Despite cold, rainy weather and scheduling that rubbed up against Passover and Easter, attendees at this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair reported that foot traffic was heavy, moods were optimistic, and business was getting done. Sometimes with outerwear still on: “It’s the first time I’ve worn a coat indoors,” quipped Curtis Brown agent Ginger Clark. “I have a hat and gloves here, and I need them.”

Agents, publishers, and rights managers alike reported increased interest in middle-grade fiction. “I have two funny middle-grade books, which is great because that’s what people want. I’m happy about that,” said Brenda Bowen, agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. “People want lightly illustrated middle-grade or standalone contemporary,” said Clark. “They’re skeptical of trilogies. I haven’t heard a specific genre that people want, except contemporary YA – that’s refreshing.”

Interest in YA was slowing down (according to some) and shifting away from paranormal/dystopian to more realistic themes (according to many). “A lot of foreign publishers are cutting back on YA and are looking for middle-grade,” said agent Laura Langlie. “They’re looking for romantic comedies, well-written contemporary stories, maybe with some romance or another kind of element."

“At one meeting I was told, ‘I’m looking for fang-free fiction,’ ” said agent Josh Adams. “Then at the very next meeting, ‘I’m only looking for paranormal.’ There’s no consensus.” The interest this year in contemporary realistic fiction has been a “complete 180,” according to agent Barry Goldblatt. “Last year nobody wanted it” – last year being the year of the thriller.

For former film scout Fiona Kenshole, now a newly minted agent with the Transatlantic Agency, this year’s fair has been all about fortuitous meetings – running into the right people at the right moment and sharing news of projects. Speaking about fiction properties she’d seen and heard about, she joked, “The Germans and the Portuguese are all about sick lit. What does this say about our business?! And I’m hearing a lot about ‘witches, dead mums and sci-fi.’ ”

Changing Interests in YA

Kenshole was heartened by how few dystopian projects were being talked about, saying, “We always knew contemporary was going to come around again.” Her big news at the fair was Pandora’s Key by Nancy Richardson Fischer, which was self-published nine months ago, became an Amazon bestseller, and won the 2012 IndieReader Discovery Award for Young Adult Fiction. Kenshole calls it “good solid commercial fiction,” about a girl who uncovers the fact that she’s a direct descendant of Pandora. “Two years ago I’d have pitched it as fantasy,” Kenshole said. “Now I’m pitching it as contemporary with a magical edge.”

A second self-published phenomenon was on display at the Random U.K. stand: The Kissing Booth by Beth Reekles, “a Wattpad sensation at age 17,” according to rights director Bronwen Bennie. The novel was posted to Wattpad just before Christmas, went to #1 on Apple’s iBooks chart, won the Most Popular Teen Fiction Watty Award, and has had more then 19 million hits on the site. Random will publish a print edition in May, and it’s been sold into five markets already; a U.S. deal has not yet been announced.

Another book getting a lot of buzz was on the Puffin stand: Half Bad by Sally Green, acquired by Ben Horslen, who joined the company as editorial director just a few weeks before the fair. “I call it The Left Hand of God with a touch of Harry Potter, rewritten by Patrick Ness,” Horslen said. “It’s a debut novel with such confidence. The voice is what makes this book.” Penguin rights director Zosia Knopp said, “Ben got it on Tuesday and bought it on Thursday, and submitted it [to foreign publishers] on Friday. By Tuesday we had offers from France and Germany.” U.S. rights were being auctioned during the fair; at press time the winning house had not been named. A film deal is also actively in the works, and may be announced within a few days.

Over at Simon & Schuster, one of the big books was The Year of the Rat by Clare Furniss (a joint acquisition between S&S U.S. and U.K.). Acquired in a six-figure, two-book deal, it falls into both the realistic fiction and “dead mum” categories, following a 15-year-old girl and her younger sister in the wake of their mother’s death. And from S&S’s Atheneum imprint, the late Leon Leyson’s memoir, The Boy on the Wooden Box, was drawing attention; Leyson was one of the youngest children on Schindler’s list. “We’ve had preempts without it even being read,” said Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and editorial director at Atheneum (in fact, S&S is requiring interested publishers to sign NDAs before getting to look at the manuscript). “It’s a story that’s never been told, and there’s no bitterness, no rancor in his voice.”

A shift toward realistic fiction didn’t stop Goldblatt from showing a vampire novel – Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – to paranormal-fatigued publishers, telling them, “This is the vampire novel you didn’t know you were missing.” Out in September, Coldtown is the first vampire novel that Little, Brown has published since Twilight, said Goldblatt.

On the main floor, Disney was shopping world English rights for the December YA novel These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, while up in the Agents Center agent Josh Adams (who likens the book to “Titanic in outer space”) handled translation rights. Adams says he’s had a three-book offer in Australia and New Zealand, and more offers are forthcoming.

