After a 2009 fair, when many Americans stayed home over economic worries, the 2010 Bologna Children's Book Fair proved a much more upbeat gathering. “There's a lot of activity, and everyone I'm talking to seems positive,” said Andrew Smith, deputy publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, during the fair, which ran from March 23 to 26. HarperCollins's children's rights director, Helen Boomer, said it was “great to see many of the publishers who skipped last year return this year.” The positive attitude at the fair stood out, according to Holiday House editor-in-chief Mary Cash, “mostly because it was conspicuously absent last year. I think the fact that there had been quite a bit of sales activity just before Bologna meant that people were already feeling good when they walked in the gate.” Cash said she had seen fewer picture books from many European publishers, “but the quality of what I saw was high. I think that this recession has inspired many publishers to focus on their strongest talent.”
Teen books were still unquestionably the hottest category at Bologna, with a number of big-ticket series announced in the runup to the fair, and with many stands showcasing new YA offerings. “It all seemed to be about teen fiction this year,” said Boomer at HarperCollins, “with an emphasis on the paranormal. Angels, demons, and dystopian novels appear to be in high demand.” As Random House's Beverly Horowitz pointed out, the trilogy is still king. “It's not as easy to find that single, powerful voice in one book,” she said. “Everyone seems to be trying to write series.”
While Andrew Karre of Lerner Publishing called the high profile of YA “fantastic,” he raised a cautionary note. “My concern is that we not forget that this is a genre that lives and dies by characters—teenage characters. I worry that we might get a little too wrapped up in big concepts—dystopia, paranormal, whatever else is next—and forget about young adult characters and young adult experience, especially with the rising specter of crossover appeal. If we do that, will we still have YA as we've come to love it, or do we just have a kind of popular trendy fiction?”
In Japan, in fact, the paranormal genre has not been as successful as elsewhere in the world, said Rei Uemura of Tokuma Shoten Publishing. “There are too many zombies, vampires, werewolves. I can't tell them apart anymore. I'm looking for something uplifting and positive, but I haven't seen many of those.”
Several U.S. rights directors reported being told by editors that their teen lists were filled, and that they were seeking more middle-grade fiction. The consensus was that there's currently more demand for middle-grade than there are good projects to show. Penguin's Jen Haller said, “People are bringing a lot of teen fiction to sell, but they're looking for middle-grade.”
Angela Namoi, Allen & Unwin's rights director, said that her company, along with other Australian publishers, is on the forefront of what she sees as a new trend in YA: the phenomenon of the crossover, with some of their books published as YA in some countries, and by adult imprints in other countries. “We have half a dozen titles on our list that don't fit comfortably into YA,” she said, pointing to Mice by Gordon Reece, a psychological thriller bought by Kendra Harpster at Viking as an adult book (“it's gone to adult publishers everywhere”), which will be published by Macmillan in the U.K. as an adult title and later in simultaneous adult and YA paperback editions. Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, on the other hand, which Knopf published as a YA in the U.S. in 2008, was originally published by A&I in Australia as an adult title.
What's behind this development? “We've been doing YA for 20 years,” Namoi postulated, “and our readership still wants what we gave them as teenagers, and what they don't get from adult books. Authors like Sonya Hartnett, Melina Marchetta—people of all ages are reading them. We've created an audience for that.” And it's not just an Australian readership, she added, pointing out that several German publishers, such as Fischer, are currently setting up crossover lists.
Roaring Brook publisher Simon Boughton corroborated Namoi's theory, reflecting on the amount of material he was shown at the fair containing “murder and mayhem.” He added, “At least two publishers have told me about a book and said, 'It's Stieg Larsson for teens.' The books are pushing the teen thriller boundary. A number of books we've seen, we've wondered, is this teen or is this adult?”
In a fiction-dominated fair, one picture book did capture some of the buzz of days gone by: Un Livre by Hervé Tullet. Published this past January by Editions Bayard in France, the book was “the hit of the fair for us,” said Bayard's Sibylle Le Maire. “Coming from a picture book, we have not seen that for years!” The book is already being reprinted in France and was sold before Bologna into Germany, Japan, Korea, and the Netherlands. Bayard is about to hold an auction among the 10 U.S. and U.K. publishers that Le Maire said were “strongly interested” at the fair.
It wasn't all returnees who gave Bologna 2010 a bounce. First-timer Kathy Dawson, who recently returned to Penguin, said she found the fair “the perfect mix of business intensity and total relaxation. It was impossible to have a bad meal, and so much fun to walk everywhere and see people that I hadn't seen in a while. And yet it was really, really busy.” Good conversations, good books, and good food—no wonder everyone wants to come to Bologna. Next year's dates: Monday, March 28, through Thursday, March 31.