Reflections on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Attending the 56th Bologna Children’s Book Fair was an unmistakable highlight of the first half of 2019. In April I had the privilege of representing LAPA Publishers at this prestigious international book fair, which was an invaluable opportunity to soak up the latest trends in the children’s book market, to build on existing relationships and to meet new people doing wonderful things in the industry.

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is widely regarded as the world’s leading trade fair for children’s books. Although the main focus of the event is rights trade, there is also an underlying theme of nurturing this very important sector of the publishing world.

During the welcoming addresses by passionate organisers and equally passionate government officials, some statistics on the fair are relayed in Italian – and translated by a kind publisher standing next to me. The organisers announce that they have seen solid growth in the number of attendees this year.

True to its reputation as a gathering place for the who’s who of the industry, there are publishers, agents, and other role players from all around the world in attendance, including 1 400 journalists from 80 countries. A fellow South African remarks: “This is the moment you realise you are a very small speck in the ocean.” Indeed. And what a pleasure to be a tiny speck in such a marvellous ocean.

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As an event that has been a solid fixture on the literary calendar for 56 years, the fair emphasises tradition on the one hand, while also encouraging innovation and the fostering of new opportunities and business models on the other. It aims to strike a balance between culture and business.

Bologna has historically shown a remarkable level of dedication towards the development of children’s literature, with the University of Bologna being the first university to devote a chair wholly to the subject. The city also boasts a theatre that exclusively hosts children’s theatre productions. Further, many spaces within the city have been apportioned for children. The underlying reason for these investments is the belief that, by exposing the next generation to arts and culture, they will develop into well-balanced and engaged citizens.

The focus on children’s books (containing the most beautiful illustrations) makes this fair feel less corporate than, for example, the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, although it still has the hustle and bustle one would expect at a large fair. Despite its scale, there is a sense of warmth, intimacy and goodwill that prevails throughout – not to mention delicious gelato and incredible Italian coffee on offer when roaming the halls between meetings.

The exhibition spaces themselves are colourful, and the importance that is placed on illustrations highlights the central role of visual artwork within the industry. Several events take place at the Illustrator’s Corner during the course of the fair, amongst others a session on the Nami Concours illustration competition.

World-renowned South African illustrator Piet Grobler is part of the judging panel and is in attendance to speak about the process, and to give a bit of background information on fellow South African illustrator, Dale Blankenaar. Blankenaar features prominently during this session, with his piece COPYCAT having been designated as one of the winners in this highly regarded international competition.

South African publishers and authors are also well-represented at the IBBY stall. It is nice to catch a glimpse of Jan Vermeulen’s young adult novel, Asem, nestled amongst the top international titles showcased there.

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In general, there is strong interest at the fair in picture books and books – both fiction and non-fiction – aimed at the middle grade market. A recurring theme is stories about (and by) strong women and girls. There is also a trend towards greater inclusivity and diversity in the industry, with publishers showing a keen interest in providing a platform to voices that have been under-represented in the past.

Presenting LAPA Publishers’ list to international publishers is a pleasure. Their young adult novels dealing with social issues, like Marita van der Vyver’s All I Know and Fanie Viljoen’s Band-Aids for the Dead (Pleisters vir die dooies), becomes a particularly strong talking point.

All i know cover

Grom

On the picture book side, Grom! (Growl!), the award-winning picture book by Jaco Jacobs and Karen Lilje, garners solid attention. The fair seems to have attracted quite a few quirky picture books in which child characters transform into all sorts of wild animals, so Grom! is the perfect fit.

Dale Blankenaar’s exceptional illustrations, combined with Jaco Jacobs’ razor-sharp writing, also makes Die swakste restaurant op aarde (The worst restaurant on earth) a hit.

Swakste restaurant cover

Looking back on a busy few days spent in Bologna, I am filled with delight and gratitude. Attending this year’s edition of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on behalf of LAPA Publishers was an enlightening experience, both on a personal and a professional level. Heartfelt thanks to the Italian Trade Agency for making it possible.

One can’t help but feel inspired after having interacted with so many creative and dynamic people. The central thought I walked away with after the fair, was that even though the international children’s book market is gigantic, our South African writers, illustrators and publishers are more than equipped to share this global stage.

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