The Bologna Children’s Book Fair will run March 21–24 in its usual venue at the BolognaFiere exhibition center in Bologna, Italy. It will be the first time since 2019 that the fair will be held in person. Organizers say they’ve booked 950 exhibitors, down from 1,200 in 2018 and 2019. Sixty American companies, primarily small and medium publishing houses, will attend. Among the largest publishing houses, Random House says it will not be sending anyone to Bologna, while HarperCollins says it will send two people from its rights team and Simon & Schuster says it will send one. Chronicle Books says it will send three people, including Jack Jensen, president of the McEvoy Group. From Abrams, CEO Michael Jacobs plans to attend.

Among the other American houses in attendance will be Levine Querido, which won the Bologna Prize for best North American children’s publisher in 2021. It will be exhibiting alongside Querido Netherlands at a shared booth. LQ publisher Arthur A. Levine will attend the fair and host a meet and greet for debut author-illustrator Ellen Heck (A Is for Bee).

Longtime fairgoer Christopher Franceschelli, publisher of Handprint Books, says he “can’t wait to get back to the fair, because I think that good publishing only happens when there’s a necessary creative friction between authors, artists, editors and publishers.” His schedule is “definitely lighter” than in previous years, but, he adds, “I think that’s a terrific opportunity to go out and find new publishers whom I haven’t worked with in the past.”

Rachel Horowitz, senior director of subsidiary rights for HarperCollins Children’s Books, says despite the pandemic, “foreign licensing has been robust,” and her team adapted quickly to working virtually. Still, they “missed the magic that can happen at fairs, the natural conversations about books and authors, the galleys shared on trains.” At Bologna they have three days of meetings and full schedules. “We will also have two team members taking meetings virtually, concurrently, at home in New York,” she adds.

Elena Pasoli, Bologna’s program director, emphasizes that despite the reluctance of some publishers—particularly those from North America—to travel, this is in no way a “minor” fair. “We expect it will have the excitement and energy it always has,” she says, noting that the fair will have exhibitors from 85 countries, the most ever. Among English-speaking countries, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand will all have collective stands. “There are more publishers coming from Latin America than we initially anticipated,” Pasoli adds, “and from Asia, we have publishers from Indonesia, Korea, and Taiwan.”

One country that is unlikely to have representatives in Bologna is China. The Shanghai Children’s International Book Fair moved from November 2021 and was rescheduled to overlap with Bologna this year, but it has since been rescheduled again for July 22–24. Russia’s national collective stand has also been banned from the fair following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, though Pasoli says Bologna will welcome independent Russian publishers—those not affiliated with the government—should they be able to travel. To assist and show support for Ukrainian publishers, the fair is offering an exhibition focused on Ukrainian books, with titles chosen from among those submitted to the BolognaRagazzi Award over the past years. International publishers attending the fair have also been asked to bring along Ukrainian books translated and published in their own countries.

The excitement returns

The theme of this year’s fair is “Children’s Content Rocks: Join the Party!”—and Pasoli says that networking and gatherings will be a part of the event, including the traditional party on the opening night for exhibitors at the Palazzo Re Enzo in the city center. Covid is still a concern, however, and while the fair will allow socializing, hosts will be encouraged to limit the number of people congregating at any one time. Masks will be mandatory throughout the fair, and Covid testing will be available on site.

The participation of illustrators is a key component of Bologna, and it remains to be seen how many will make the trip. The fair is known for being papered with postcards depicting the work of aspiring artists, which gives it much of its color. “We hope we’ll see similar numbers of illustrators as in the past,” says Pasoli, who pointed out that “the fair had 4,000 people send in work to this year’s Illustrators Exhibition, and there will be, as usual, a huge Illustrators Survival Corner”—a reference to the fair’s programming track that offers live, in-person instruction on best practices for illustrators to develop their careers.

Despite the various challenges presented by travel restrictions linked to the pandemic and the fighting in Ukraine, Europeans—especially European literary agents—expressed the most eagerness to return to Bologna.

French literary agent Hannele Legras says her firm will be attending and participating in the French collective stand. “We are really happy to be attending Bologna,” she says. “Our schedules are filling in well, more than we expected at first. The publishers we represent, all independent and creative publishers, will also be there to tour the fair and get together with their international friends.”

Gemma Cooper, Amelia Hodgson, and Molly Ker Hawn, all with the Bent Agency in the U.K., are planning to attend and will be set up with two tables at the Agents Center. “We’re doing three days of meetings and our schedule is filling up, which is exciting,” Cooper says. “We weren’t sure how many international editors would be going, but so far, it’s a good number.”

Chiara Tognetti launched her eponymous foreign rights agency, based in Milan, during the pandemic. “For me, this is a very exciting time,” she says. “I cannot wait to meet international publishers in person again, physical books in hand. The fair always provides an unbeatable overview of how the market is moving. I know it won’t quite be the same as in pre-Covid times, but it is energizing to plan a physical book fair, and my schedule is already nearly full. Fingers crossed it all goes ahead—it will be a real boost to the international publishing business.”

