As Brexit, the Trump presidency, ongoing refugee crises, and other political upheavals create uncertainty across the globe, books with direct and indirect connections to empathy, diversity, and real-life tragedies were noticeably prominent at this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
“We saw a lot of books on refugees and immigrants, and other stories that tackle the very unsettled state of the world,” reported Eerdmans president and publisher Anita Eerdmans. “Some of those were stark and very powerful, and as is typical of international books, no sugarcoating or easy answers.” She said she spent some time at the fair looking at Iranian books, and met with a number of literature foundations. “They provide a tremendous amount of support to children’s literature and to promote their countries’ authors and illustrators around the world,” she said. “Hearing about their work is especially striking at a time when our country seems to be going in the opposite direction, and withdrawing support for literature and the arts.”
Margie Wolfe, publisher of Toronto’s Second Story Press, said that she was getting a lot of pop-in foot traffic, particularly as people spotted a poster for To Look a Nazi in the Eye by Kathy Kacer with Jordana Lebowitz, out this fall, which tells the true story of a teenage reporter who traveled to the trial of a Nazi war criminal. “In Europe, this type of story always attracts attention.” Wolfe also noted ongoing interest in books about refugees and said her April picture book Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney, a photo-essay-style book about young contemporary refugees, has already sold to nine countries.
“I saw three picture books from different U.K. publishers that encouraged kids to venture out of their comfort zones,” noted Sonali Fry, publisher of Little Bee Books. “I found this to be very interesting, as each book was about a child who was afraid to go through a door, see what was on the other side of the wall, or leave his room.” Fry also noticed a continuing interest in diverse subjects. “Our Freedom in Congo Square got a lot of attention from foreign publishers, which was great to see, since the subject matter is so U.S.-centric.”
Babar Maqbool, director of development for Maqbool Books, based in Lahore, Pakistan, reported significant interest in the publisher’s new YA book about the life of Muhammad, Stories from the Life of Muhammad by Tahira Arshed. “We have sold rights to France and Canada, and have several more deals lined up,” he said. “I think there’s a growing interest in books that explain the life of the Prophet, particularly in light of the political atmosphere.” The book, which is available in English, has sold 1,000 copies in the U.S. The company’s biggest hit of the past year was Duas for Me and My Family, a book of short Islamic prayers for children in Arabic, transliterated Arabic, and English, also written by Arshed. “That book sold 100,000 copies, and we put out a sequel for adults.” Also popular for the publisher has been collection of short books called Zayd’s Curious Little Stories, about a boy’s daily adventures with his family. Asked about its success, Maqbool remarked with a dry smile, “Hey, there are tons of people in the Middle East and Gulf named Zayed. We’re thinking of following this one up with a series starring a girl named Fatima.”
During a panel on children’s books about art, moderated by Maria Russo, children’s books editor at the New York Times, Charles Kim, associate publisher at the Museum of Modern Art, made the case that “museums are in a perfect position to reach out to the wider public, including children, through books.” Kim quoted Walter Dean Myers in pointing out that “Books transmit values, they explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?” The panel often addressed the topic of diversity, with Kim noting, “When it comes to who works at the museums in America and who makes decisions, the people are 85% white. How do we change that? It starts by letting people see themselves reflected in the children’s books. We need to show children of different cultures and cultures being themselves.”
Greek author Vagelis Iliopoulos, a nominee for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award, was busy on the Greek stand visiting with publishers. He remarked that his eight-book series about the Little Triangle Fish, which explores themes of tolerance and inclusion, has seen more and more interest, in light of current politics, and the fact that Greece is on the front line of the refugee crisis. “I published the first one of these in 1997 and now, 20 years later, they are made new again, as they are being used to teach children about living in a more multicultural society,” said Iliopoulos. “They are just as relevant as when they were conceived, maybe more so.” He added, “It is interesting in Greece, because we have so many refugees living in our country, and so many Greeks are economic refugees to other countries. So we have to work to prepare our children for possibly both experiences—to welcome strangers and to become a stranger.”