This year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF), which runs March 6–9, will feature 1,350 exhibitors—only 100 fewer than in 2019, the fair’s busiest year. “It’s all very much back to normal,” says Elena Pasoli, BCBF exhibition manager. The biggest factor in keeping the numbers below those of 2019, Pasoli says, is that companies from China and Russia aren’t attending. Total attendance is expected to be between 20,000 and 23,000, compared to a prepandemic level of around 30,000.
BCBF celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, it has enlisted 20 illustrators to shape the fair’s visual identity. Each illustrator was invited to create landscapes from Bologna and portraits of people, which have then been amalgamated into a coherent whole. The result is a “potpourri of styles that reflects the vitality of the fair,” Pasoli says. She notes that the 2023 fair is important not just because of the milestone reached but because of the overall change in the character of the event. “The fair has evolved from traditionally being focused exclusively on children’s books to catering to the general trade and rights professionals. This makes Bologna a capital of copyright. It is our biggest achievement and makes us proud of this celebration.”
The new focus on the rights trade is reflected in an expansion of the Bologna Rights Center, which will host agents and publishers representing both adult and children’s trade books (a total of 150 professionals are registered for the rights center this year). In addition, the BCBF is offering several training sessions and seminars related to rights, starting with a full-day event on March 5, “How to Sell Rights and Understand Licensing in Children’s Books,” chaired by Tracy Phillips, group rights director at Hachette Children’s Group in the U.K.
This is also the third year of the Bologna Global Rights Exchange, the digital rights trading platform that is a collaboration between Bologna and PubMatch. The exchange was launched in 2020 when the fair was shuttered due to the pandemic. U.K. book rights expert Diane Spivey has contributed a new series of instructional and editorial posts for the platform.
The BolognaBookPlus (BBP) program is now in its third year as well. BBP offers events catering to the general trade and is curated by guest director Jacks Thomas, formerly director of the London Book Fair. BBP is also where the fair has focused much of its rights activities, and it will feature a half-day training session, “Call Your Agent: How to Become a Successful Literary Agent,” on March 7. Lloyd Grossman, a television host, actor, and author widely known in the U.K., is the 2023 author ambassador for BBP. His most recent book is An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, the Pope and the Making of the Eternal City. Grossman is giving the keynote speech for the “Call Your Agent” panel and will have several staged conversations at the event, including talks with Thomas, U.K. publisher Richard Charkin, and historian Mark Gilbert.
“Ros Ramsay of RR Scouting in London is giving a talk about the role of scouts, which we believe is a first of its kind at any fair,” Thomas says. She notes that Bologna’s push to offer more rights-related activities was a natural expansion of its business, particularly in the wake of Brexit, which has made working with publishers in the U.K. more challenging for Europeans. “Embedded on the continent of Europe, particularly from Bologna, you get a different perspective,” Thomas adds.
To wit, BBP emphasizes continental cooperation and is offering a précis on the Italian book market, plus programming related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian publishing diaspora, and will inaugurate a market of honor program, which this year focuses on Greece. A total of 59 publishers, 10 authors, and two illustrators from Greece are participating. “The theme is ‘Same Face, Same Race,’ ” Pasoli says. “This makes sense when you look at Italians and Greeks, and you cannot tell us apart. We are so close, we are almost the same people.”
Nopi Chatzigeorgiou, coordinator of the Thessaloniki Book Fair, curated the program. “To have Greece—a small but high-quality market—be the guest of honor is a great opportunity for us,” she says. “We are proud of our literary culture and we invite the global book community to experience it.”
Illustrators on display
Greece’s illustration and design acumen will be the focus of the Illustration Book Jacket Design: Celebrating the Best of the Best event on March 8. Activities related to illustration sit at the heart of the BCBF, and, in 2019, some 6,300 illustrators attended. Activities for illustrators are centered on the Illustrator’s Survival Corner, which this year offers 150 different events, including portfolio reviews, master classes, and workshops.
For this year’s Illustrator’s Exhibition, 79 sets of illustrations by 80 artists from 28 countries and territories will be on display. In all, 4,345 illustrators from 91 countries and territories applied to be included.
The Folio Society, a publisher of hardcover illustrated collector’s editions from the U.K., is a main sponsor of the Illustrator’s Survival Corner. At the BCBF, Folio will solicit entries for the second Folio Book Illustration Award, with a £2,000 cash prize for the winner and £500 of Folio gift vouchers and a portfolio review for each of the five runners-up. Folio CEO Tom Walker says that last year more than 700 illustrators submitted work for the prize. “Interestingly, I think Gen Z clicks with Folio perhaps more than any other demographic. That is borne out in our customer base and social following, which has shifted dramatically in recent years.”
Advocacy takes center stage
On March 9, the Jackets Off! exhibition will present different visual interpretations of George Orwell’s contemporary classic 1984 across cultures and languages. Orwell is an appropriate subject, as governments around the world are increasingly censoring books. The BCBF will host a seminar on censorship and banned children’s books with Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books, author and editor David Levithan, and others. “We were inspired by David’s editorials for the Washington Post last year fighting against library book bans,” Thomas says. “What people don’t realize is that this is not just a North American problem, but one that is worldwide.”
