For many children's book industry professionals around the globe, a trip to the Bologna Children's Book Fair has become a familiar, and always welcome, rite of spring. There's much to love about a trade fair where the business at hand is enhanced by fine Italian scenery, food, and wine. But this year's gathering—March 25 to 28—should prove more festive than usual, as the event marks its 50th anniversary with a number of celebrations.

In the Beginning…

In April 1964, the first Fiera Internazionale del Libro per l’Infanzia e la Gioventù was held in Bologna at the Palazzo di Re Enzo in the city center and featured 44 exhibitors from 11 countries. The event, now better known as the Fiera del Libro per Ragazzi or the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, grew out of a collaboration begun in 1963 between the organizers of the Book Fair Project and the National Educational Centre for Studies and Documentation in Florence, a government institution with a highly respected Italian and foreign-language children’s literature division. The CDNSD and the Bologna organizers had both observed a growing interest in children’s books—especially children’s book illustration—around the world. With additional assistance from Italian publisher Renato Giunti, the idea to stage an international children’s book fair in Bologna was realized.

While arrangements for that first fair were being made, plans were also being drawn up to build a permanent home in Bologna for the annual event (and for the various other exhibitions that had been held in the city for many years), at the Bologna Fiere/Bologna Exhibition Centre, which began construction in 1965 and hosted the Bologna Children’s Book Fair for the first time in 1969. By 2000, the fair hit a high note with 1,416 exhibitors from 83 countries.

The fair’s growth reflects the growth of children’s publishing as an international industry. In its early days, before a plethora of technological and travel advances made transcontinental business relationships easier to pursue and maintain, Bologna was a key destination for on-the-spot rights deals. John Keller, former president and publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, recalls trips to Bologna in “the era before the wide use of electronic devices and media”—back in the 1980s. “Some English editors would come to the States to preview their new material,” he says, “but basically there was no sending of picture and text files across the seas before the fair. Decisions—particularly on books in which several publishers had expressed interest—had to be made within the duration of one’s time in Bologna.”

To cement Bologna’s reputation as a desirable book-business venue—even if at-the-fair-deals have become rare—organizers have kept pace with industry trends over the years and created opportunities that appeal to various players. In 1966 the Premio Grafico Fiera di Bologna, which in 1995 became the BolognaRagazzi Award, made its debut, honoring “the best books in terms of graphic and editorial design.” The following year, in 1967, fair attendees saw the first Illustrators Exhibition, a chance for both established and emerging artists, selected by jury, to display their artwork in a prestigious forum. Each year since 1994, the fair has named one country its Guest of Honor at the Illustrators Exhibit, providing an additional showcase for the guest country’s best in contemporary illustration as well as programming featuring its authors and illustrators. (The 2013 Guest of Honor is Sweden.)

Literary agents, who had taken an increasingly prominent role in children’s publishing, were provided with their own “home base” of sorts in 1986, with the opening of the Literary Agents Centre. In recent years, the Agents Centre was relocated to a more spacious, airy perch above and between two large pavilions; last year, 122 agents from 92 agencies made use of the meeting area.

By 1990, with children’s book properties more frequently being adapted to various media, the fair offered the first TV/Publishing Market—International Exhibition of Television, Cinema and Video, which included the Asinello d’oro prize given to works that “best express the interaction between book and film.” As more film and TV reps traveled to the fair, organizers responded by establishing the TV/Film and Licensing Rights Centre in 2002. Interest in all licensing areas continued to grow, and since 2010 the Bologna Licensing Trade Fair has taken place as an adjunct to the Book Fair to accommodate this ancillary business.

