On Tuesday night, hundreds of children’s book publishers and other Bologna Children’s Book Fair attendees filled the Teatro Comunale, Bologna’s opera house, for a grand anniversary gala and awards ceremony to celebrate the fair’s 50th anniversary. Publishers that have been coming to the fair since its inception were honored, along with this year’s recipients of the BolognaRagazzi Awards and the winners of the new BOP Bologna Prize, awarded to publishers “at the forefront of innovation” in six geographic regions around the globe.

Co-hosted by Fernando Proce and Jennifer Pressman, the evening included a retrospective slide show of the 50 years of the fair; the awards presentations; speeches from Duccio Campagnoli, chairman of BolognaFiere, and others; a trio of interpretive dances that were physically impressive but otherwise puzzling; and, eventually, the unveiling of a towering celebratory cake that was carted up on stage by four bakers (at least a quarter of the audience left well before the end of the two-hour ceremony).

While the results of the BolognaRagazzi Awards had been previously announced, several winners drew cheers of “Brava!” as they took the stage – appropriately enough, given the opera house setting. But interest was highest in finding out which publishers would take home the BOP prizes, revealed for the first time at the ceremony. The winners were: Bakame Books from Rwanda, Tara Books from India, Cosac Naify from Brazil, Planeta Tangerina from Portugal, Chronicle Books in the U.S., and Gecko Press from New Zealand. In accepting the BOP on behalf of Chronicle, president Jack Jensen quoted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying that “it takes a village to raise a child,” and “it takes Bologna to make great children’s books.”

Acclaimed illustrator Etienne Delessert was in attendance, and he reminisced about visiting the fair 30-some years ago, regretting the loss of some of the fair’s “playfulness.” “We would find time at midnight to make races on bicycles all over town. At one a.m. we’d drive to Venice in Christian Gallimard’s Ferrari to look at the morning sun, and be back to the booths by nine,” he said. “Now people rub shoulders, but then you found friends for life.”

Still, children’s book historian and author Leonard S. Marcus sees value in the fair in its current form. “There’s nothing like face-to-face contact with people,” he said. “In just a day I’ve talked to people from every part of the world.”

“The book world is fantastic, and the children’s book world even more so,” said Roberta Chinni, program director for the book fair. Speaking to Bologna’s future, Chinni said she hoped “that the fair, the stories, and the storytelling will last for another 500 years.”