Comics, reading challenges, and more

Tognetti is among those agents surveyed by PW who observed that graphic novels, comics, and manga sales are booming and are a trend to watch. The fair will offer several areas of focus related to comics, including a new Comics Corner, with events covering opportunities for comics creators and networking sessions to help foster collaboration, as well as a discussion with educators about how to integrate more comics into curricula. The fair’s International Conference of Independent Children’s Bookshops will also focus on comics and graphic novels, and will include several panels with booksellers and comics store owners.

Digital publishing will be the focus of a series of seminars titled Back to the Future—10 Years into Digital Publishing, which will look at the development and success of several digital publishing providers over the course of the past 10 years. These include Wonderz, a digital app platform from Germany; Sky Ship, a Canadian kids entertainment company; and Piboco, a multimedia book production company based in Denmark.

Another key conference, Pasoli notes, is Infanzie ai margini (Childhood on the Edge), which will explore how to address reading challenges in “book deserts” around the world. The conversation will be led by Patsy Aldana, Canadian publisher and president of IBBY Trust, and will include Zohreh Ghaeni, children’s literature expert and head of the Iranian Read with Me project; Bel Santos Mayer of Ibeac, a Brazilian community support institute working with children in favelas; Maria Beatriz Medina, from Banco del Libro de Venezuela; and Alison Tweed, chief executive, Book Aid International, UK/Africa. “We are always looking ahead to how we can foster a love of books and reading among the next generation,” Pasoli says, “not just for those privileged readers in North America, Europe, and Asia but everywhere.”

Arabic and African publishing

The Guest of Honor this year is the United Arab Emirate of Sharjah. Sharjah was UNESCO World Book Capital 2019–2020 and was originally scheduled to participate in the fair in 2020, before it was canceled. More than 30 Arab writers, illustrators, artists, and storytellers will be showcased in a series of events, including two exhibitions: one featuring Arabic publishing and illustration called Insight, Reflect, and a second exhibiting books from the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature competition.

A special program will also focus, for the first time at Bologna, exclusively on books and publishing from Africa. “The program was born out of the passion of Bodour al Quasimi of the International Publishers Association, who offered assistance and sponsorship from the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund,” Pasoli says. A dedicated exhibition area will host publishing professionals from several countries, including Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe. “We are particularly excited to feature books in Indigenous languages and discuss about how children’s publishing goes a long way to helping preserve Indigenous languages,” Pasoli adds.

BolognaBooksPlus lifts off

BolognaBooksPlus, which was inaugurated last year as a way to incorporate more general trade education into the fair, will offer four days of programming, including a focus on training for aspiring literary agents, as well as information on self-publishing, literary translation, and book covers. Michèle Roberts will serve as the first Author Ambassador for BBP.

BBP begins March 20 with a program titled “How to Sell Rights and Understand Licensing in Children’s Books,” geared toward those starting out in rights, contracts, and licensing in children’s publishing. This will be followed on March 21 with a day of insights looking at “How to Self-Publish in Italy and Abroad.”

On March 22, a new session, “Call Your Agent: How to Become a Successful Literary Agent,” will offer training for aspiring literary agents, as well as advice and guidance for those getting started in the profession.

“The program reflects the ingenuity,
creativity, and ambition of our industry across the globe, whilst introducing events and conferences that support the industry of tomorrow,” says Jacks Thomas, guest director for BBP.

The all-year book fair

Many of the BBP sessions will be available to stream later, says Pasoli, who adds that the fair is working toward offering year-round digital programming, which includes Open Up—The BCBF Skill Box, a series of online master classes, workshops, and on-demand conferences. Another aspect of Bologna’s year-round push is its Global Rights Exchange, created in collaboration with PubMatch and the Aldus Up European book fairs network, which launched in 2020 and offers rights buyers and sellers the opportunity to network and, ideally, strike rights deals entirely online.

In late 2021, Pasoli and her team went on a book fair “grand tour,” which saw them participate in the Frankfurt Book Fair, Sharjah Book Fair, and Salon du Livre de Montreuil in Paris. Bologna exhibited at the Guadalajara Book Fair in Mexico in November, where it offered master classes from several notable Italian illustrators. Then, in December, Bologna hosted a fellowship program for eight young professionals to visit the Più Libri Più Liberi book fair in Rome in December.

“It was an important way for us to stay in contact with our community of book professionals,” Pasoli says. “Also, it gave us a chance to understand what was and what was not working at various fairs, so we could put the best ideas into practice in Bologna.”

While Bologna won’t be holding an official fellowship program this year, as it has in the past, it is sponsoring 135 professionals to attend its fair. Some of these professionals were introduced to the fair and its team during their travels in 2021.

“I suppose you could say that this was a silver lining to the pandemic, as we got to expand our network in a way we might not have done otherwise,” Pasoli says. “Maybe if the world stops with the nightmares we can get back to normal. But until that happens, we will have to adjust. Though some world events may make my heart heavy, I am hopeful, and I am very optimistic and enthusiastic about the fair.”