The Bologna Book Fair–an illustrator’s glimpse

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Bologna at night. (Apparently I needed to clean my phone lens.)

I got back from my first trip to Bologna and the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Thursday afternoon. Even my initial impressions on the book fair are lengthy, but I will try to be as concise as possible. Just to be clear, this was my first children’s book fair ever and I purposely didn’t take a portfolio with me. Instead I went to get an idea what it was about so that when I was fully ready, I would be more effective in presenting my work. And even on the other side of the fair, I don’t regret this.

Since I always like to get the big picture first, that’s what I’m going to try to concentrate on, and then give a few specifics only where I think I can do so briefly. Because the Book Fair is overwhelming. I saw thousands of people there each day and in most cases I wouldn’t even know whether they were even the same thousands of people or different ones!

Also, a caveat: Everything I know about the fair is strictly from a beginning illustrator’s point of view.

Layout

There’s an illustrator’s wall around the periphery of the main hall where artists can tape up their work for others to come and see. It’s chaotic, and by the second day people were leaving things on the floor. I was told that publishers do actually come look at the wall, but it doesn’t seem to me that it would put any artist’s work in the best light, or at least it would be hard to get noticed. Again, that’s just a first impression, and I’m one of those people who even avoids large outlet stores, so that might explain my reaction in part.

The central hall includes the juried art show, a book shop, some exhibits, and a stage called the Illustrators’ Café for prize and other presentations. In general, I liked the Illustrators’ Café because even if you couldn’t get close, you could still back up to see and hear what was going on. Surrounding the central hall were several huge exhibition corridors (think airport terminal-size) with booths for every major publishing company, artists’ and writers’ associations, and art schools from many countries.

Services for Illustrators–portfolio review

The Illustrators’ Survival Corner is where the masterclasses, workshops and portfolio reviews for illustrators take place. Masterclasses are talks by publishers, associations and illustrators for anyone who wants to just show up and listen, if you can squeeze in. Workshops require sign up first thing each morning because one creates artwork, and that naturally limits space. Portfolio reviews are highly coveted spots for illustrators to get professional feedback. In the end, I did not participate in any of the activities that required sign up, but got a good bit from the masterclasses. Here’s why:

The portfolio review and workshop signup is positively Darwinian. When you arrive in the morning, well before the opening at 9:00 am, there are already hundreds of people outside waiting. The people from orderly countries are waiting in line. The ones from furbo (an Italian term for people who know how to get what they want) countries are finding a way to sneak up to the front. At any rate, on the one occasion I tried to sign up for a workshop, I was in the front part of the crowd at the door, and even so, when I got upstairs to the sign-up desk the line was already long, and the spots few. Someone told me that somehow people were getting in before 9:00 am, and I also saw a video taken from the sign up desk, proudly posted on the Bologna Facebook group, no less, of people sprinting for the desk at opening! It seems that you not only have to be an excellent artist to use this system well, but fairly athletic and also a bit aggressive.

There are some open portfolio reviews each day as well, but a friend waited in line at one for two hours (with a massive headache) only to be told that it was closing and they wouldn’t be seeing anyone else. She was able to get a scheduled spot on a different day, but the reviewer didn’t give any feedback. But other people got feedback, and the feedback varied with who gave it, so apparently some of it just depends on who looks at your portfolio. To give some idea of why these reviews are so coveted, some of the reviewers are from big publishing houses or are famous illustrators such as Laura Carlin. With opportunities like that, if I had felt really ready with my portfolio, I would probably have run to the sign up too!

Still, someone told me that the system at the SCBWI conferences in places like New York have big tables where everyone can put out their whole portfolio and business cards, and that people actually do come by and take them. That seems fair to me. The Bologna system seems, well…Italian. I love many things about my adopted country, but trying to make my way through a line is not one of them.

Services for Illustrators–Masterclasses

Author/illustrator Chris Riddell in the Illustrators’ Café

I did enjoy the masterclasses. In all but one very regrettable case, I did fairly well at getting to the event early or at least finding a place to stand in the back where I could see and hear. And you never know when someone might lose interest and leave, opening up a better spot.

Among the masterclasses I attended were: A talk by an Italian editor and first-time illustrator on what it’s like to work together on a first book, a talk by an illustrators’ association on pricing work and negotiating contracts, a New York Times talk on trends in children’s books, more than one talk in which an illustrator talked about his or her work (I particularly enjoyed the one by Tiziana Romanin), and a charming illustrate-as-you-talk chat by Chris Riddell. I enjoyed the last one so much that I went back for a similar event at the Illustrator’s Café. Never mind that only Chris Riddell could pull off some of the ways of getting work that he talks about, because he is already so famous. He is a great raconteur with a British wit, and he made me remember how, when I was a small child watching Romper Room and Mr. Rogers, my favorite segments were always the ones where someone would draw on screen and tell stories.

What Chris Riddell was drawing at the above moment…

It helped that I speak both Italian and English, because some of the talks were only given in Italian and those often had more room. The regrettable exception I hint at above was the masterclass given by Beatrice Alemagna, who is apparently not only one of my favorite illustrators, but seemingly the favorite illustrator of most everyone in Italy. I lost track of time in one of the publishers’ halls, arrived ten minutes late, and not only couldn’t get close enough to peak over anyone’s head (I’m not tall), but couldn’t even hear a word of what she was saying, despite speakers, because of all the ambient noise. Next year I’m setting phone alarms!

And then there was the day in which I repeatedly walked into masterclasses and conferences for which there were not enough simultaneous translation headsets, or for which there was supposed to have live translation but wasn’t. This is how I discovered that I still understood a passable amount of French, but not quite enough for comfort. Same thing with Spanish to a lesser extent.

