t realised how much of the world of illustration I’d been missing until now!

I studied art history and worked in a contemporary art gallery for a number of years. For me, children’s illustration is probably my favourite art form. It’s unpretentious and is not self-referential in the way much art is. You don’t need a university degree to understand and experience emotion when looking at a good illustration. Even if you don’t understand the story {which in the case of the fair, I often didn’t as it was in another language}, you can be transported by a children’s illustration. You can be moved to tears.

The book that won the Bolognaragazzi award for fiction, for instance, was written in French, I think. But it didn’t matter. I stood in the stand, the hairs on my neck standing as I read. Or looked. On each page, a mother holds her son. To begin with, she is enormous and he is tiny. And by the end, he is enormous and she is tiny. He is holding her. It’s a story about life, and it speaks to every age group and every culture in a very simple yet profound way.

Bologna Children's Book Fair

Another book I read, or looked at, could have done away with words entirely. It was about two rabbit families. One above ground and one under. The above ground family see the top of the carrot as a flower growing. The underground family see the carrot as food. It’s really simple and funny and clever.

There is a notable difference between Australia/US/UK books and those from Europe, Asia and the Middle East

Not that one is better than the other, but I did notice a difference between the Anglo market and others. There were the very commercial stands, like Lego, Warner Bros etc. from America. But it wasn’t just that. European and other countries presented many more obscure, whimsical, subtle and artful children’s books. I am intrigued whether these are the books that appeal to children in these regions. And whether this affects their cultural mentality growing up. Hopefully with all these International rights being sold, we will have access to some of this subtle, artful beauty.

Children’s illustration is about so much more than simply drawing a picture of the text

When my book was coming out, many people asked if I was illustrating it myself. No way, was my answer. It’s a privilege to have my story illustrated by a professional.

Some people study illustration for years, and even then there is no guarantee you will be published.

Good illustration uses many techniques to depict a story, and importantly, emotion. Space. Perspective. Colour. Shape. For example, to depict a poignant moment in a story, such as how a child feels when they first arrive at school, the child may be made very small, and the school very big. The school may be in grey hues, and the child in colour. Their expression may only be depicted in a few lines, but capturing the right emotion for the moment is very important.


There is all this, then there is developing a signature style, so your book is identifiable on the shelves. You’d probably recognise the work of Axel Sheffler (Gruffalo) or Oliver Jeffers, hence their appeal. But the thousands of other books out there? Each so beautiful. Each crafted over such a long time. Standing out isn’t easy.

As a picture book author, my challenge is to step back and allow the illustrator to tell the story through pictures. And it is a challenge, because I love words and language, particularly dialogue, so much.

Children’s books aren’t just for children

In fact, many I saw weren’t really for children at all, they were so dark and complex.

But I already knew this. As a lover and collector of children’s books, I know that a good children’s book will appeal to everyone. It can be accessed at many levels, and many ages.

Dr Seuss is still the biggest seller in the US. And the best selling book? Oh The Places You Will Go. Primarily the book, and associated quote paraphernalia, are sold as presents for graduates.

I’m all for introducing kids to books that are mature and sophisticated. I feel that somehow that quality seeps into them, in a good way. It extends and challenges them and feeds their imagination. I have strong memories of poring through an illustrated book of Faeries. Not the Disney kind. The dark, Irish folklore kind. And I loved it.

Italy is a good place for a children’s book fair, or any fair for that matter

Not only do I have a legitimate reason to wander around Bologna for three days, having a fair in Italy means that Italians run the coffee and snack bar. I had several proper Italian coffees a day, because they were only about 1.30 euro each. And lunch was a choice between delicious pizza, panini, or focaccia.

I may have stopped by the gelato bar at some point.

Walking past thousands and thousands of books, looking at as many as you can possibly look at, is surprisingly draining. So sitting in the sun in the car park eating pizza was a really nice break.

