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For The Love Of Books - Children's Book Fair Bologna 50th Anniversary

Art

The sun shines in Italy in March. Mimosa trees are out, and wild cherries, too. At this time of year, shop windows are piled high with exquisitely wrapped, dove-shaped Easter Panettone and glittery heaps of eggs alongside the everyday temptations of whole prosciuttos, wheels of parmesan and feather light patisseries.

It’s spring and, dragging suitcases full of book proofs, British publishers are once again in Bologna. By a stroke of exceptional good luck, Bologna was the place which, over twenty years ago, was selected to host the annual international children’s book fair. And here you can mix business with pleasure: the concrete and glass of the vast exhibition site and even the sardine-can experience of the shuttle bus from the Fair, are quickly forgotten once exhibitors step into the old city with its magical colonnaded streets with their marble floors and when they eat or drink in any of the wonderful cafés, restaurants or bars.
 
Publishing notoriously thrives on ‘let’s do lunch’ so it is no surprise that the world’s children’s publishers, agents, booksellers, and the very many others who benefit from the sale of a great story, regard Bologna as the highlight of the year. The Fair is the all-important moment in the long drawn out conception to birth process of a children’s book. It is here, in the cavernous halls of the Fair that the rights to the words and pictures that tell children’s stories, written in any language and from any part of the world, are sold onto the international market. Without these world-wide, co-edition sales seemingly brilliant book proposals will fail.
 
Observing the skill and passion that goes into these transactions is very moving: the specialness of a good story has to be conveyed to the listener in just a few minutes. In a pitch that is part sound-bite concept and part something far more nebulous, the teller has to hook the listener and entrance them so that they, too, can see the enormous business potential of ‘there’s an orphaned boy wizard who has a world-saving destiny to fulfil’. To do this well is one of the great dark-arts but, of course, it is also underpinned by hard business pre-knowledge, up-to-date market data for an industry that is very unforgiving of previous failures, and a strongly developed social network on which trust in shared tastes and values is based. This last is critical; it is why all the meals Bologna makes so special are so important. 
 
Children’s books have never been more sought after; they are the source of the uplifting family story at the heart of all other media. While publishers sell demurely from the stands in the Fair’s halls, Hollywood agents stalk the walkways looking for deals to invest in. More recently, video games makers and app creators are also present, looking for good scripts and, above all, for the next great character to add to the Hall of Fame that includes Peter Rabbit, Miffy, the Moomins, Tintin, Rastamouse and the rest. 
Address
Fiera Bologna
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Generating a 'buzz’ before the Fair is as important as feting the best-sellers during it. Such a large-scale gathering of all those interested in an author or illustrator’s work provides the perfect opportunity to show commitment and loyalty to a top creator at a congratulatory event. Flown in from around the world, the top-selling writers such as Julia Donaldson, Anthony Horowitz and former Children’s Laureates Quentin Blake and Michael Morpurgo are the guests of honour at sumptuous dinners in candlelit palaces. Here, in the company of two or three dozen international publishers and film-makers, the children’s book as a highly successful national export as well as a work of entertainment, education and wonder, is celebrated in style. 

Bologna provides a haven for a heady few days of make-believe and business during which the only thing that seems to matter is the power of story. Within the confines of the Fair, Never Never Land, Narnia, Hogwarts and their newly minted successors seem the reality. When an alternative, equally attractive, reality does intrude it comes in the form of ice cream, cake and prosecco. But maybe that’s not reality either?

Article by Julia Eccleshare

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