The 61st edition of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair opened on Monday, April 8, drawing 1,523 exhibitors from 100 countries and regions around the world. Slovenia is this year’s Guest of Honor. Katja Urbanija, who handles international cooperation and promotion at the Slovenian Book Agency, said, “We are especially excited to showcase our illustration.” She said that Slovenia has a large presence at the fair, and sales into international markets have been strong. “Hopefully Bologna will give us an extra kick. The world is opening to Slovenian publishing, which is great to see.”

Publishers are eager to return to business as usual after the disruption and lingering effects of the Covid crisis. For Rosemary Stimola, owner of Stimola Literary Studio, “It was my first Bologna in five years, since before the pandemic. Everyone is very happy to see people—it feels so wonderful to see faces and hug people.”

Judy Brunsek, sales and marketing director at Canada’s Owlkids, said, “We’re all trying to figure out, what’s the new normal? During the pandemic people were going crazy for books. But now all the funding is gone and sales are flatter. What are we using for comparison year over year? The pandemic is finally behind us and I’m thinking this is the baseline year.”

Sharing impressions from her meetings with publishers, including a number of new clients, she said, “Everyone has an individual strategy for what they’re looking for. A Polish publisher said what’s really working for them is books for younger kids. I had a great meeting with a Chinese publisher who was looking for warm, family type books. And the funny stuff is really working for us,” she said, citing a spring 2025 picture book called I Need Pants.”

The Chinese exhibitors are back in Bologna, both buying and selling, which has not been the case for several years. The fair serves as a platform for Chinese publishers to gather and gain intel from the broader book publishing community. Among those addressing the Chinese publishers directly was Roberta Franceschetti, co-founder of Content Makers and, who discussed the broader challenges facing children’s publishers.

China’s market can remain opaque to outsiders, and statistics coming from the Kingdom are difficult to parse. One thing that is undeniable is that it is large and robust, particularly when it comes to children’s books, with some 40,000 new titles published each year serving more than 360 million children and young people. For the past several years, social media has been driving book sales, and influencers, typically using shortform video, are a key marketing channel. These influencers can range from celebrities to micro-level influencers such as a leader of a mothers’ group in community or housing estate. “They drive activity on ecommerce platforms,” said Zhao Bing, a publishing consultant, during a session covering the Chinese children’s market.

How much of a sales driver is shortform video in China? Janne Møller, foreign rights agent for Gyldendal Group Agency in Denmark, told PW that when the Chinese translation of their bestselling title The Incredible Bus by Jakob Martin Strid was launched in China last month, it was promoted initially on social media and sold 4,000 copies in the first 30 minutes and an additional 1,000 copies in the next 24 hours. “It’s amazing how effective social media can be there,” Møller remarked. “This is not an inexpensive book and it is quite large, weighing it a 2.5 kilos [5.5 pounds].”

Making the Rounds

Mary McAveney was attending her first Bologna as president and CEO of Abrams Books. Referring to the children’s market, she said, “It feels a little tough, particularly with middle grade,” especially with Barnes & Noble cutting back in that category. “Our YA sales are up significantly,” she said. “It comes down to who has the property everyone wants to buy. What it means is that we’re focusing on our franchises. It’s harder to break out a debut author.” Abrams’s new Fanfare imprint speaks to the migration of middle grade readers to comics.

The shadow of U.S. censorship and book banning looms large. With picture books, McAveney said, “It’s starting to feel like banning books is hurting sales. Now when an entire Florida or Texas school district says they’re not buying a book, it makes a difference,” she said. Although sales are challenging, she believes strongly that the books need to be published. “My sense is that older readers can find the books on their own even if they’re not in schools. But for younger kids, parents are more susceptible, and teachers rely on taxpayer dollars.”

Suzanne Garrett, director of international sales at Andrews McMeel, was pleased at the amount of stop-by traffic she’d seen throughout the fair. Her company publishes several popular comics series, including Big Nate and 8-Bit Warrior. “A lot of publishers are looking for the kinds of things we publish—some I’ve worked with before, some not.” She reported a lot of attention for a new series, Hopscotch Girls (out April 30) by Kathryn Holmes, which focuses on girls who are starting a business, and appeals to publishers looking for something more than pink and glitter, for middle grade girls. Several publishers were seeking out early reader graphic novels too: “They’re looking for a way to start kids reading comics, and hoping that will branch out into something else.”

NorthSouth, the U.S. division of Swiss publisher picture book publisher NordSüd Verlag, is a flurry of activity. Lawrence Schimel, who joined the company in March 2023 as senior editor, told PW on Wednesday afternoon that he had 57 meetings scheduled. He said he was energized by all the face time and “that personal contact is so helpful for finding out people’s taste.” Compared to previous years, he said that more deals are being made at the fair. As both a publisher and a literary translator, he’s guided by the philosophy that “pitching is not so much about a project, but about the relationship you’re building with the editor.”