Computer software evolved into another formidable branch of children’s media, and in 1992, Bologna embraced the then–new wave of CD-ROM titles, and offered the Children’s Book Multimedia Seminar in partnership with the Association of American Publishers. The Bologna New Media Prize and Software Arcade were two features that followed in 1997. More than 10 years—and many operating systems—later, the fair added a new prize (for apps) in 2012, the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award. As publishers explore the great digital frontier, Bologna offers them TOC Bologna (launched in 2011), a Tools of Change conference focusing on children’s digital publishing in cooperation with O’Reilly Media, which takes place the day prior to the fair’s opening.

Fittingly, Bologna has recognized the importance of translators in the international publishing world, and in 2004 set up the Translators’ Centre as a place for professional translators to meet and exchange information, as well as participate in a lineup of focused programming.

Today: Still Vital

Indeed, the Bologna Book Fair has evolved and changed with the times. These days, thanks to e-mail, Skype, and other communication marvels, it’s possible to participate in the global marketplace without leaving one’s desk. But, as several longtime fairgoers attest, Bologna—and being at Bologna—remains vital to their work in children’s books. A lot of it has to do with a sort of Bologna mindset. For Neal Porter, publisher of Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books imprint, the “collective energy” experienced at the fair is unmatched. “There’s something revivifying about walking into a place where there are so many dedicated and talented professionals—publishers, editors, rights executives, agents, scouts—all talking about buying, selling, licensing, co-editioning books for children,” he says.

Mary Ann Sabia of Charlesbridge Publishing points out that her company has come to rely on Bologna. “We don’t attend Frankfurt, so this is our only chance to meet face-to-face with [foreign] agents and publishers,” she says. “It’s nice to have this focused time on rights and see what is going on with children’s books around the world,” she adds. Similarly, Adam Lerner, president and publisher of Minnesota-based Lerner Publishing Group, notes that in addition to having his rights director (Maria Kjoller) represent the company’s properties at the fair, “Bologna is important for Andrew Karre, our Carolrhoda editor, to hear about foreign fiction, because many of the European rights people don’t manage to make it to Minneapolis.”

Offering a view from the Fair’s home country, Claudia Mazzucco, CEO of Atlantyca Entertainment, the Milan-based licensor of the globally popular Geronimo Stilton book series, says, “Year after year, Bologna has grown to be the most important international children’s book fair of the world and [is] so valuable to companies like ours. It’s where you go to get a clear picture of what is forthcoming and important to our business. It is ‘the’ must-attend conference for anyone involved children’s publishing.”

Editors and publishers agree that much of Bologna’s enduring appeal lies in its being a place of discovery. Being able to see and touch book projects from all over the world still trumps peeking at them on a computer screen. “Editors discover projects they might not have found at home; a new author or artist wows them, and they know they must bring their discovery back to their readers,” says Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press, part of Random House Children’s Books. And it’s a given that great Bologna “finds” can often be hit-or-miss in the market back home. “All we acquiring editors made both some great decisions and awful mistakes,” says Keller. “In my case Where’s Waldo? (nee Wally) led the success list, and the minus side was topped by those thousands of board books packaged with Legos that kept arriving in our warehouse where they clung to the shelves like a hoard of malignant barnacles.”

Of course, tales of exciting Bologna acquisitions—and the ones that got away—abound. In what has become a bit of children’s book lore, it was at Bologna where Arthur Levine, Scholastic v-p and publisher of the Arthur A. Levine Books imprint, was given a galley of the first Harry Potter book in spring 1997 by the rights director at British publishing house Bloomsbury, who was enthusiastic about a new author named J.K. Rowling. Levine read it on the plane home and was persuaded that he should buy it. A number of other U.S. publishers badly wanted the book as well, but Levine and Scholastic eventually prevailed in a heated rights auction not long after the fair.

For larger companies with many international publishing partners, Bologna affords a unique opportunity for large-scale meetings and strategy sessions. In 2004, with its Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket riding high, HarperCollins famously convened a Snicket Summit in Bologna, at which partners from various countries shared marketing and publishing plans and discussed challenges. Reps from Harper noted that roughly 37 foreign publishers were represented at the meeting, which was attended by at least 70 people.

