Betsy Goes to Bologna: Why attend the world’s largest children’s book fair?

SLJ1107w_BetsyBologna(Original Import)

They told me not to go. They said there’d be nothing for me to do. They hinted that while the food was fabulous, the wine extraordinary, and the experience unlike any other, I was, after all, only a children’s librarian. And children’s librarians, for all their charms, do not attend.

So what on earth possessed me to just head off one fine spring morning to Bologna, Italy, for the largest children’s book fair on the globe? Well, I’ll tell you, pregnancy can make a woman do some crazy things. It can make you take a trip that’s been percolating in the back of your brain for years. Firing off the excuse of “Babymoon!” (the jaunt that couples take before the birth of their first child—because after that, it’s gonna be spit-up and early-morning feedings for a long time), my husband and I set off for the Bologna Book Fair. Billing itself as “the most important international event dedicated to the children’s publishing and multimedia industry,” the primary purpose of the gathering is to sell off the foreign rights to the very latest books. Deals happen the week preceding the fair, during the fair, and perhaps just after as well. It’s, as they say, quite the event.

This year, more than 1,200 exhibitors from 65 countries made an appearance at the 48th annual Bologna Book Fair. What comes of this meeting of the international minds? Well, odds are that if you love a kids’ book that was originally published in another country (think Harry Potter, Inkheart, Geronimo Stilton, etc.), the American rights were purchased at the Bologna Book Fair. Only there can you see the newest cream of the international crop. As author Sarah Blake Johnson said on the blog “Through the Tollbooth” after her own visit last year, “This is exciting to me. It means I’ll be able to buy a book written by someone in China or Brazil or Finland or another country and see the world from their perspective. It also means some of our favorite books in the U.S. will be translated into foreign languages and will be read by children in many countries.”

It’s easy to see why a children’s librarian might be discouraged from attending, though. In general, we’re faithful conference attendees, but the events we visit tend to be strictly on U.S. soil. You have your American Library Association conferences (annual and midwinter), your ComicCon, and sometimes even BookExpo (though that caters a bit more to the booksellers among us). And while at those gatherings the librarians are the stars of the show, in Bologna they must definitely step aside to let the publishers do their jobs. What use have we for rights discussions? If we were to see a particularly luscious French offering, few of us would have the ability to translate it and share it with our young patrons.

So what’s there for people like us at the conference? Consider the following…

The conference floor

The fair, which takes place in March at Piazza Costituzione, features five exhibition halls, so it’s best not to lose the handy-dandy map you receive when you first walk in the door. Trust me, it’s all too easy to find yourself wandering dazedly in concentric circles trying to locate the nearest restroom or gelato stand. Each publisher has its own booth, appropriately sized according to how much it has to sell. Bigger publishers like Scholastic and Penguin will fill these booths with small tables where people can sit and talk one-on-one. You may skim around the outer edges to look at the books, but those tables are reserved for rights discussions. Smaller publishers will either have tinier booths or share booths with others of comparative size. The most striking example of this arrangement was a huge booth labeled “Children’s Books USA,” which managed to squeeze Charlesbridge, Holiday House, Gryphon House, Eerdmans, Magination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Peachtree Press, National Geographic, and Publishers Weekly (PW) all into one space.

SLJ1107w_BetsyBologSPOT(Original Import)When visiting this area, it’s best to just stay on the sidelines. Displays of books are everywhere, so it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of getting to see what other countries have to offer. Many foreign publishers will even produce English-language editions of their catalogs for interested observers. For example, I was particularly taken with an Estonian publisher’s variety of catalogs, as well as its remarkably pretty books. Publishers have come a long way over the years. At earlier Bologna fairs, it wasn’t uncommon to find strangely translated catalogs in English. Years ago, Alison Morris, the now senior editor of acquisitions and merchandising for Scholastic Book Clubs, saw catalog titles sporting great names like Self-excited-worm is really excited! and Gulping without Chewing Spell-Bug. Things are significantly more sophisticated these days, so don’t expect to see translations quite this clunky anymore.

The Bologna Illustrators Exhibition

The fair declares proudly that this particular exhibition “offers a broad picture of the most innovative trends in children’s illustration at a world level.” This year, 375 illustrations by 76 artists from a wide range of countries were presented. The exhibition began with the art of German author-illustrator Jutta Bauer, winner of the 2010 Hans Christian Andersen Award, and continued with a formal display of the artists’ works. Interestingly, the sole American included was Jennifer Uman, a self-taught artist who paired with Italian artist Valerio Vidali to create the as-yet-unpublished nonfiction title Jemmy Button. Images from this book were displayed, alongside breathtaking new works from such diverse places as Mexico, Iran, Australia, and many more.

Illustrarium: presenting the guest of honor

The guest of honor at each Bologna Book Fair isn’t a person, but an entire country—and this year Lithuania received the honor. The result was multiple talks on Lithuanian culture (there was a presentation in the Cinema Lumiere of “Lithuanian Film: The Beauty,” an exhibition of Lithuanian culture through photography, talks on contemporary Lithuanian children’s book illustration, and much more). Here we find the Illustrarium, where abundant white walls were covered with tiny doors. Open any one of these doors and there you could find an original piece of art. It was here that attendees discovered a display of works by three generations of Lithuanian children’s book artists, showcasing art produced between 2000 and 2010. Viewers peeked behind the doors to suddenly find themselves entranced by an image from Marius Jonutis’s The Worm Bird or Edvardas Jazgevicius’s surprising take on Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Next year, the guest of honor will be Russia. Keep that in mind if you’ve ever been curious about the current state of Russian children’s books!

