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Continued Growth at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (from nytimes.com)

08/04/2016

BOLOGNA, Italy — The Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the largest and certainly the most important international trade show and book fair dedicated to children’s books, wrapped up Thursday after four packed days of sales meetings, award ceremonies, art exhibitions, panel discussions and parties. Visitors thronged the long, light-filled halls of the city’s modern conference center, with the fair’s organizers reporting a 9 percent increase in attendance from last year, including 1,278 exhibitors from 74 nations, along with 856 journalists from 40 countries. In its 54th year, the fair holds a unique place in the world of books as a hybrid marketplace, conference, art show and prestigious prize-giving operation.

For children’s books — especially illustrated books, which travel across national borders perhaps more easily than any other category — a lively international exchange is a given, and what happens each year in Bologna has an outsize influence on global children’s publishing. For illustrators, especially, the chance to be showcased in some way at the fair is career-making. There are prizes within prizes. The Illustrators Exhibition, a juried show that this year chose 77 emerging artists from more than 3,000 submissions, also handed out the International Award for Illustration (chosen by a separate panel of judges from among the featured artists) to the Mexican artist Juan Palomino.

The United States was, as usual, a subdued presence at the fair. While the number of children’s books published in the United States but originating elsewhere is growing steadily, many of the larger American children’s publishers still offer relatively few foreign books, especially in translation. This year the Illustrators Exhibition chose only one American, Rhode Island-based JooHee Yoon, the illustrator of a picture-book version of the James Thurber story “The Tiger Who Would Be King.” The book, published in the United States by Enchanted Lion, was one of The New York Times’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books in 2015. Sergio Ruzzier, an illustrator and jury member who was born in Milan and now lives in Brooklyn, said there were far fewer entrants from the United States than from European and Asian countries and from emerging illustration centers like Iran. “The American art schools don’t make a big deal of it, and the students often don’t even know how to apply, or that they should,” he said.

Publishers, too, especially the smaller ones, can benefit greatly from an award from Bologna. The six regional winners of this year’s BOP Bologna Prize for the Best Children’s Publisher of the Year included Canada’s Groundwood Books and Kalimat, the first publisher in the United Arab Emirates dedicated solely to children’s books in Arabic. Kalimat is also the publisher of a picture book of Arabic tongue twisters illustrated by the 30-year-old Lebanese artist Hanane Kai (the title translates roughly as “Your Tongue Is Your Horse, Your Tongue Is Your Protector”) that won this year’s BolognaRagazzi Award in the New Horizons category, which honors innovative picture books from countries where children’s publishing is still developing.

As the market for children’s books continues to grow (not surprisingly, China was a big presence this year, with international publishers looking to market their books to the children of the growing middle class there, and Chinese publishers, artists and authors looking for greater exposure) the Bologna awards just seem to keep multiplying. A new prize for books that deal with disability was awarded to the Argentine artist known as Gusti for “Mallko y Papá,” a picture book published by Océano Travesía of Mexico about his life with his son, who has Down syndrome. It will be published in the United States by Enchanted Lion in the spring of 2017. On the final day of the fair, Gusti gave a moving presentation about the book at the Illustrators Café, the central gathering place and stage. As a slide show of his exuberant drawings played on the hall’s big screen, accompanied by a track from the Red Hot Chili Peppers that his son, Mallko, likes to listen to, he spoke about his struggle to accept his son’s condition and his eventual realization that Down syndrome is not a curse visited solely upon his own life, but rather something that happens all over the world. It is “part of our human heritage,” he said.

In the international world of children’s books, it can sometimes seem as if all roads lead back to Bologna. “My wife and I met here at the Bologna book fair 16 years ago,” Gusti said as he talked of the unexpected turns of his life and career, “so in a sense, this book was born right here at the fair.”