In another act of advocacy, International Women’s Day, March 8, will be celebrated at the BCBF with a networking breakfast, a series of panel discussions, and a dance party organized by PublisHer, the international organization promoting women in publishing.
The BCBF’s second Spotlight on Africa program will bring numerous publishers from the continent for events and presentations to foster more global collaboration. A highlight will be the Book Dash, in which two teams will write, illustrate, and publish a pair of books—one in English and one in French—within 12 hours. The contest is based on South African publisher Book Dash’s publishing model, which was developed to produce diverse and inclusive high-quality picture books quickly. “The vision is that every child should own a hundred books by the age of five,” says Book Dash editor Zanri Kritzinger. So far, Book Dash has published 176 titles using its fast-creation methodology.
This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italian writer Italo Calvino, who will be celebrated in the exhibition Italian Excellence: Illustrations for Italo Calvino, which encompasses 120 illustrations for his books, some preexisting and some new, commissioned by his publisher, Mondadori.
In partnership with BBP, the European and International Booksellers Federation will host 11 booksellers from across Europe at the BCBF. The Associazione librerie indipendenti per ragazzi (Association of Independent Children’s Booksellers) has also curated a showcase of work from 20 independent Italian publishers that will be offered in the Indie Italian Publishers exhibition, in an effort to give the publishers more visibility.
The 16th edition of the Bologna Licensing Trade Fair/Kids will be held alongside the fair, adjacent to the main halls. The fair is geared toward providing licensing opportunities for brands focused on children, teens, and young adults, and exhibitors this year will include Mattel, Paramount, the Pokémon Company International, and Sanrio.
The BCBF’s digital program, somewhat scaled down from previous years, will feature several events about the mixing of the digital and physical worlds. Among the highlights is a session on how Canada’s Super Simple Songs, which started as a You Tube content creator, expanded into print book publishing and its cross-media collaboration with Scholastic.
Awards, awards, awards
The BCBF continues to acknowledge the evolving digital space through its BolognaRagazzi Crossmedia Awards, which this year added a new award for digital libraries and platforms that was won by Fonfon from Quebec. That said, at BCBF the focus is firmly on print, and the fair’s most prestigious prizes, the BolognaRagazzi Awards (BRAW) are offered for print work in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, comics, “opera prima” (debuts), and “new horizons,” which honors innovation. Each year the BRAW has a special category, and this year it’s photography. A total of 2,349 titles were submitted by 644 publishers from 59 countries and regions for consideration this year. The winners will be showcased at the special exhibition at the fair called the BRAW Amazing Bookshelf.
Also among the most closely watched prizes at the BCBF are the Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publishers of the Year, which is offered in six areas of the world: Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, Europe, North America, and Oceania. This year’s finalists in the North American category are Abrams, La Courte Échelle, Orca, Owlkids, and Red Comet. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on March 6, which will be followed by a 60th anniversary party.
A changing landscape
Many agents, illustrators, and publishers will be returning to the BCBF this year for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Benas Berantas, an author and literary agent from Lithuania, speaks for many when he says, “I hope there will be even more people returning for the anniversary, and I see a lot of first-timers planning to go, which is encouraging.”
Berantas points to a change in the content publishers are focused on. “The Bologna Book Fair is very visual in its nature, and picture books have been at the core of it,” he notes. “In fact, pasta and picture books must be the foundation for the fair. And while the recipe for the first is eternal, the recipe for a sought-after picture book is constantly changing. As an agent I see that publishers and editors are more and more looking for a combination of fiction and nonfiction in picture books. While aesthetic illustrations and moving stories always remain important, knowledge is getting more and more significant. But perhaps it’s time to witness another big and unpredictable trend?”
Molly Ker Hawn, managing director of the Bent Agency’s office in London, notes an increasing divergence between the English-language markets and the rest of the world when it comes to fiction. “Not every country is as interested in issues of representation as we’ve become in the U.S. and the U.K., and that can make some English-language fiction a tough sell, unless we pitch it just right,” she explains. However, she adds, there’s one general international trend: “Graphic novels are big. I think everyone wants a piece of that pie, but they’re all juggling production obstacles and localized tastes in illustration style.”
Marietta B. Zacker, co-owner of Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, and Ellen Greenberg, international rights director for the agency, agree. “After years of publishers saying that it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to publish graphic novels, it is heartening that this is exactly what they’re asking for now—and graphic novels for all ages,” Zacker says. Zacker and Greenberg both identify paper shortages and supply chain issues as having an ongoing impact on the industry, insofar as publishers are planning further ahead. “We could have never anticipated that page count would be scrutinized and become a deciding factor for some acquisitions,” Zacker adds.
Asked to identify one positive change that came from the pandemic, several people pointed to the widespread acceptance of electronic signatures on book contracts. “It is a small thing that makes a huge difference in getting our clients paid promptly,” Ker Hawn says.
Greenberg concurs, saying, “It’s a dream come true—and such a time saver.”
Everyone also agrees that though video meetings have become normalized, seeing people in person is a much better way of conducting business and is more emotionally rewarding. “We’re just delighted to welcome everyone back to Bologna,” Pasoli says. “It’s going to be a party. We’re 60 and still rockin’.”