Though the Bologna Children’s Book Fair returned as an in-person event last year, after being closed in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, this year’s show confirmed that it’s back to its prepandemic self. Nearly 29,000 publishing professionals were in Bologna for the 60th edition of the fair last week, a 25% increase over 2022 and roughly equal to the number who attended in 2019. There were 1,456 exhibitors from 90 countries and regions—a little more than the 1,442 exhibitors that made the trip in 2019. In addition to the children’s-focused programming, the Bologna Licensing Trade Fair and BolognaBookPlus, an extension of the fair dedicated to general trade publishing, took place March 6–9 as well.

“The fair is bigger than it had been in the last few years, and it’s a nicer experience with the renovations that have happened,” said Prashant Pathak, publisher of Wonder House Books from Delhi, India. “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.

Americans were scarce in Bologna in 2022, but not so this year. Scholastic v-p and group publisher Lori Benton said, “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.”

Andy Cummings, editor in chief of Lerner Publishing Group, was also glad to return to Bologna. “It’s terrific to be back,” he said. “It’s been helpful to hear what’s working in certain markets. While we still can’t take anything for granted, people are eager to work together and publish great books together.”

Prize giving is always a part of Bologna, and this year was no exception. In a live broadcast from Stockholm on March 7 that was simultaneously shown at the fair, U.S. author Laurie Halse Anderson was announced as the winner of the 2023 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest children’s book prize, worth five million Swedish krona (more than $450,000 at present exchange rates). The ALMA jury’s citation stated, “In her tightly written novels for young adults, Laurie Halse Anderson gives voice to the search for meaning, identity, and truth, both in the present and the past. Her darkly radiant realism reveals the vital role of time and memory in young people’s lives.”

Anderson made her children’s debut in 1996 with the picture book Ndito Runs, illustrated by Anita Van Der Merwe, about a Kenyan girl who races barefoot across the countryside. In 1999, she published her first YA novel, Speak, which is considered her breakthrough. Lauded for its powerful depiction of a rape survivor’s experience, the book has been translated into several languages. She is also the author of the 2019 memoir-in-verse Shout, in which she explores her own experience as a rape survivor, and the process of learning to use her voice through literature. Her other notable books depicting difficult subjects include Wintergirls (2009), and The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014).

Frequently the target of book-banning efforts, Anderson is also active in the fight against censorship, and a panel moderated by Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, addressed the growing threat of book censorship around the world. Giorgia Grilli, professor of children’s literature and cofounder of the Center for Research in Children’s Literature in the Department of Education at the University of Bologna, began by pointing out that in the U.S., there are more than 1,000 titles banned in schools, according to estimates. “In Italy, we have a deeper problem: we don’t have books in schools,” she said, sardonically.

Grilli noted that banning books in democratic societies may backfire. “Talking about these books makes them more widespread; it gives them more power,” she explained. Her deeper concern is about self-censorship: “When artists are not willing to write about something that is ideologically charged, when artists adapt to the dominant view—this is the world that worries me.” She added that she longs for more representations of children in picture books as mysterious and melancholy creatures with a wide range of emotions, and not just as open-mouthed, starry-eyed, and smiling. “In which world had they grown? I want books with unconventional representations of children,” Grilli said.

Author David Levithan compared Vladimir Putin’s book banning in Russia and Ron DeSantis’s bans in Florida, both of which target books with LGBTQ content. “What the far right is doing in our country, conservatives in your countries are taking notes from,” Levithan said. “It’s systematic, and a book censorship playbook is at work.” The harm won’t be to publishers or libraries, but to the children, he added. “The books don’t matter in this. The children do. It’s an effort by the far right to push the kids back into the closet. The far right don’t care if they kill themselves there.”

Levithan pointed out that the recent discussion around revising Roald Dahl’s books was merely a distraction from the larger, more urgent issue at hand. “Many authors have asked me, ‘Do you think this means I won’t be published anymore?’ ” he said, adding that he came to Bologna to ring the alarm. “This is a crucial moment. We need to keep publishing these books! The whole publishing chain needs to be there. Even a wobble in one part might cause a chilling effect.”

An audience member asked panelists, “Where do publishers step in? What have you seen done [by publishers] so far?”

“We were really caught off-guard,” said Jon Anderson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster’s children’s division. “It’s a fight. A major fight,” but “the forces of good are becoming fully mobilized.”

Next year’s edition of the fair is scheduled to take place April 8–11 and will feature Slovenia as the Guest of Honor country.