Bologna Children's Book Fair

Slacks, flats and scarves are in {at least in the publishing industry}

I’m pretty sure I was one of the only people in a dress. Most ladies wore cut off black or navy slacks and brogue style shoes. When it was cooler in the morning and evening, big silk scarves were wrapped around necks. It’s been a while since I’ve worn pants, but am starting to think I should get into it! Random segue?

Bologna Children's Book Fair

Two days is enough, at least for me

After seeing so many books, and people, I was exhausted at the end of each day. At some point there is only so much you can take in. By 3pm on the second day, I’d walked every corridor and was full to the brim with inspiration, I quit and ventured into the city for {more} gelato and {more} vintage.

Would I come again? Ah, that’s a yes. If I can. I’m so fortunate to be living in Europe this year, and have access to such an amazing event. Will I be going to London Book Fair on Monday? Um, that’s a no. I think I’m going to need at least a year to process everything I’ve seen!

If you more from the fair, check out Chazda’s blog. She’ll be covering the fair.

Thursday Talk & Tea with Edwina Wyatt

It’s been a little while since I talked and tea-ed with a children’s author. But then, my good friend Edwina Wyatt’s new book Always Together was released this month, and I couldn’t resist asking Edwina a few questions.

By way of introduction, I met Edwina on my book tour last year. She too had recently published her first picture book. Edwina and I have been emailing ever since, and she is an absolute support, and beacon in the children’s book world for me. She’s my rock.

And it so happens, she makes really lovely books. Like her new book, Together Always, illustrated by Lucia Masciullo (Little Hare), which is a profound little story of two friends, Pig and Goat.

Pouring tea now…

Edwina Wyatt children's author

Edwina, you write stories for young people. What does storytelling mean to you?

To steal a phrase – stories make us care.

That’s a good thing to be a part of.

What process do you use to find a new story?

I start with a feeling, a word or a line that has been rolling around for a while, then I follow it on the page. Often these words don’t come at the beginning of the story, rather somewhere in the middle and I work my way around them. Clearly not a plotter!

Sometimes I will force myself to write a line and see if I can make myself interested in it. More times than not, I can’t, and it is only cringe worthy self consciousness that comes of it. But then there are those other times when creativity feeds creativity. For me, writing feels a bit like those moments when you force a smile or a laugh – awkward at first, but if you commit to it, it somehow becomes real.

Your books are very subtle, and elegant. A Haiku almost. Possibly deceptively simple! Am I right about the deception part?

Thank you for saying so! I suppose I am always striving to create a balance between simplicity and depth. I want to write books that are accessible but I never want to write ‘down’ to children.

The picture books that I love to read are multilayered; you can take as little or as much out of them as you need, and they keep giving on closer inspection.

Perhaps we can substitute the concept of deception with attention to detail?

Top of mind is the ‘evening’ motif running through my picture book In the Evening. This has significance to me, since it was intended to mirror the interior life of Oscar: a character suspended between the light and the dark in himself – the worthy and the unworthy – and so it extends the theme of transformation.

I also felt that the symbol of the gloaming or blue hour, as painters call it, was a nice foil for the story since it is tricky to decipher what is ending and what is beginning; another theme that I wanted to play with.

Together Always

Together Always is your latest book. Where did the seed for this story originate from?

I started with these lines:

Together in the cold.

Together in the dark.

It did not feel so cold or so dark.

The lines were a response to a question that I was pondering and I wove a story around them to see if I could find an answer. Those lines were ultimately cut from the story by the editorial team who felt that they had a negative effect on the tone of the story – making it too sombre.

You work. You have a child. How do you find time to be creative?

Yes, and another on the way!

For me, the stolen moments are always the most appealing and productive, creatively.  I find the idea of an extended period of time dedicated purely to writing to be immobilising. Adrenaline and sleep deprivation seem to have the surprising effect of pushing self-awareness to the side; the writing is more authentic and less indulgent as a consequence.

Where do you write?

Anywhere and everywhere.

