From Bologna with love

The Last Viking and The Last Viking Returns illustrator James Foley gives us an update on his trip to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair has a mythical status for writers and illustrators. We refer to it simply as ‘Bologna’. It’s where foreign publishing deals are made and international fame awaits. We speak of going there as if it’s a religious pilgrimage – it’s our Rome or Mecca (though with rejection being as common as it is in our industry, you’d probably call it our Wailing Wall). My girlfriend and I visited Bologna for the first time last week and, like our holiday weight gain, it was much bigger than expected.

We arrived in Bologna on the back of a month-long journey around Italy. The food was amazing … we recorded time not by hours but by meals. The days of the week were no longer days but flavours of gelati. And of course the thousands of years of history, art and architecture were incredible too. We toured the ruins of Rome, climbed to the top of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and explored subterranean tunnels in Naples. We drove a car in Sicily for two days and survived. We gorged ourselves on Renaissance art in Florence and explored the endless crooked alleys of Venice. And finally, after 23 gelati, we arrived in Bologna.

It was a Cioccolato-day. We found our hotel, dropped our bags in our room and left for the Fair. There was no time to waste as I was due to do some demo sketching in the Australian stand at half-past panini.

Finally we arrived. I’d seen photos of the Fair before, through friends who had attended in previous years. This resulted in a strange feeling of déjà vu, despite it being our first visit. Here was the entrance adorned with international flags (the location for the mandatory Bologna selfie). Here was the illustrators’ exhibition, displaying the work of 75 incredible artists selected from the thousands of international entries. Here were the illustrator noticeboards, the professional equivalent of putting your business card in a bottle and throwing it into an ocean of bottles. And here were the exhibitor halls, filled with publishers, agencies, booksellers, printers, distributors, rights companies and film production houses – 1,200 exhibitors from 75 countries doing four days of serious business.

I started my demo sketching. Friendly passers-by stopped to watch and take a postcard. Some were aspiring picture book illustrators and wanted me to see their portfolio. A random group of Italian art restoration students stopped to chat and very kindly tolerated my limited Italian.

I met up with Claudia Soeffner from the International Youth Library. She’s the English-language judge for the Library’s White Ravens List, an annual list of recommended children’s books from around the world (my book In The Lion was picked in 2012). The 2014 list features some fantastic books including My Superhero by Chris Owen and Moira Court, published by Fremantle Press!

The Australia Stand party was another highlight. It’s become a Bolognese institution and draws a crowd. This year the caterers set up the wine glasses and hors d’oeuvres well over an hour ahead of the party’s start time; this led to a flock of seagulls disguised as humans hovering outside the stand, causing multiple pedestrian traffic jams. The Honourable Mike Rann (the Australian ambassador to Italy) gave a speech, Australian Children’s Laureate Jackie French spoke passionately about our industry, and author/illustrator Gregg Dreise played some didge and got us dancing. This was before the wine was available and still people danced; Gregg was the Pied Piper of Bologna.

My girlfriend and I came home with an unreasonably large stack of fantastic books and a new perspective on our industry. We saw foreign rights being sold around tiny tables by real people over takeaway coffee. We saw a million books competing for attention, each one a lovingly crafted needle in a field of haystacks. It made me feel incredibly small in the publishing world, incredibly grateful to be published at all, and incredibly motivated to improve my work. And I’d love to go back – though next time we’ll stay for seven gelati instead of three.

Huge thanks to Ann James and Ann Haddon from Books Illustrated for organising the Australian stand and the Hello! from Australia book catalogue – the work you do for Australian creators is invaluable! Thanks for having us along.

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