Other talks

Possibly the most helpful and informative talk I listened to during the whole book fair was the NY Times presentation on their Best Illustrated Children’s Books award. This was a three-hour presentation during which I sat on the floor the entire time, trying not to lean too hard against a loudspeaker stand and thus cause an embarrassing incident. The upside of my discomfort was the I was sitting less than three feet from the aforementioned Beatrice Alemagna, and not much further from Sydney Smith, another of my top five illustrators, and at a similar distance from Suzy Lee, Laura Carlin and Paul Zelinsky, who are equally talented to the first two but I have to choose somehow. They are all past prize winners.

The New York Times illustrators’ panel, presided over by the Times’ s children’s book editor Maria Russo, center

The presentation included a history of the award and how it is chosen (unlike the Caldecott, it is open to illustrators worldwide and is chosen by artwork only), an editorial panel who spoke about their experiences with these illustrators, and comments by the illustrators themselves. Since I have followed this award and the NY Times for years, I found the whole conference very informative, though space won’t allow me to go into detail about it for now.

My only regret was that this time Beatrice Alemagna spoke in French instead of Italian, and I didn’t have a headphone. Zut! Apparently I just wasn’t fated to learn much about Beatrice Alemagna, except that she was self-taught and everyone wondered why she would write a book about someone doing nothing (The Magical Do-Nothing Day).

Publishers

I spent most of the last day just walking the publishers’ halls and trying to get an idea who published what, but it was overwhelming and I still have to sort it out. It’s not one day’s work, that’s for sure. Some of the major American publishers had booths that were as big as a book store and obviously designed by an interior design firm specializing in display (I have some experience in commercial interiors). And some of the publishers have their own portfolio reviews. I left the hall with a very full backpack, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s the day I ended up having to walk up Via dell’Osservanza (a second-gear-all-the-way-up kind of hill) on foot! But I don’t mind exercise.

The illustrators’ exhibition

The illustrators’ exhibition had very interesting work from very talented illustrators, and it was especially nice to see how some of the artists worked precisely and intricately in traditional media, but for the most part, it looked as though it were more intended for artists than children. Often I couldn’t find much of a narrative thread in the works. Book illustration can be overly commercialized or sentimental in many cases. But I think the most endearing (and enduring) illustrations for children themselves are somewhere in between the two extremes.

Odd and ends, and tips for next time

During the fair I stayed at my friend and catechist Fra Pietro’s Franciscan friary. It’s up on a (second-gear) hill outside of town, and therefore, unlike at home, the friars mostly go out to serve instead of having people come to their doors. So it almost feels more like a monastery inside. The friars were welcoming and it was very peaceful to come back to, but it was a long way from the fair and more importantly, you can’t enter the city by car until after 8:00pm, which is when buses stop, causing traffic to stand still. This makes going out for dinner in the center quite difficult. Also, parking for the fair is €20 per day. So next time I go, I may try to find a place within walking distance and then go pay Fra Pietro a separate visit.

An Italian friend who was only there on the first day showed me an internal restaurant that not everyone knows about (you can’t leave the fair and return, and the traffic situation eliminated grocery shopping for lunch). So by eating light and supplementing with snacks I’d brought from home, I made out pretty well for lunch. But the lines for coffee after lunch were so long that I went without. Finally on the last day, I discovered a downstairs coffee bar inside the restaurant. The only catch is that you have to get lunch fairly early, which was fine with me because I prize a few minutes to regroup.

Amazingly, for a book fair that offered a free app and at which most everyone was constantly messaging each other and taking photos of artwork, I never found a charging station and so I had to use my aging phone sparingly. On the last day someone told me that they had seen people under a table in the Chinese exhibition charging their phones. But next time I’ll buy and take one of those battery packs.

A Bologna city center street in the market area

I had originally planned to return to Torino on Thursday morning, but since I hadn’t seen much of the city center yet, I took a walk first. Bologna couldn’t be more different in style than Baroque and Neo-Baroque Torino. It’s medieval, with narrow streets and a lot of brown brick or orange stucco buildings. The impression from the hill above is of a circular red mass punctuated by towers. And as I walked and drove around, I realized that it had once been ringed by a brick wall, now torn down but with broken bits still extant. Because of the traffic, motorcycles are very popular. And it is home to the oldest university in the world, the original Alma Mater. I always like getting to see a new Italian city!

Meanwhile, I met some really interesting people at the book fair, saw a lot of excellent artwork, and got a sobering reality check about where the level of my own work needs to be. But all of that is exactly what I wanted. The rest is up to me, and to both how hard, and how smart, I am willing to work.

Happy Passover and Happy Easter!

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2 thoughts on “The Bologna Book Fair–an illustrator’s glimpse

  1. That sounds like a pretty athletic excursion to me. Whew! You seem so calm in your navigations of unfamiliar everything.

    Since I rarely pay attention to the names of illustrators — or even authors, for that matter! — of children’s books, I had to look up the five you mentioned, and put holds on many books to check out. I hope to start reading stories to grandchildren on video chat platforms, and maybe some of the titles illustrated by your favorites will suit me as well as their art does.

    Thank you for a fascinating travelogue!

  2. Thanks, GretchenJoanna! Living in NYC and moving to Italy have made me a pretty hardy traveler! This does not always mean that I am calm in the moment, but I am learning, and usually I at least find perspective looking backwards. And as a veteran of travel in India, you’re not easily put off yourself!

    I loved interlibrary holds at the NYPL, and miss them! (Maybe it’s finally time to look into how to do that here.) Keep in mind that I usually do choose a book by the illustrations, and so I can’t guarantee that the books you receive will be of as much interest to your grandchildren as they are to me, but I’d like to hear what they think! After all, they are the ones we are really doing this for!

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