On a global stage

Peter Dowling, president of the Publishers Association of New Zealand (PANZ), reports back from the recent Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

The medieval city of Bologna is a superb setting for the world’s premier children’s book fair. Home to Europe’s oldest university, Bologna “La Dotta” is capital of the wealthy Emilia Romagna region, known for its innovative approaches to education and social services (notably the Reggio-Emilia approach). It also helps that this liveable city has an extensive trade show complex that this year played host to 1,390 exhibitors from 77 countries at the 55th Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF).

From 26 to 29 March, PANZ mounted our first-ever national stand at Bologna (not forgetting that Dunedin, City of Literature, had a stand there last year). Supported by Creative New Zealand, PANZ secured a good position in Pavilion 25 with a small stand of 16 square metres showing the wares of six publishers (Black Chook Books, Gecko Press, Millwood Press, OneTree House, Oratia Books and Upstart Press) along with literary agent Frances Plumpton.

New Zealand has had presence at the fair. Julia Marshall, publisher at Wellington’s Gecko Press, is a fixture here; it was a boon to have the experience of Julia and fellow Bologna regular Frances. Upstart Press’s Kevin Chapman, the man behind our Frankfurt (2012) and Taipei (2015) Guest of Honour programmes, attended Bologna back in the 1990s. David Ling of Duck Creek Press has also attended recently, and his books were displayed with my Oratia list this time. 

Joining us were newer publishers. Black Chook Books (Martin Bailey and Kathryn Enchmarch) is a Muriwai-based new publisher of pre-school books, who exhibited at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair, as did Millwood Press, the brainchild of Hawke’s Bay-based Sophie Siers. OneTree House (Jenny Nagle) exhibited their first titles at the fair, while Frances and PANZ had panels displaying various authors, translated titles, and information about New Zealand’s book sector. 

Aside from the recognition earned by Marshall and others, it’s clear that Auckland’s hosting of The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) Congress in August 2016 raised our profile among the good and great of the children’s book world. Fair director Elena Pasoli is one of many who still rave about the Storylines New Zealand-organised congress, and she was instrumental in securing our place at Bologna at relatively short notice. 

For publishers, being here demonstrated many benefits: opportunities for rights deals, collaboration or distribution, and sharing ideas with peers from around the world. Face-to-face time is invaluable to keep up negotiations from Frankfurt and other exchanges. Returning exhibitors said they felt the aisles were busier in 2018 than in recent years. Over the four days the fair welcomed 27,642 professional attendees – a three percent increase from 2017 – along with many thousands of public visitors.

What’s refreshing about this event, compared to the publisher-focused Frankfurt, is the sheer number of authors and, in particular, illustrators in attendance. From the central foyer, filled with work from illustrator competitions and walls plastered with business cards and posters, to the lines of aspiring artists queuing to present their portfolios to editors – this was a melting pot of some fantastic art. 

Good timing, then, that author-illustrator Donovan Bixley was at Bologna. PANZ coordinated a presentation by Bixley on the Tuesday afternoon, at which we hosted Bournville BookFest founder Sarah Mullen, among other guests, to get a snapshot of children’s books in Aotearoa. Bixley then appeared on the Wednesday in a workshop at the fair’s Illustrators Survival Corner and, later that day, Martin Bailey presented an overview of his career in illustration there. (As an indication of scale, some 6,000 illustrators attended workshops and presentations in the Survival Corner over the fair’s duration.)

Joy Cowley’s shortlisting for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award – the “Nobel of children’s literature” – was the big item on the opening day. Although she lost out to Japanese author Eiko Kadono, Joy’s profile was huge at Bologna. “It was very different this year, with the celebration of Joy Cowley and her work, and that was the best start for our New Zealand stand,” noted Marshall. 

There was further Kiwi success that evening, with OneTree House taking out the BOP Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year, Oceania, in an important accolade for this just-launched press. Oratia had been on the shortlist for this award, too, along with three Australian independent publishers. 

For Marshall, the central position of the stand and the distinctive black signage promoting New Zealand’s books worked well: “There was great interest in New Zealand’s Bologna debut and it is good to have a single place to showcase a variety of our books,” she said. 

PANZ hopes to build on our relationship with the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, to cement a platform for Kiwi books in this key international showcase. The fair organiser, Bologna Fiere, is itself expanding significantly – backing the inaugural New York Rights Fair at the end of May, and entering a strategic alliance with the Shanghai Children’s Book Fair. With children’s and YA books growing globally, and New Zealand being endowed with wonderful authors and illustrators in this field, Bologna should remain firmly on the radar. 

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