In particular, Schimel is seeing “longer illustrated books” that expand beyond the traditional 32-page picture book format and age range. He cited the forthcoming NorthSouth title The Gray City by Torben Kuhlmann (Sept.), creator of the Mouse Adventures series, as an example of this trend. Schimel himself translated The Book of Denial by Mexican author Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, illustrated by Alejandro Magallanes (Enchanted Lion, Jan. 2024), which clocks in at 148 pages and is geared for readers 14 and up. He’s also noticing an uptick in “fully gorgeous illustrations” rather than the usual spot art in chapter books and novels.

In addition, he shared that NordSüd has acquired the German bilingual publishing house Edition bi:libri, a longtime collaborator. In the U.S., the two companies co-published bilingual editions of a number of key NorthSouth titles, including The Rainbow Fish and Little Polar Bear.

Andie Krawczyk, who serves in the dual role of managing director and sales and marketing director, is attending the fair for the first time, having joined NorthSouth in January from Chronicle Books. “Everyone I’ve spoken to says they’re reinvigorated by the community and creativity at the fair,” she said. She was delighted to see “so many illustrators at all points in their career, lining up for portfolio reviews.” On her way back from Bologna, she’s looking forward to meeting her colleagues at parent company NordSüd Verlag in Zurich.

Agents Weigh In

Another Bologna first-timer, Katie Gisondi at Laura Dail Literary Agency, was thrilled to be in attendance. “Everyone has a really optimistic outlook; everyone is excitedly building their lists,” she said. Romantasy, of course, was a big topic of interest. “Every meeting starts off with a joke: you know what I’m going to ask for.” She reported a “slight uptick” in interest in YA thrillers. “Before, people would say that it doesn’t work unless it’s a big name, or we’d get some pushback if it was too American.

As far as middle grade, Gisondi said, “People are looking for the right middle grade that fits their list. No one wants to give up on middle grade because it’s such an important age group. The softness in middle grade feels like it’s lessening; there’s more openness to seeing things. Publishers are realizing there are empty spots on their lists that they need to fill. I feel like it’s only up from here.”

She also pointed out a potentially positive use for AI: providing an early translation of a section of the book, just to share between publishers and not for publication, so editors can get a better sense of the content. “It takes a lot of heavy lifting off the co-agents’ back. But we don’t support any outside usage of AI, such as for covers, audio narrators, or actual translation.”

Like Schimel, Kirsten Hall, owner of the Catbird Agency, felt that “people are really focused on relationships between companies, and relationships between agents and clients,” she said. Hall, whose client list only publishes picture books, says she’s seeing “a fierce protectiveness of picture books and their place in children’s literature. In picture books, she’s noticing “an interesting blending of fiction and nonfiction. Lists don’t have to be one or the other—there’s more overlap. Those editors are sitting in on the same meeting.”

Erin Files, director of foreign rights at Aevitas Creative Management, welcomed this year’s expansion of the BCBF agents center. “I’m a big fan,” she said. Describing the overall atmosphere, Files said, “Last year [the fair] felt more muted. This year feels like the new normal.” In terms of YA trends, she noted, “It’s still either romantasy or they’re so sick of hearing about romantasy—if you’re burned out or if you’ve been burned. I feel like we’re cresting the wave right now.”

Challenges remain for the middle grade category, she said. “Middle grade seems tough everywhere except the Netherlands. I have been hearing that publishers in the Netherlands are translating [titles] from non-English publishers, such as Korean YA. Korea has a large English-speaking population, and books translated from English are not as appealing to them.” She also reported seeing more Asian publishers, though she’s not sure it’s at pre-pandemic levels yet.“We don’t have the romantasy titles,” said Allison Hellegers, foreign rights director and agent at Stimola Literary Studio, “but the book that’s catching a lot of people’s eyes and getting the most laughs” is a picture book, We Are Definitely Human by X. Fang (Tundra, Apr.; Pushkin has U.K. rights). It’s an alien invasion story about “how to treat other people who are different from you with kindness.” She’s also seeing a lot of interest in The Liars Society by Alyson Gerber, first in a middle grade series that Scholastic just published. “It’s fun and escapist —a young Karen McManus.”

One fair highlight for Hellegers: “I’ve enjoyed all of the people who are looking for things that are out of the box. They want to set new trends, not just follow them. Because we don’t have romantasy I thought we might have a quiet fair, but that’s not the case.”

Kirsten Hall at the Catbird Agency said, “Many people I’ve spoken with share the sense I did, which was remorse—and FOMO!—for not having attended Bologna last year. It feels as if the fair is really finally bouncing back post-pandemic. I’m so glad that’s the case. Because there is no comparison to the unexpected and fruitful alchemies that happen in the hallways of the Bologna fiera.”

The next edition of the fair will take place March 31 through April 3, 2025.

Click here to see our photo highlights from the fair.