I’m just back from taking some of my graduate students to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair–a truly eye-opening event and experience. I often refer to the United States as “Flatland”; in Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 seminal novella of that title, he imagines what a two-dimensional world would be like, and how three-dimensional objects would appear there. In this country, we often treat the rest of the world as if it exists only when it crosses our borders. That happens in the way we teach and in the books we select and share with K-12 readers. Think about it—few works in translation make it into our libraries.
And then you go to Bologna.
The fair spreads out over a series of halls, perhaps better described as pavilions–long, arched tubes linked by hallways, each one a stand-alone hall. Here is where publishers (and others) display their wares. The publishers have two goals; their primary aim is to sell rights. So, for example, if your book was published first in the US, your publisher or agent would be looking for a foreign publisher that would pay to translate and publish it. The secondary goal (which, once upon a time, was primary for American publishers) is to find works from other lands to acquire. You see the imbalance; everyone wants to sell, but at least from the US side, few come to buy. I did meet Americans on the lookout for books, but their shopping lists were tiny–each hoped to come away with one or two finds.
Some booths were occupied by art schools or by design shops–groups displaying the work of their students and artists. There was also a large exhibit of children’s book illustration from around the world, as well as four “cafes” devoted to authors, illustrators, translators, and to digital publishing. Between the booths, the artists, the displays, and the discussions (generally translated), Bologna is a feast for the eyes and ears; it is the market, the souk, of materials for children and young adults.
On our first day in Bologna, I told my students to go and be overwhelmed; there is no other choice. There are the huge booths of the large publishers: the Scholastics, Random Houses, and Mondadoris. Then you notice the tiny booths with books we don’t see very often: books that experiment with format–going tall and thin, folding as screens, or featuring pop-ups or cut-outs. I ran into 2014 Caldecott winner Brian Floca, who was blown away by the range of experiment in style, technique, and format. You realize how tame and timid we are and how many ways there are of sharing ideas and stories with young people.
The one aspect of the fair which disappointed me was the severe lean towards fiction. There was a prize for best nonfiction, but that was for illustration. While there are rows and rows of nonfiction featuring the DK signature look (and indeed DK had a large booth), clearly nonfiction was an also-ran and not the focus of invention and innovation witnessed in illustrated fiction. The tiny booth of a publisher from Cyprus was empty and ignored–but I loved it. A company that makes its own form of Lego-like plastic building blocks crafted a book that tells a (lightly fictionalized) history of the invention and development of cars. In the back of that book/box is a kit to build a car model. Kid heaven: history, cars, and maker options all in one, including ideas on green cars for the future.
I hope to return with a new set of students next year–three days at Bologna and you leave Flatland forever.
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