In a Bologna Children's Book Fair session called “Dead Bunnies and Naked Bottoms: Meeting the Challenges of Children’s Publishing Across Cultures,” held on April 9, moderator Maria Russo, former children’s books editor at the New York Times, explained the panel’s title: “In the U.S. a dead bunny is a red flag in a picture book, as is a naked bottom. In the rest of the world, these are regular elements in a picture book.”

The four panelists were asked to show a few successful titles for them, either originated by them and/or originated in another country. Dolores Prades, founder, director, and editor of Instituto Emília in Brazil, talked about her longtime mission to publish books from Africa in Brazil, beginning with Niki Daly. She came across Daly’s books at Bologna one year, “one of my first discoveries. Now, 20 years later, it’s an editorial choice I’m most proud of.” Daly’s picture books center on the daily life of a girl living with her parents and grandparents. Sosu’s Call by Meshack Asare is another book that’s been successful for Prades; Asare, born in Ghana and currently living in Germany, is a popular African children’s author.

Bologna veteran Neal Porter, publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House, said he has seen a lot of changes in the international market since he started attending the fair in the mid-1980s. “At that time, there was an explosion of the retail market for children’s books in the U.S., stemming from the large number of children’s bookshops that were opening. An easy way for American publishers to expand their lists was to acquire books from abroad at Bologna. This has ebbed and flowed over the years.”

Porter showed images from The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, [a picture book by graphic novelist and Guardian cartoonist Tom Gauld], which he published in 2020. “Of the books I’ve published, this book probably holds the record for foreign editions: 23 throughout Europe and Asia,” he said. Gauld has a “very inventive way of approaching fairy tales and making them his own. It’s been a tremendous pleasure to see how well this book has done in cultures other than our own.”

An example of a book he saw and bought at Bologna, back in 2007, was ABC3D by Marion Bataille, a pop-up alphabet book that took off after an enterprising marketing staffer created a short video for the book that went viral and now has 15 million views. “It may have been the beginning of digital marketing for children’s books,” he said. “It was thrilling to buy that book at the fair.” He remembers telling the originating publisher, “If you don’t sell me this book I may do serious damage.” He published it to “great success,” with 100,000 copies sold.

Another title he showed was I Talk Like a River, written by Jordan Scott, and illustrated by just-crowned Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Sydney Smith, a picture book about a boy with a stutter, and how his father likens the sounds of his speech to the flow of a river. “This is one of my favorite books I’ve ever published,” Porter said. The book won a number of international awards and had 19 co-editions.

Erik Titusson, publisher of Lilla Piratförlaget (Little Pirate) in Sweden, highlighted a book he bought from a Latvian publisher in 2020, called The Kiosk by Anete Melece, about a woman who is stuck working in a kiosk but dreaming of travel and adventure. “The Billy Goats Gruff Go to the Bathhouse by Bjørn F. Rørvik, which I bought from Norway, was the very first book I published,” he said.

In Sweden, he said, “there’s a long tradition of translating books from other parts of the world. In recent years, the number of translated books has been decreasing.” Currently, 32% of the books he publishes are in translation, compared to 50% in 2010. Retail space for children’s books in Sweden is “getting a bit smaller,” and Swedish books are being prioritized.

He recalled showing Porter a book at a previous Bologna Fair that he said had a lot of nudity in it. “Neal asked me, ‘Please, can I have a copy? Not to publish it, but to show my colleagues how crazy the Swedes are.”

Author-illustrator Beatrice Alemagna said she has been publishing picture books for 24 years—42 books to date. “Over the years, I realized that each one has a different life, depending on which country it was published into,” she told the audience. “I believe a reason for the success of any book is that children have fun.”

Alemagna talked about her book Never, Not Ever!, published three years ago and already translated into 15 languages. The book’s success, she feels, was due to it being “a weird story, about a bat who doesn’t want to go to school.”

Results, she said, can vary widely by country. What Is a Child?, her most translated book, has been published in 20 countries. “In Italy it’s a classic; in France it has been a failure,” she said. She showed the book’s covers in an array of languages and editions, pointing out that the British cover (Tate) was different from the other editions because the British publisher felt the image was reminiscent of pictures of children during war.

Russo asked the panelists what appeals to them about a picture book, whether they are acquiring it, editing it, or creating it. Titusson said he looks for “psychological truth” in a book. “You can trust that other people will feel the way you do. It’s also important to find editors who have a similar feeling about books as you.

Porter answered, “I tend to publish books selfishly, for me, or the five-year-old in me. I don’t think about whether the book is too sophisticated. But it’s very gratifying when others feel the same way I do about it.”

“With experience,” Alemagna said, “I’ve learned that the less I think about the audience and the more I focus on my emotion, the more sincere the book will be. The more I emotionally engage with my book, the more successful it will be.”