For the second year in a row, the in-person Bologna Children’s Book Fair has been canceled and replaced with a virtual event, which this year runs June 14–17. Organizers had previously postponed the fair from March to June in hopes of being able to hold an in-person event, but those hopes were dashed by a surge in Covid-19 cases and Europe’s slow vaccination rollout. Last year’s virtual event was something of an improvisation, but with a year to plan and prepare, the organizers have created a more robust program.

“We have been coping as best we can with the ongoing pandemic and have accepted the challenge,” says Elena Pasoli, director of the BCBF. “In 2020, we were the first fair to go virtual and were at the vanguard, so we feel we have learned a lot from that experience and all the other fairs that followed.”

Though the core of the 2021 fair is scheduled for June, organizers have added numerous conferences, seminars, and master classes, which will take place throughout the year, and BCBF is also maintaining its collaborations with the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, the Moscow Book Fair, and the China Shanghai International Children’s Book Festival. In addition, BCBF has added numerous on-demand webinars to aid professional development.

Gateway events

Among the events taking place prior to the main fair will be a Copyright Symposium, in partnership with the International Publishers Association, on June 7. The session will cover strategies for protecting the book market from illegal copying and for enforcing of copyright laws. On June 9, participants in a State of the Nations executive roundtable will discuss pandemic-era publishing. Panelists include Roberto Banchik, CEO of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, Mexico; Louise Sherwin-Stark, CEO of Hachette Australia; Håkan Rudels, CEO of Bonnier Books; and Chantal Restivo-Alessi, CEO, international foreign language and chief digital officer at HarperCollins. The moderator will be Richard Charkin, founder of Mensch Publishing in the U.K.

Illustration is front and center

As always, the work of children’s book illustrators is central to BCBF. At midnight on June 11, the fair will begin a 24-hour marathon of illustrators’ portfolio reviews. This event involves a roster of 24 judges, each in a different time zone, who will in turn review 10 illustrators’ portfolios—240 illustrators in all.

When BCBF gets fully underway on June 14, the prestigious Illustrators Exhibition will once again be virtual. Some 3,235 illustrators submitted their work for consideration, and the jurors chose the work of 77 illustrators for the exhibition. The goal is to highlight the best emerging talent among children’s illustrators.

BCBF has already launched the Illustrators Wall, an online exhibition that allows any illustrator to post a single image along with their contact details. The exhibition is meant to mimic a practice that is traditional at in-person editions of the fair, where illustrators fill up designated wall spaces with postcards showing samples of their work—often one of the first things seen by visitors entering the fairgrounds. Last year’s virtual wall featured illustrators from 63 countries. This year’s wall was launched on April 23 and will run through the end of August.

BCBF will also feature an exhibition of cover art by illustrators under 35, and a solo show of the work of Sarah Mazzetti, winner of the BCBF-Fundación SM International Award for Illustration, among numerous other events. The Italian Excellence exhibition, highlighting the next generation of Italian children’s illustrators, will also be virtual this year.

Awards are highlights

As is customary, BCBF will present the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publishers of the Year, as well as the BolognaRagazzi Awards, which showcase the best titles in several categories. This year, one significant change was made: the Bologna prizes for digital apps have been converted into one for cross media. “This award honors works that began as storytelling editorial projects and then are adapted into different formats—whether they are apps, television series, or movies,” Pasoli says. “So long as it is a narrative extension that originated in another media.”

BCBF is supporting comics and graphic novels, which Pasoli says is “among the fastest-growing segments of the children’s publishing business,” with a permanent new BolognaRagazzi Award and the Comics Corner, an exhibition that debuted last year.

Celebrating poetry and Dante

“One big theme for this year’s fair is poetry,” Pasoli says. “We want to highlight poetry for young readers, and the way poetry and illustration works together to a whole greater than its parts.”

The 2021 special category for the BolognaRagazzi Awards, which changes each year, is poetry. The prize will consider works ranging from poetry for young children to poetry by and for young adults. “If you look at the popularity of Amanda Gorman around the world, you can see just how much impact poetry is having on the public discourse,” Pasoli says.