Middle-Grade Highlights

As far as middle-grade fiction, one title attracting attention was Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve, illustrated by Sarah McIntyre, which will be published in the U.K. in September by Oxford University Press (it didn’t hurt that Reeve and McIntyre were walking the show on Monday in flashy nautical attire). It’s first in a four-book series that will be “linked by style and format,” said rights assistant Laura Buchan, but “set in very different environments” and starring different characters. German, Japanese, Bulgarian, and Turkish rights have sold, among others, said Buchan.

At Disney-Hyperion, editorial director Emily Meehan was excited about Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky, which she called “our Wonder,” though she says it’s a very different book. Meehan sees the book as fitting into a trend of issue books that aren’t “issue-issue” books. “It’s all in the way the story is told,” she said. Written for middle-grade readers, Gracefully Grayson is about a boy realizing he identifies as a girl, but Meehan says, “It’s more about identity than sexuality.”

A hot property for agent Rosemary Stimola is Scare Scape by Sam Fisher, illustrated by Sam Bosma. It’s the first in a two-book series about three children, and how the monsters in a comic book come to life; the book will come packaged with a deck of monster tarot cards. Scholastic Press will pub the book in September, with the second due in 2014. Stimola said she’s had a lot of interest because “it’s different.”

Publisher Elise Howard at Algonquin Young Readers was having success pitching middle-grade, as well. The Time Fetch by Amy Herrick was a “Can I take a galley with me?” kind of title, and Howard believes it benefitted greatly from its recent selection as a Buzz Panel pick for BEA. Algonquin was also featuring Three-Ring Rascals: The Show Must Go On! from sisters Kate and M. Sarah Klise, a team that Howard says already has international recognition, giving the book heightened appeal at the fair.

Kim Ryan, associate director of subsidiary rights for Penguin Young Readers, was high on a pair of middle-grade titles: The Creature Department by Robert Paul Weston and The Nine Lives of Alexander Baddenfield by John Bemelmans Marciano, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. “I thought that science fiction would be a trend,” Ryan said, “but no one has come to me with a mandate. Instead they ask what’s big.”

The Picture Book Scene

For Sourcebooks founder Dominique Raccah, the show has been about “picture books and YA thrillers.” The picture book she’s most excited about is Snatchabook, which Sourcebooks Jabberwocky will publish on October 1. Recently acquired by Steve Geck from Scholastic U.K., the picture book, about a tiny book-thieving creature, comes from the husband-and-wife team of Helen and Thomas Docherty. Scholastic U.K. sold rights in nine countries before the show, three more at the show, and at least three more forthcoming, according to Raccah.

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers was highlighting Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, a new picture book from Peter Brown, due in fall 2013, about a tiger who wants to let his inner tiger loose. “It’s getting the best reaction of all of his books,” v-p and deputy publisher Andrew Smith said, “I think because of its universal message.”

“I’m seeing a lot of interest in traditional, beautifully illustrated picture books,” said Megan Bencivenni Quinn, school and library sales manager and subrights at Charlesbridge. One book she believes fits that bill is the publisher’s forthcoming The Cat with Seven Names by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Christine Davenier.

Quinn also noted strong interest in Charlesbridge’s titles from Korean publishers, a point echoed by Gayna Theophilus, sales and rights manager for Canada’s Annick Press. In addition to strong interest in Annick’s new graphic novel, War Brothers, at the fair, Theophilus also had high hopes for The Man with the Violin from Kelly Stimson and Dusan Petrosic; it’s inspired by violinist Joshua Bell playing a Stradivarius violin in the subway. And at Owlkids, You Are Stardust, a fall 2012 picture book, has been doing well, according to Judy Brunsek, director of sales and marketing. They’re on the third printing, and have created an accompanying app, which Brunsek has been pitching to foreign publishers along with the book itself.

Up and Down the Aisles

Harriet Ziefert, publisher of Blue Apple Books, noted an especially strong presence from young illustrators this year, canvassing the halls of the fair to get their portfolios reviewed and try to make contacts in the industry. “It seems to be to be the destination spot for anyone in Europe to come and show their work,” she said. Ziefert herself found a new illustrator this year, a Japanese artist living in Paris who had previously contacted her and then left her with samples of his work at the fair. She hopes to fly him out to the U.S. to collaborate on a book at her offices in the near future.

While deals aren’t often finalized at the fair itself, important groundwork is laid for future deals and acquisitions. One forthcoming picture book from Owlkids – Anything Is Possible by Giulia Belloni, illustrated by Marco Trevisan – was the result of publisher Karen Boersma finding the book on the floor of last year’s show. “You know when something’s right,” said Boersma. This year, Boersma said she found possibilities at some small French, Spanish, and Portuguese houses. “There are these lovely little independent publishing houses putting out some wonderful stuff,” she said.

For first-timers and veterans alike, the overcast skies and cool temperatures were a downer: “I was cranky for two days, it was cold it was wet, I didn’t see anything I liked. Then the sun came out and everything looked better, including the books,” said publisher Neal Porter. But most agreed that the fair and that the face-to-face meetings it facilitates are invaluable. “All the decision-makers are here – you really do do business here,” said Raccah at Sourcebooks. “Everyone is focused, interested, and engaged, and lots gets done.

Look for more deals and news from Bologna in Children’s Bookshelf next week.