Four days of intense work within a whirlwind of smiling people who convene here year after year like old friends, while at the same time looking for, proposing, and selling stories that will hopefully enchant today’s children. It is the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the most important event for children’s literature in the world, taking place every year in Italy. This year’s edition ended almost three weeks ago. From March 26 to 29, seventy-seven countries and regions, 1,390 exhibitors, and 27,642 publishing professionals gathered in a bustle of illustrators, authors, publishers, agents, translators, booksellers, and journalists.
Walking through the stands, one can run into tidy lines of novice illustrators who, nervous and creatively dressed, are waiting to exhibit the works they clutch in their hands. One could also bump into celebrations of publishing houses’ “birthdays” or other anniversaries, while inside the stands, agents exhibit new books’ plates before the publishers’ and journalists’ attentive eyes. Just around the corner, interesting educational events are taking place while trembling crowds of aficionados await to meet their favorite artists in flesh and blood. The air is international: in just a few steps one can walk from the forests of Northern Europe to the colossal American stands, to the elegant French stalls. From there you can meet the Japanese artist who collects pebbles and encloses them in personalized books, along with artists, writers and editors from Iran, Chile, Africa and India.
These four days are a vortex of fatigue, legs grinding mile after mile among the stands and eyes taking in an extraordinary amount of illustrations, images, and stories. Once back home, it is necessary to take a few days to detox and reflect upon what one has lovingly noted.
The International Award for Illustration—Bologna Children’s Book Fair / Fundación Santa Maria went to Vendi Vernić (Croatia) for her illustrated plates of The Crocodile, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story. Vernić was chosen among seventy-eight candidates, shortlisted from the initial 3,000, giving its reasons as follows: “The jury decided to recognize this artist’s conceptual and technical skills and her ability to combine many techniques into a coherent whole without it being fragmented; to communicate character and atmosphere in a very evocative way with a minimum of detail; to work in a tradition, while not being confined by that tradition, and to do so with a contemporary and very personal voice; to convey the evocative atmosphere of the nineteenth—twentieth centuries, while giving each image its own atmosphere, all illustrations fitting together into one narrative; to deploy a great wealth of ideas into a single narrative.”
Ars in fabula, a grant awarded every year to “young, unpublished illustrators under thirty who have been already selected for the Illustrators Exhibition,” was assigned to Parisian Jean Mallard (b. 1997), who impressed the jury with his dreamlike and delicate style.
The BolognaRagazzi Award (BRAW), a highly regarded award conferred just before the BCBF, honors the best productions presented by publishers, illustrators, or agents exhibiting at the BCBF. Every year, the BRAW is awarded in three main categories—Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Opera Prima (a prize for first-time illustrators and authors)—as well as one or two special categories (this year they were Architecture and Design and a special prize, Books and Seeds). French artists dominated the scene, followed by South Korea.
All in all, this year’s BRAWs attest to the creative potential of scientific and technical publications, currently on a path towards illustrative embellishment that had not been central to them until now. In the Non-Fiction category, the winner was a Ukrainian duet of books, Loudly Softly in a Whisper and I See That, by Romana Romayshyn and Andriy Lesiv (The Old Lion Publishing House, 2017), notable for their unusual infographic approach. But science-inspired stories are well represented in the Fiction category as well, for example by the Finnish book, Tuulen vuosi, by Hanna Konola (Etana Editions, 2017), receiver of a special mention, which tells the adventures of the winds as it passes through the four seasons.
The winner in the Art, Architecture and Design special section was a markedly architectural book (Aurelién Debat, Cabanes, Editions des Grandes Personnes, 2017), but a special mention was conferred on My Museum by Joanne Liu (Prestel Verlag, 2017), for its enchanting approach to art as seen through children’s eyes.
Finally, the Bologna Prize Best Children’s Publishers of the Year (BOP), which acknowledges the most significant publishers in each of the six areas of the world (Africa, Central and South America, North America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania), went to: Jacana Media, South Africa; Fukuinkan Shoten Publishers, Japan; Ediciones Tecolote, Mexico; Dwie Siostry Publishers, Poland; Editions d’eux, Canada; and OneTree House, New Zealand.
FIVE PERSONAL IMPRESSIONS
One can take many different itineraries among the stands at the BCBF. I will try to list five trends that have emerged from all the conversations I had and the impressions I gathered.
- We are in a new golden age for biographies—of explorers, especially, but also scientists and athletes. Among them, women are definitely in the forefront, riding the wave launched by Rebel Girls. These books have found success even in a world that is, alas, still illiterate when it comes to children’s literature.
- Although it never completely disappeared, the fascination for the past is definitely back. Old heroes and prominent writers that had temporarily faded from view make a comeback in new, carefully curated editions.
- Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—perhaps following the centrality of China as the BCBF’s guest of honor this year—proudly showed their fascinating works, helped out by the carefully rendered English translations of the works on display. The new pavilions, spacious and bright, confirm that the reality of these works is in fact much more interesting and multifaceted than the fraction of them that slips through to the West. Renowned authors play a pivotal role in promoting the lesser-known artists whose illustrations nonetheless enchant because of their intensity, the glimpses of landscapes that resemble visual poetry, and the attention paid to the books for the littlest ones, remarkable for the care and fascination with daily life and common objects. It is not surprising that the New Horizons BRAW was awarded to a South Korean artist, Bae Yoo Jeong for Tree Dancing (Bandal, 2017).
- Human representation has acquired a renewed central position, previously abdicated in favor of animals and such. Many new texts focus on the child’s daily life, which I think is an extremely interesting and significant development.
- China made a great effort to promote itself to the world. Aware of the cultural distance that probably—and unjustly—relegates Chinese literature to a state of almost-global oblivion, China showcased its illustrators’ most interesting works in an easily accessible space and generously opened to the public the area dedicated to publishers, previously unreachable because of a sort of “Great wall.” The beloved stories of an uninterrupted folkloric tradition stretching back over millennia were given prominence, as well as new styles recounting contemporary China, its unexplored natural and urban spaces, new ideas and stories of relationships, play and irony.
Translated from the Italian by Anna Aresi
Image credit to Vendi Vernić
Maria Polita is a mom, teacher and an avid reader. Her academic interests include Italian literature and grammar and, increasingly, their intersection with children’s literature. She blogs about children’s books at scaffalebasso.it.
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