This year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. To mark the occasion, BCBF is producing an online exhibition, Discovering Dante Through Pictures, which will showcase books dedicated to him. An academic seminar will gather some of the world’s leading Dante scholars to discuss his legacy and his impact on contemporary writers. The scholars include Jacob Blakesley, associate professor of comparative literature and literary translation and codirector of the Centre for Dante Studies at the University of Leeds; Daniel Newman, professor in modern languages and cultures at Durham University, U.K.; and Yao Yi, editorial lead for international literature at Yilin Press and editor of the 700th Anniversary Illustrated Collection of the Divine Comedy, translated into Chinese and published in China.

Global Rights Exchange returns

BCBF is also expanding its Global Rights Exchange, the virtual rights trading platform it debuted last year. The platform is now designed “to support dialogue and international business throughout the year, helping publishers remain in constant contact and bridging the gap from one trade show to the next,” Pasoli says.

The enhanced version of the Global Rights Exchange offers better search functionality, customized book showcases, chat rooms with translation services, and videoconferencing, says Jon Malinowski, the founder of PubMatch, which runs the platform. Currently, there are 1,200 exhibitors and visitors registered on the site, and that number continues to grow. This year, the exchange will also serve as a rights platform for the Bologna Licensing Trade Fair, which will take place concurrently with BCBF. Use of the Global Rights Exchange is restricted to publishers, agents, licensees, and other professionals and will be free until the end of the year.

BolognaBooksPlus caters to the general trade

Augmenting its plans in the children’s publishing space, BCBF has announced several new digital initiatives. One of these is the Open Up the BCBF Skill Box, a series of professional development events, which, Pasoli says, aims to foster a “digital environment where professions, skills, and cultures can come together to create unique opportunities for exchange.” Central to the series is the new BolognaBookPlus conference, which has been co-organized with the Italian Publishers Association and offers panels and training seminars for both children’s publishers and the general book trade. To oversee the event, Pasoli enlisted Jacks Thomas, who most recently served as the director of the London Book Fair, a post she left last year.

“We’re looking at a wide variety of topics that the pandemic has put a spotlight on, as well as postpandemic planning,” Thomas says. The key event for Bologna-BookPlus is Forging Forward, a conference on June 14 that will address a variety of issues facing the publishing industry as it emerges from the pandemic. “We will have discussions covering changing reading habits, securing the next generation of readers, equality in education, whether the pandemic changed the role of publishing, sustainability for the industry, and taking local content global,” Thomas notes. Cochairs are Bodour Al Qasimi, president of the IPA, and Charkin from Mensch Publishing. There are more than a dozen speakers participating in the event, including Allen Lau, CEO of Wattpad; Brian O’Leary, executive director of BISG; Karine Pansa, v-p of the IPA; and literary agent Carolyn Michel, chair of the Hay Festivals. The author ambassador for BolognaBookPlus is Victoria Hislop, author of Clothes and Other Things That Matter.

Another aspect of BolognaBookPlus will be the inaugural half-day Literary Translation Forum, which is being produced in conjunction with Words Without Borders and Aldus Up, the European book fairs network. The event will include a panel titled “Who Gets to Translate?,” which will look at diversity and inclusion issues, as well as a translation slam in Italian and English hosted by two eminent translators. Finally, a “Reboot” seminar, run by publishing consultants Carlo Carrenho and Ruediger Wischenbart, will present new models to conceptualize publishing processes and business.

It is built, but will people come?

The impact of shifting BCBF from March to June remains to be seen, but publishers are adamant that the show must go on. Paolo Canton, cofounder of the publishing house Topipittori, a publisher of illustrated children’s books based in Milan, says, “When I heard the news that the BCBF planned to hold an in-person fair earlier this year, I had mixed feelings: the pandemic was—and still is—very bad in Italy. I was not sure that any of us at the company would be vaccinated in time for the BCBF. But I knew one thing for sure: if there was going to be a BCBF, I was going to have to be there. So, we will participate in the BCBF online.”

Canton notes that the online fair will not be the same as the in-person event, but, he adds, it will help Topipittori maintain and consolidate relations with its foreign partners. “We do not know what to expect from it, but we are sure the BCBF staff will do the best to promote international children’s books and publishers with the tools and resources they have available,” he says.

Pasoli says the future of BCBF is likely to be “a bit hybrid” and that the organizers intend to learn even more about what works best before fairgoers return in person in 2022, when BCBF is scheduled for March 21–24. But there is still this year to navigate. “Overall, we are very pleased with the way the fair has come together,” she notes. “We’ve really invested a lot of money, time, and thought into this year’s fair, and we anticipate it will be a great success.”