But I have great faith in the powers of the kitchen table to aid both procrastination and creativity; not always mutually exclusive when there is tea involved!

Tell me about five of your favourite things in life.

In no particular order…






What are your creative hopes for the future?

To keep at it.

To grow a thicker skin.

To write something that an illustrator finds stimulating and nourishing to bring to life rather than it being purely work. It is this creative ‘conversation’ with an artist that is one of the best parts of it all for me – what a privilege to have your words interpreted and extended in ways you could never have imagined!

You can buy Together Always here. And visit Edwina’s website here to learn more about her other beautiful books.

Children’s books to read at Christmas time

The tree is lit. The advent calendar is nearly complete. Children speak of Santa wishes, and adults wrap fervently into the night.

Our choir has been doing the rounds – the plaza, the shopping centre and Bunnings – carolling down the aisles and making people smile, while the sausage sizzle tickles nostrils.

love this time of year.

When I was a kid, we used to watch Christmas movies on TV. They played the same ones every year – probably still do. These days, we read Christmas stories with the children – the European dream of Christmas seeps into your blood and soul, and sweet Christmassy stories make hearts burn.

We have a bunch of favourites. These are books we love.

stories to read at christmas

Count my Christmas Kisses by Ruthie May & Tamsin Ainslee

The Nutcracker retold by Margrete Lamond & Ritva Voutila

What Do You Wish For? by Jane Godwin & Anna Walker

The Twelve Days of Christmas by Alison Jay

The Poky Little Puppy’s First Christmas a Little Golden Book

The Nights Before Christmas illustrated by Tony Ross

Have you got any favourite Christmas books to get you and the children in the Christmassy mood? 

Children’s Books We Love :: October

On the last day of October, we did something I’ve never done before – trick or treat! It was actually really fun dressing up with the kids, and roaming the child-friendly suburbs in the late afternoon. There was a sense of nervous anticipation, knocking on strangers’ doors. I half expected to have our heads bitten off {not in the zombie like way – more the cranky neighbour type way}, but fortunately there was none of that. If people weren’t into it, they shut their blinds. And if they were, there were plenty of indications, like the hollowed out pumpkin on the doorstep, or the cobwebbed hedge.

One thing I liked about it, was that it was a night of drawing random people together. You bumped into and talked to people you wouldn’t otherwise interact with, and because it was all in the name of childish fun, people were open and playful. I liked that a lot.

The point of all that is that it is the end of October! And the beginning of the new month. And when not roaming the streets of Lennox Heads with my kids, dressed as a zombie bride, I was snuggled on the couch, reading a lot of good books. Here are some we liked. Click on the images to purchase.

the 5 misfits The 5 Misfits by Beatrice Alemagna

We loved this slightly weird and kooky story of five misfits, who are on the fringes of society. One day, their oddness is challenged by The Perfect One, who came from who knows where, and has the most sublime head of hair. The Perfect One finds fault in the misfits, but it helps them see what makes them special. Alemagna’s illustrations are so striking, and gorgeous, and distinctive. I love the smattering of fluro pink, and the almost 70s Golden Book quality. Watch this very cute animation.

the wonder garden

The Wonder Garden by Kristjana S Williams and Jenny Broom

I have been thinking lately I’d like to have a good encyclopaedia, so we can look up animals and information when my daughter asks questions, rather than looking at the iPad. Then this exquisite book fell into my hands. It’s hard to capture its beauty in a simple digital scan, but if you see this book in the flesh, you will understand its attraction. It is large, and gold shimmers on its cover. The pages are full of luscious colourful depictions of five of the most beautiful, amazing places on earth, with all their wonderful secrets. The book is knowledge, but it is also so much more.

