The 54th Bologna Children’s Book Fair got off to a quiet but steady start on Monday with agents and publishers noting the continuing popularity of middle grade, as well as books featuring distinctive voices, tackling topical issues, and offering outside-the-box perspectives.
“There’s been a good energy at the fair, though I’m not sure [activity] is at the same level as it was” in years past, said Lerner CEO and publisher Adam Lerner, who was busy making introductions on behalf of the company’s new editor-in-chief Andy Cummings. “When the recession happened, people had to scale back, and they’ve realized that they can make do with less,” he said. “No one takes anything for granted in this market.”
Several agents, including Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management and Kathleen Ortiz of New Leaf Literary, noted ongoing attention to middle grade, something that has been evident during recent fairs after years with YA dominating the spotlight. “Middle grade is continuing to do well,” said Jill Grinberg of Jill Grinberg Literary Management. “The more interesting and off the beaten path a book is, the more people light up.”
Describing the first day as “positive,” Ortiz mentioned a continuing openness to genres that had their heydays in years past. “People might say they’re not looking for fantasy, but they’re looking for fantasy. Just ‘different’ fantasy.”
To wit, Hélène Ferey, senior rights manager at A.M. Heath, noticed German publishers seeking out epic fantasy for middle grade readers. “Four years ago, we had a lot of [these books], but their lists were full,” she said. Now, Ferey explained, publishers want these books again. Other trends she noticed include an ongoing interest in contemporary YA and love stories. Back on the fantasy side, Ferey had been pitching a series opener, The Last Duchess, the first YA novel from middle grade author Laura Powell, which she described as “Downton Abbey with dragons.”
Lori Benton, v-p and publisher of Scholastic Trade Publishing, pointed out a micro-trend she’d noticed: on the first day she was shown three books about bees going extinct. “One was YA, one was nonfiction, and the third was a picture book,” she said. “From three different countries. It’s clearly a global concern.”
“I think multicultural has finally taken hold in Europe,” said Neal Porter, publisher of Roaring Brook’s Neal Porter Books. “And I’m seeing a lot of displaced refugees in picture books as well as novels. It’s hard—it’s well-intentioned, but it all comes down to the story.” Another observation by Porter about the picture books he’s been seeing at the fair: “So much poop. A mountain of poop. It used to be just Germany but now it’s all over the world.”
DreamWorks development executive Damon Ross flew into town on the heels of an enviable feat: Boss Baby, which his company produced and which opened last Friday, was the #1 movie in America over the weekend, edging out the blockbuster Beauty and the Beast. “We’re so thrilled, so proud of the movie,” he said. DreamWorks’s adaptation of Captain Underpants will follow soon, on June 2. “Family movies are consistently working,” Ross noted. And more is on the horizon: last week DreamWorks Animation snapped up film rights for How to Train Your Dragon author Cressida Crowell’s new fantasy series, The Wizards of Once.
“Bologna has been great for us, particularly as it is the first [children's fair] after the Netherlands was guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year,” said Agnes Vogt, children’s book specialist at the Dutch Foundation for Literature. “There were 350 Dutch [adult and children’s] books translated into German last year, and since more people can read German than Dutch, naturally we are seeing a lot of interest in those books here in Bologna.” Vogt noted strong interest in literary and narrative nonfiction—Gerda Dendooven’s Stella, Star of the Sea, the story of a refugee, has been nominated for the Woutertje Pieterse Prijs—as well as a trend noticeable in the U.S. market: children’s and YA adaptations of popular adult nonfiction titles, such as We Are Our Brains by D.F. Swaab.
“This is my first time at the fair and it has given me a lot of confidence,” said Rocío Barros, digital publisher and editor at Chilean publisher Pehuén. “Before I got here I felt that Chile must be so different from everywhere else in the world,” she said. That opinion changed after Barros attended the Dust or Magic masterclass for app developers on Sunday. “Hearing from so many people that they were ‘happy to be surviving,’ I understand that we are all the same. ... What I realized is that the digital world is a local world, and content really has to be local. If I want to sell books to schools, which I do, those books have to be distinctly Chilean and distinctly local.”
New York–based teacher and author Monica Edinger, taking advantage of a sabbatical to attend the fair for the first time, was simply taking it all in. “It’s pretty overwhelming, in an amazing way, to see the expansiveness and the beauty of these children’s books from all over the world.”
On Monday night, the winners of the BOP Prize, awarded to top children’s publishers in six territories, were announced: Ganndal (Republic of Guinea) for Africa, Borim Press (South Korea) for Asia, Babel Libros (Colombia) for Central and South America, Orecchio Acerbo Editore (Italy) for Europe, Kids Can Press (Canada) for North America, and Berbay (Australia) for Oceania.