The Illustrators Café

A casual amphitheater at the front of the fair hosts a rotating series of panels and discussions. Worried you won’t be able to understand the language? Fear not! Plenty of these panels contain an English-language component. Whether it’s an immediate translation of a discussion (as I witnessed during a talk about the Bologna Ragazzi Award–winning title Fables) or a presentation in which everyone speaks English, Americans have it easy. This year the discussions ranged from “ABC Africa Children’s Books” to “Ideology and the Children’s Book.”

Remember that none of this even covers the talks held in the Translator Centre, the Screening Room, or any of the other multiple locations. Best of all, these talks are all free to folks who have registered for the fair.

Meet your counterparts from all over the world

Yes! You’re not the only ones. This year the Libraries for Children and Young Adults section of IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) hosted a meeting of children’s librarians attending the fair. So even if you don’t know a soul there, it’s easy enough to connect with people in your own profession the world over.

Bologna 2011

This being my first fair, I can’t compare it to others. Fortunately, there are people out there willing to do so for me. In her Publishers Weekly article “Bologna 2011: Back to Business at a Buoyant Fair,” PW editor Diane Roback spoke to Simon & Schuster’s children’s book publisher, Jon Anderson, about how this year stood out. Said he, “This was easily the liveliest Bologna I’ve been at in years. It’s very heartening. There’s a palpable sense that things are looking up.” Much of this optimism can be credited to the rise of ebooks, apps, and other electronic derivations of books. All over the world, publishers are now interested in how to use these new technologies with their own titles.

I observed that there weren’t a lot of exhibitors from Africa or South America. As PW reporter George W. Slowik Jr. explained in his April 7 piece, “Bologna: Notes on a Fair Revisited,” political and natural upheavals were to blame for many of the missing countries. “Only Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Egypt had stands of their own,” wrote Slowik. “Benin and Cameroon shared the African Collective. Given the tumult it was no surprise that North African countries and many Middle Eastern countries were absent. The Persian Gulf States were represented by the Sharjah and Abu Dhabi Fairs. Japan, too, had cancellations due to the natural disasters that it has recently suffered.”

The result was a fair that was equally torn between excitement over the future and regret that certain nations were kept away by calamities, both political and natural.

Bologna over the years

I may not have previous fairs to reference, but many are the publishers with memories of fairs past. Klaus Flugge is the publisher of London’s Andersen Press Ltd., and he’s one of the few people you may meet who has attended the fair from the start. As he says, Bologna began in 1964 when he was one of two people taking care of the British stand in the Palazzo. So how did the fair catch on? “Bologna has a reputation as the gastronomic center of Italy and the relatively few people attending the first fair soon spread the news. The fair gave us lavish parties for the first few years until we’d celebrated the 25th [year] with a fantastic gala dinner and ball in a sumptuous Palladian villa outside Bologna—those were the days!”

Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab, and Darby Creek at Lerner Publishing Group, has a very different food-related memory of his own: “My first year at the fair with Lerner [in 2009], Klaus handed me an invitation to the Dutch publishers party. Little did I know, the Dutch throw a hell of a party. In a palace. Seriously. It’s packed, and there are the usual tables of wonderful appetizers. I happened to be standing by one of the largest tables, chatting with Sarah Pakenham… when suddenly the whole table collapsed. A couple of the legs literally buckled under the weight of all the food. This was no card table, so it was quite a crash. There was silence for a couple of moments, and then servers came out with more food, and all the publishing people went back to what we do best: eating, drinking, and talking about books. I thought it was an ideal metaphor for the whole publishing industry.”

Worth it

International book fairs abound. You might want to take a gander at the London Book Fair (next year’s gathering is April 16–18) one of these days, or perhaps even the Frankfurt Book Fair (October 10–14, 2012), which touts itself as “the most important marketplace for books, media, rights and licenses worldwide.” Yet, when it comes to children’s materials, Bologna remains the largest and most impressive event. As librarians, we have a responsibility to remain aware of not just the shifting trends and new titles in our own country, but to take the time to note and appreciate the contributions of hundreds of nations worldwide. By attending the Bologna Book Fair, we get to meet and mingle with folks from around the globe who share our passion for the very thing that makes our jobs worthwhile: a desire to get the best books into the hands of our young readers and patrons.

The fact that we get to do all that while eating a bowl of delicious risotto? A nice plus.

Dying to attend the Bologna Book Fair but can’t stomach the cost?

In this age of slashed budgets, reduced salaries, and increasing unemployment in the library sector, there’s something particularly galling about a children’s librarian writing a “Gee, Let’s All Go to Italy” article. However, rather than view it as the Eat, Pray, Love of the kids’ book world, consider the Bologna fair as an event to place on your radar should you ever find yourself looking to take a work-related European trip. In the meantime, here are some ways to keep your finger on the pulse of international children’s literature without traveling halfway across the globe. They are as affordable as they are informative:

Join USBBY. The United States Board on Books for Young People is the American chapter of IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People). It works to bring books to children around the world. And as past USBBY President John Mason said on my blog, “A Fuse #8 Production,” on December 9, 2008, “As a librarian, if you join USBBY you will be exposed to, and have the opportunity to work with, some amazing people, and learn more about global connections through children’s literature.”

Subscribe to Bookbird. This “Journal of International Children’s Literature” aims to “communicate new ideas to the whole community of readers interested in children’s books.” In a typical issue, you might find yourself confronted by articles as diverse as “Perceptions of Africa in Slovenian Poetry for Children” or “Poetry for young people in Greece: Themes, forms, types and trends.”

Read international children’s literary blogs. Why limit yourself to children’s lit blogs of an American stripe? There are many blogs by passionate advocates of kids’ books from around the globe that are worth checking out, including “The Tea Box” from Italy, “Playing by the Book” from England, and “Misrule” from Australia.

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