The 60th Bologna Children’s Book Fair kicked off today, drawing 1,456 exhibitors hailing from 90 countries and regions of the world. This is more than in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when there were 1,442 exhibitors. In addition to the children’s-focused programming, also taking place are the Bologna Licensing Trade Fair and BolognaBookPlus, an extension of the fair dedicated to general trade publishing.

Although the fair had returned in-person in 2022, publishers seem even more delighted to return this year as Covid anxiety continues to fade. The halls are filled with enthusiastic reunions—more hugging and less elbow-bumping. Scholastic v-p and group publisher Lori Benton told PW, “It’s so exciting to be back and a little surreal but it also feels like we were just here. It’s a perfect blend of excitement and familiar. And just to be back in Bologna feels like seeing an old friend.”

That energy is reflected in the books as well. “I’m only five appointments in,” said Paula Wiseman, v-p and publisher of Paula Wiseman Books at Simon & Schuster, “but I feel like there’s a joy in the books I’m seeing—bright colors, a real vibrancy. It feels like people want to be happy.”

“The fair is bigger than in the last few years and a nicer experience with the renovations that have happened,” Prashant Pathak, publisher of Wonder House Books from Delhi, India, said. “The big trend for us is that we are seeing a need for more self-help books for children, on topics like mindfulness and time and anger management. I think the pandemic played a big role in putting a spotlight on mental health.” Wonder House will begin distributing its titles through IPG in the U.S. in June. Pathak cited high demand for boxed-set editions of books focused on simple subjects, such as learning the alphabet and numbers. “Library sales have already begun and we had an order of 1,400 copies of our books from the California state library system.”

Tamer Said, publisher of Kalimat Books from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, said the company’s strategy for publishing internationally is paying off. “When we started coming to Bologna more than a decade ago, we specifically sought to work with and hire the best international illustrators. This way we were able to create collaborations with Arabic writers and international illustrators. Now, our books have a recognizable, international style that is appealing to publishers across the world who are buying rights. It has been a huge success for us, this integration and mixing of cultures,” he said. “In addition, readers across the world are becoming more comfortable with the Arabic culture and see the themes of our books as universal, which is helping to grow the market as well.”

Philippe Werck, publisher and CEO at Clavis in Belgium, who is attending his 37th Bologna fair, said, “It’s great to be back to almost normal. I know how things have changed here over the years, but I’m happy the fair is still focused on physical books.” Werck said that Covid actually help boost sales for Clavis, he suspects because, as in other countries, parents were eager to buy books to keep their children engaged during lockdown. Sales are holding steady, he said.

As part of its effort to identify new talent, Clavis is gearing up to launch a Chinese edition of its Key Colors Competition for emerging author-illustrators. Hosted in other international markets since 1996 and in the U.S. since 2021, the competition was created to provide publishing opportunities for aspiring artists. Clavis has also started an educational program for children’s book creators, called the Dream Academy. Editor Greet Poelmans said the two-day course, held in-person at Clavis’s headquarters in Belgium, offers one-on-one feedback and instruction for a group of eight authors and eight illustrators. The inspiration for the Dream Academy grew out of the publishers’ desire to address some of the recurring issues the editors noticed in unsolicited submissions, which totaled 3,500 in 2022, and to elevate the quality of those manuscripts.

A presentation on international markets by Andre Breedt, managing director of Nielsen BookData, offered an overview of book sales from several countries, including South Africa, the U.K., and Greece. Among the most notable revelations was a shift in sales away from YA to pre-school and picture books in the U.K. “I think, broadly speaking, this is a result of the product mix that is currently on offer in stores,” Breedt said, “though I would rather not speculate.” He noted that TikTok, too, has influenced the sales of books—primarily romance novels, bought by women under the age of 35. “They have spent 39 million pounds on TikTok books,” i.e. books that reference TikTok in their metadata, Breedt said.

Meanwhile, Back on the Home Front

In Italy, children’s books are among the most important parts of the book market and represent 17% of total sales. In all, 8,850 children’s books were published in Italy last year, along with an additional 2,101 e-books. Total sales based on cover price amounted to 268.4 million euros in 2022, reflecting a drop in revenue of 3.7% from 2021, but a hike of 12.8% over 2019. When it comes to rights sales in Italy, children’s books are even more important, representing a third of all rights sold, and totaled 2,812 books in 2022. “Italian publishing is working with an international viewpoint and children’s books and the rights sold for them are key to this. A growing number of co-editions are an indication that interest in Italian books is growing as well,” Bruno Giancarli said during a presentation as part of the BolognaBookPlus program on Monday morning.

One fear Italian publishers have is the prospect of a demographic crash that will see the number of Italian children fall precipitously in coming years. “We have already lost a million children aged 0-14 as a part of the overall population in the past decade,” Giancarli said. “The only place where it is worse is Japan.”

The top 10 bestselling children’s books in Italy that are translations are those you would expect: there are four Harry Potter titles on the list and two Wimpy Kid books. The top 10 bestselling children’s books by Italian writers for 2022 look very different. “Eight of the top 10 are by YouTube stars,” Giancarli said. “It’s likely because they are easy to recognize in the bookstore.” The 11th bestselling book of 2022 was also unique: backlist author Gianni Rodari’s La Luna di Kiev, from Einaudi, with all sales benefitting the Italian Red Cross, which supported relief efforts in Ukraine. BCBF is celebrating Rodari’s centenary (which was in 2020, at the height of the pandemic) with an exhibit of original works by 21 Italian illustrators, including Bruno Munari and Emanuele Luzzati, as well as contemporary artists.

McEvoy Group president Jack Jensen summed up the upbeat mood in saying, “What could be better than early spring in Bologna? The fair is well attended and vibrant, no one is moaning about books not selling, people have smiles on their faces and are having fun.”