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20 March 2023

Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2023: a surprising edition!

Mara Varisco

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair, defined by Suzy Lee as ‘a very fun fair, full of picture books and full of people who love picture books’, celebrated its 60th anniversary in its 2023 edition, held from 6 to 9 March, and did so with a truly surprising edition.

Let’s start with the numbers: ‘1456 exhibitors returned to Bologna from around 90 countries and regions of the world, 28894 trade visitors (+35% from 2022 and confirmation of the pre-pandemic 2019 number) who took part in 325 live events over the four days of the event (+25% compared to 2019) and over 260 underground events organised by exhibitors at the fair and in the city’[1].

In every pavilion one could breathe an incredible enthusiasm, given by the joy of meeting again and the palpable desire to look ahead, with courage: Valentina Colombo of Phileas Fogg Agency described it as ‘an explosive fair, as if three years had been concentrated in one week’. Publishers want to bet on tomorrow and the next generations, as Chiara Tognetti of Chiara Tognetti Rights Agency pointed out: ‘it’s been a very positive book fair, the first that felt “back to normal” since covid hit’.

And it is precisely towards the future that publishers seem to be turning, in a constant search for books that are both beautiful and suitable for the publishing market: ‘among the most sought-after themes, publishers are taking an interest in the issue of genre, which is certainly very contemporary’, noted Nadia Bettini of Book149, as if an urgency is being perceived to not isolate themselves from reality with niche books, but to permeate it in every aspect. It was precisely in this rich and eventful publishing world that the desire emerged to bring books that help children to experience the moment of reading as a joy: ‘there is a demand for stories that are positive, that talk about the environment, races and games,’ commented Valentina Colombo.

Despite the enthusiasm and the desire for light-heartedness, in these uncertain times, given the ever-increasing costs and reduced purchasing power of families, publishers often have to focus on products with strong commercial returns, even sometimes at the expense of product refinement. Arianna Malacrida of Ghirigori Agency points out: ‘I have intercepted from some Italian publishers regarding the national market a discouragement in noting a slight lowering of quality of both stories and images, because it seems that the market is going towards very commercial products (often linked to web phenomena), taking away space from more niche products. Some typologies, in particular, have been more affected than others, as Valentina Colombo pointed out: ‘board books, for example, have suffered greatly from the increase in the price of paper, the difficulty in finding cardboard and the price of transport’.

However, the taste for beauty seems to be the guiding line of choices in all sectors of children’s publishing, with an increasing focus on non-fiction and Young Adult, as noted by Tognetti: ‘we saw interest in unconventional picture books, literary middle-grade standalones or trilogies, YA fantasy, non-fiction graphic novels, and webtoon content for book rights’. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair therefore becomes, according to fair director Elena Pasoli, ‘a fair not of books but of content for children’[2]. with a constant search for novelty, as much in the stories as in the modes of narration. A search for novelty that can be found in all fairs in the sector, which are also trying to update their services and formats offered to exhibitors.

The increasingly evident need is to involve the reading public, both children and adults. It is precisely in this direction that some of the most frequent events at this edition of the fair seem to be moving: the book signings. Authors and illustrators are no longer mythical storytelling characters, but flesh-and-blood men and women, with whom one can meet and from whom one can have a book signed. So the illustrator’s personalised drawing or the author’s dedication become tools for bringing the publishing world closer to readers, booksellers, teachers and professionals.

One of the major themes that emerged in the corridors, stands and events of this edition was  that of artificial intelligence, a technology that can replace human intelligence, even in the field of creative products, such as children’s books. The world is moving in this direction and publishing cannot isolate itself from this trend: ‘seeing the success of these live events made me think whether and how AI-generated books are able to enter this space, and what changes we are going to experience in the coming months and years’, Tognetti noted. This of course in a desirable perfect balance between technology and design, as Roberto Cicala of Interlinea Edizioni emphasised: ‘the swarming of insiders among the stands and aisles, as in the best years before the pandemic, was a breath of fresh air for those who believe in publishing at the service of children, but with the awareness that to find new paths we really need to start again from the professions. In many dialogues and debates I felt a salutary call for responsibility in selecting and rescheduling releases, for sustainability, including financial sustainability of choices and teamwork, even in smart working, with the enhancement of people’s contributions and especially of young people, without thinking of a dematerialisation governed by technology rather than, as is right, by planning.’

Always motivated by this spirit of proximity, the editors at this edition did not miss the opportunity to use social media to tell the fair from different points of view, ‘a fair made up of stories from all over the world that move’[3], as Pierdomenico Baccalario defined it, thanks to the passion and work of many operators in the sector. Tognetti concluded: ‘above all, it was so energising to reconnect in person with so many friends old and new from all over the world, and to feel – from the illustrator’s wall to the busy halls, from the art exhibitions to the events spaces and all the way down to the rights centre – the joy of being part of this beautiful business that is children’s publishing’.

A birthday to remember for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, celebrated with great representatives of a beautiful world in which the art of storytelling gives emotions to young and old alike. ‘Among the guests who blew out the fair’s 60th birthday candle: Albertine Zullo, Beatrice Alemagna, Rotraut Susanne Berner, Marc Boutavant, Rebecca Dautremer, Laura Carlin, Suzy Lee, Nicholas Jubber, Katsumi Komagata, David Levithan, Manuel Marsol, Sarah Mazzetti, Hasan Mousavi, Fabian Negrin, Elena Odriozola, Martin Salisbury, Alessandro Sanna, Axel Scheffler, Susanna Tamaro, Klaas Verplancke[4].

So all that remains is to close the celebrations for these 60 years with a smile, both happy and already wistful, as we await the new edition of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, to be held from 8 to 11 April 2024!

[1] Press release of the Bologna Children’s Book Far, 60th Bologna Children’s Books Fair. Styill Rocking at 60, 9 March 2023.

[2] Speech by Elena Pasoli in the event Children’s publishing: the new master’s degree at the Università Cattolica, 8 March 2023.

[3] Speech by Pierdomenico Baccalario at the event Children’s publishing: the new master’s degree at the Università Cattolica, 8 March 2023.

[4] Press release of the Bologna Children’s Book Far, 60th Bologna Children’s Books Fair. Styill Rocking at 60, 9 March 2023.