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.

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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.

  • I’ve so loved living vicariously through you on this trip, Zanni! Thank you for all the insights. I spent a year studying in Modena, just down the train track from Bologna. How I miss the coffees, watching the beautiful people meander on their evening passeggiata round the piazza and buying fresh pizza by the slice. Thank you for transporting me back!

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