Saturday, 2 April 2011


Well, I KNEW this would be a mammoth blog post, so I took some little notes during the fair. I can barely see straight with tiredness, so thought I'd just type them out as they were written...

I'm sitting in the sun, in the bustling courtyard of the Bologna children's book fair. It's been an intense couple of days, and the feverish heat of exhaustion is prickling my eyelids. Bologna is a beautiful, grungey city. It's home to the oldest university in the world, and is all winding terracotta alleyways and medieval monoliths. Last night we went to one of the quirkiest restaurants EVER. Charmingly idiosyncratic, with black and white televisions playing Ella Fitzgerald, and menus scrawled on cardboard in marker pen (I loved this, although we were cheerfully informed afterwards that they must have been the tourist menus).

Bologna is home to one of the largest, and most prestigious children's book licensing fairs in the world. If you're imagining endless of stalls of forgetful bunnies and lost balloons, you'd only be half right. It's all bustling, international commerce. Publishers congregate to sell the licensing rights of their products to other international publishers. Each publisher is represented by a stand - ranging in scale from a photocopied logo sellotaped onto a table, to a spotlighted, palatial brand flagship, complete with an icy receptionist (grr) to keep the hordes at bay. 

There are 3 enormous halls, roughly divided into Europe, America, and the East. As an author and illustrator, you're almost completely unwanted at these events. Sales people have continuous meetings and are entirely uninterested in commissioning new talent. However, there are also a small smattering of editors, publishing directors and heads of design, which is what draws crowds of illustrators, student illustrators and fledgling authors to the fair.  

The fair is also renowned for its Bolognaregazzi illustration award - celebrating creative ingenuity and originality in children's books. This too, draws illustrators (pun intended) and there are two walls devoted to illustration self promotion. They quickly get plastered with posters, leaflets and business cards, until adding to the mass seems as effective as throwing business cards into the sea... Three days into the fair, adding to the wall is a recognised symbol of desperation. I've been making my own tentative and modestly successful rounds, but you do hear of illustrators in floods of tears, having had their confidence and portfolio eviscerated by an irate publisher. And as the days creep by, the student's ideas for networking opportunitites are growing ever more creative - now including branded bear traps, portfolios used as human shields in order to corral art directors, and the possibility of promotional plane window blinds.

Anyway (Cass, Sheena, if you've read this far). It's all TRUE! The French and Italian publishers had darker books of exceptional beauty. I particularly loved the Hachette Jeunesse and Simply Read books (based in Vancouver) stands. The Italian publishers produce some of THE most ingenious and precious illustrations I've ever seen. The Disney stand was predictably terrifying.  

After a frantic 3 days, the fair ends on Thursday. Lots of the publishing big wigs saunter back to their business class, five star lives, and the rest of us start tidying up. On Thursday morning the fair is opened up to the public and the (potentially fictional) theiving nuns. The theiving nuns are, as the name suggests, nuns that thieve. In this case, books 'for orphans'. They come along with pull-along shopping baskets, and simply start piling any unattended books into them. When cornered, they generally insist they're going to be donated 'to orphans'. Thus, any books that aren't nailed down tend to get lost.

The ordered chaos of the fair is quickly dismantled, and everyone starts drifting away. (To the London bookfair, which takes place next week). But it's blissfully sunny here and we've decided to go to the Piazza del Nettuno - they sell THE BEST ice cream (gelato) I've ever had. If you could lick heaven, that's what it would taste like.

(Friday - in London). 
Well, I'm back. Contrary to my firmly-held beliefs, the plane didn't explode mid-air. I'm delighted. Decidedly less delighted to be back in grey, glum, pigeon-infested London though. But disappointment aside, the fair was an amazing experience - I met some marvellous people, Bologna was beautiful and I suspect I'm (almost) cured of my fear of flying...

In short, it's thoroughly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in children's books. (Pack flat shoes and tenacity).

I didn't get very much time to draw, but I did do some very quick, rubbishy sketches - first of the Piazza St Stefano, and then of a drunken prostitute. Unfortunately she was turned away from me so I could only get the back view - such a shame. 

My illustration-before-10am project will continue as normal tomorrow morning. And finally, excitingly, my Etsy shop opened today! If you click on the picture on the right hand side, you'll find yourself there...


  1. Thanks for this interesting post. I've never been to the Bologna Book Fair -- I just know it as the worst moment to think of contacting anyone in publishing -- but I did go to Bologna once. It rained but I didn't care.

    The thieving nuns almost sound like an April Fools Day joke.

  2. i love the thieving nuns. I'm going to aspire to be one when I grow up.

  3. That'd be BRILLIANT to put on your CV Cass, Occupation: thieving nun. We should have a chat this week if you're around?

    Thomas, it was amazing and thankfully my agent was there to look after me a little, but yes - it was easy to see that as an illustrator it's all going on over your head. I believe in the thieving nuns, but now I come to think of it that WOULD have been a pretty good April Fools Day joke...

  4. What a fantastic post! I loved getting to read about it all. I'm with Cass on aspiring to be a thieving nun!xxx