Perfect by danny parker and freya blackwood

Perfect by Danny Parker and Freya Blackwood

I ‘met’ this lovely book months ago, when it was still in its conception. The finished book arrived this month, and is so so lovely. Freya’s illustrations and Danny’s story take me on a trip through a childhood day, not dissimilar to my own. It’s the sort of ‘perfect’ day we hope for our children – a day without technology, a day for drawing, and for playing and for picnics. I already had a copy of this book. Then my mum bought another one for my daughter for her birthday. So now we have two perfect books. Some come with a print!

Cleo Stories a friend and a pet

The Cleo Stories: A Friend and A Pet by Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood

Speaking of Freya Blackwood, there are more Cleo Stories available! In ‘A Friend’ and ‘A Pet’, Cleo needs to use her ingenuity, and her lovely creative mind to overcome typical little people problems – namely, a boring rainy day in, and an unfulfilled desire for a pet. This is a lovely follow up to the first book of stories, which won CBCA Book of the Year for Young Readers 2015.

the river and the book

The River and the Book by Alison Croggon

To be honest, I read this book for me, rather than for the kids. It’s quite a small novel, and I wanted to ease myself back into reading longer things, having not read for a long time. This is a fable, almost, of Simbala, who is Keeper of the Book. She lives a simple village life. But the prophecy of the book is that change is coming. River life starts to change, as developers greedily suck from its resources further upstream. And a western visitor soon turns Simbala’s world upside down. It was a change she couldn’t have predicted.

Imaginary Fred

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers

It’s somehow comforting that everything with an Oliver Jeffers’ touch is excellent. This Irish collaboration between one of my favourite illustrators, and the Irish Children’s Laureate Eoin Colfer, is such a beautiful, tender and funny story about Imaginary Fred, and a lonely boy called Sam. Fred and Sam form a friendship. Imaginary Fred is waiting for the flick – he knows his time is up. It always is. But maybe Imaginary Fred can have a different place in Sam’s life and heart.

Have you come across any great  children’s books this month?

Reading aloud to kids


Tonight, my youngest was out like a light, so I had a rare hour to spend with my five-year-old. We spent it well, snuggled together on the couch reading a ‘long book’.

We chose Clementine Rose by Jacqueline Harvey. My daughter discovered her at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, and I think it’s safe to say we have a fan.

The book, while wholesome and sweet, is also quite complex. I was surprised. The author doesn’t hold back on big words, or assume kids will be overwhelmed with up to seven characters in a scene. It’s like a mini and modern Downton Abbey for kids.

My daughter listened along. But then she’s been listening to ‘long books’ since she was about three. We’ve read Wind In The Willows, Faraway Tree, The Secret Garden, Winnie The Pooh, the treehouse books, and all the Violet Mackerel books. Her favourite is still Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.

We sit together, and she gazes into space as I read. Pictures must be forming in her head. Even my littlest, who is two, can sit happily listening to longer stories. If there are no pictures, she’ll sit beside us and look at pictures in another book while she listens.

No matter how busy we get, there’s always time for this. And no matter how many mistakes I feel like I make as a parent, I don’t doubt that hour we sit together and read. Never.

I hadn’t contemplated how that nightly hour would change when my eldest starts to read herself. I just assumed it would carry on like this.

I heard Jackie French talk emphatically at the writers festival about how important it is to keep reading to our kids, even when they can read themselves. Apparently, when kids learn to read, parents often think their job is done.

‘Please, please don’t stop reading to your kids,’ begged Jackie. ‘Only stop when they think they are too cool to be read to. All kids I talk to love being read to.’

Not only is reading time connection, when we read to kids, they get the chance to hear more complex stories they can’t yet read themselves. And often, these stories become what Jackie calls ‘the magic book’.

magic book (n) ~ A book that you cannot put down and you cannot stop thinking about. A book that can transform you into a lifetime lover of books.

Maybe in a year or so we’ll be reading the Harry Potter series – Lord of The Rings? Anna Karenina? Maybe not quite yet. I’m sure though there’s endless ‘long books’ – classics, we still need to sink our teeth into. And though there will be homework, and life and busy, I hope we always make time for them.