In 2005 Disney Press chose Bologna as the ideal venue to announce the launch of its Disney Fairies line of books and merchandise. The debut title, Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg by Gail Carson Levine, illustrated by David Christiana, had a one-million-copy global laydown in 45 different countries and signaled a new strategy for the company. Instead of making a number of individual licensing deals with foreign publishers, Disney opted to create and release new Fairies material simultaneously, across the globe. Having so many partners in one place at the time gave the kick-off added impact.

Forging Longtime Friendships

Return trips to Bologna have helped editors find colleagues from other countries who share their taste and publishing philosophy. Trusted partnerships—and in many cases, friendships—have grown from these meetings of the minds. Says Neal Porter: “Over the 25 or so years I’ve been attending, I’ve developed a network of friends from other countries who have similar tastes. One of the things I most enjoy is running into them in the aisles and exchanging notes about interesting projects we’ve seen. That has led to some acquisitions I would never have made otherwise.”

As it goes with most trade gatherings, work in Bologna stretches well beyond regular business hours. Far from the bustling halls of the fairgrounds, talk shifts to dinner tables at restaurants all over the city and continues late into the night as publishers fete their authors, agents, and colleagues. Fond memories and friendships—if not deals—are forged in this relaxed setting. For Tom Peterson, owner and publisher of the Creative Company, the “grace of the people” who gather in Bologna each year to share their passion for children’s books is what makes the fair so special. “It is where I was introduced to Roberto Innocenti for the first time,” he says. “It is where I embraced Yan Nascimbene for the last time. Friendships—it is the single most important aspect of the Bologna Book Fair.”

Certainly, children’s book publishers today are pursuing partnerships and new projects continuously and don’t need to wait for an annual confab to take a meeting. And as technology continues to evolve, it becomes a legitimate question as to whether the time and expense of attending international rights fairs like Bologna will be worth it to all publishers. For the immediate future, however, with roughly 1200 exhibitors from more than 60 countries expected for this year’s gathering, it appears a majority of companies still believe it to be an important destination.

Dick Robinson, chairman, president and CEO of Scholastic, Inc., assesses the perennial attraction of the fair this way: “Bologna is a kind of gift to children’s publishers: a weeklong chance to pursue one’s art in a beautiful city in the Italian springtime, and a reminder of the importance of the creativity and salesmanship that makes the best children’s books not only a great experience for children but also a source of pride to the publishers.” Robinson and many other publishers will surely be glad to be on hand this year to raise a glass and say “cin cin” to the fair and the city they have embraced for a half century.

Expanded versions of some quotes in this article as well as additional remembrances can be found in the Bologna Fair’s commemorative book; see below:

Marking a Milestone

The official opening of the 2013 Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Monday, March 25, at 11 a.m., will include a presentation at City Hall (Palazzo d’Accursio) by the mayor and the city council in recognition of 50 years of the fair.

Also in honor of the anniversary, the Bologna Fair is instituting a new award: the Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publishers of the Year, to recognize excellence in children’s publishing. Six winners—one each from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, North America, and Oceania—will be chosen by the publishing companies that are participating in this year’s fair. Winners will be announced on Tuesday, March 26, during the anniversary Celebration Evening at the Teatro Comunale.

The fair is finalizing a commemorative book, in partnership with the University of Bologna, provisionally entitled 50 Years of Children’s Books. It includes a history of the fair, essays by academics, experts, and critics in children’s literature, and will feature interviews with key people in the children’s book industry. A photography book with images of people attending the fair between 1964 and 2012 will also be released.

In keeping with the celebratory tone, various exhibitions by noted children’s book illustrators will be featured throughout the city of Bologna during the fair, including one by Wolfango (winner of the first Premio Grafico Fiera di Bologna in 1966), which opens at the Museo della Sanità on March 25.

All photos by Mario Ventimiglia