Several notable authors were walking the aisles of the Bologna Book Fair, from newcomers to the children’s book world like bestselling adult author Sophie Kinsella to veterans like Malorie Blackman, the current U.K. Children’s Laureate, whose next book for children will be her 61st.
With Kinsella’s first book for younger readers on the horizon – Delacorte will publish her YA novel, Finding Audrey, in the U.S. in June – this was the author’s first time at Bologna, and she said that between the sunshine, the food, and being surrounded by children’s books, “this might be my favorite fair.” Referencing the fact that Lewis Carroll’s Alice is celebrating her 150th anniversary this year, Kinsella added, “I feel like I’ve gone down a rabbit hole and emerged in a wonderland.”
As to why Kinsella decided to write a book for teens, she explained, “I already have a lot of younger readers, some as young as 11. I thought, ‘If I do speak to this audience, why not tell a story for them?’ ” The resulting novel, she said, is the story of a girl who is very rooted in her family. “Teenagers don’t just exist in a teenage bubble, they are in their families and influenced by their families, and I wanted to reflect that.” At the show, Kinsella has been meeting with international publishing partners. “I’m learning about children’s publishing for the first time,” she said, “so I feel like I’m starting from scratch.”
Another bestselling author, Meg Cabot, was also making her debut at the Bologna Book Fair. “I’ve been to Frankfurt and the Paris [Book Fair] and even the Rio Biennial, but this is my first Bologna,” said the author. “It’s been fantastic. This is the quintessential book fair. It’s really large – I’ve gotten lost a few times.” Cabot was celebrating the release of her forthcoming middle-grade novel, From the Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess (Feiwel & Friends, May) with a prosecco toast at Macmillan’s stand and a dinner she threw for many of her international publishers on Monday night. “My husband is here with me, and we’ve been eating a lot. You can’t turn a corner without running into a great restaurant,” said Cabot, adding that the restaurants had been very accommodating of her celiac disease, something she inherited from her Italian grandfather.
Malorie Blackman was attending the fair in her role as U.K. children’s laureate, a torch she will be passing on later this year, when her two-year term is up. Blackman was involved in two panels at the fair, one open to the public, and the other for international organizations that have been developing their own children’s laureate programs. “What I find really interesting is to see how they are translating [these programs] to fit their own countries,” Blackman said. The author is currently working on a book to be published later this year or sometime next year, “but my duties as children’s laureate have put my writing on the back burner.”
Is Blackman ready to turn over her duties as ambassador? “Yes. Does it show?” she said with a laugh, adding that while she had an “amazing two years,” “I’m ready to get back to writing rather than talking about it.” As children’s laureate, Blackman said she was passionate about getting teenagers to read in whatever form, encouraging a “breadth and depth” to their reading. “I still remember a teacher taking a comic out of my hands and tearing it in half,” she said. “Why be restrictive about it? There are so many wonderful contemporary novels being written by contemporary writers that are going to become the classics of the future.”
Blackman wasn’t the only author at the fair with memories of teachers ripping their comic books to pieces – Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey shared a similar anecdote at a party Monday evening held at Bologna’s Palazzo Re Enzo, as he helped launch Scholastic’s “Open a World of Possible” campaign. With illustrated and animated slides appearing behind him, Pilkey credited that teacher with inadvertently setting him on a path to a career in making “silly books” – books that have gone on to sell more than 70 million copies worldwide, Scholastic CEO Dick Robinson noted while introducing Pilkey – as well as helping him understand just how funny underwear can be.
During his presentation, Pilkey recalled himself as a boy who had difficulty reading (he had ADHD before it was even a diagnosis, he explained), and he encouraged “well-meaning adults” from dissuading children from reading the kinds of books (or comics) they want to read in favor of more “substantive” material. “Our job as grownups is to help them discover the clues to the universe in whatever they choose to read.”