Publishers and other animals

22nd April 2005 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan checks out the offerings at this year's Bologna book fair

Visitors to Bologna in children's book fair week hover between several parallel universes, although one is enough for even the most espresso-fuelled.

The main business of the fair is the buying and selling of rights to publish children's books (increasingly fiction as well as picture books).

Some publishers, though not many from the UK, also use it to talent-spot artists through the annual illustrators' exhibition, which the UK's David McKee helped to curate this year. The illustrators' talent is also celebrated in talks at the Illustrators' Cafe, which is not a cafe, but a temporary mini-amphitheatre with very hard seats, always packed with artists and art students. It does become increasingly illustrated during the week, as its white walls are free to any passing crayon.

To look the part, you haul a little black case or carry a portfolio, to show you have something to sell. Those who can't find space on an exhibition stand do their deals in the open-air walkways between the halls, sipping a cappuccino in the sunshine (with luck). However, the disappearance of the ice-cream stands from the walkways in recent years is a serious threat to the global future of publishing.

On the other side of the exhibition complex, there was a second influx of dinky black cases last week. These cases arrived empty; they belonged to teachers doing their shopping at the book and resources displays of DOCET, the Italian equivalent of the Education Show. It has much in common with the Birmingham show: the queues for coffee are just as long although the coffee is better; seminars cover everything from pop-up books to school security and e-learning. But the DOCET logo is much funkier; the nursery furniture displays belong in the Conran Shop; the Emilia-Romagna education stand, where there is an "open mike" slot for presenting research projects, is as buzzing as the Illustrators' Cafe.

While much of the fair is about books yet to be published, or even created, DOCET has real books for sale to real book-lovers, and their excitement was obvious if incomprehensible to me with my menu Italian (you read a lot of menus in Bologna; the food is to die for). And between the seminars and the shopping, DOCET refreshed visitors with at least six mini-exhibitions, mostly on a book-related theme and including two to celebrate Hans Andersen's 200th birthday. At this point the parallel universes could meet: the 13th-century Palazzo d'Accursio in the city centre housed Illustrating Andersen, an exhibition including work by past winners of the Hans Christian Andersen award for illustration presented by the International Board on Books for Young People. Anthony Browne chose "The Emperor's New Clothes", which he believes is Andersen's funniest. He reveals the Emperor as a naked ape and the crowd clearly colluding with the child who voices what they have all noticed.

The Emperor's story becomes "The King of Cool" in Tales of Beauty and Cruelty: Andersen Tales Retold for Today, to be published by Orion Children's Books this autumn. Kate Petty and Caroline Castle have recast stories including "The Snow Queen" and "The Little Mermaid" for girls of 10-plus; "The Ugly Duckling" should require less reworking. Lauren Child's Princess and the Pea for Puffin, with photography by Polly Borland, should also have wide age appeal; it combines technical artistry with the obsessive quest for perfection of the original tale. Child has created stage sets for each spread, each one lit to represent candlelit speed-dating or the wild wood by moonlight, where the princess in her pea-green dress looks as "mesmerising and fascinating" as the prince could wish, before she climbs on to the tottering pile of handmade doll's-house featherbeds.

Andersen was not the only presiding spirit at Bologna: last Friday was Roald Dahl Day, with a commemorative plaque presented to Dahl's widow, Felicity Dahl. Lauren Child is among the artists who have contributed to a Roald Dahl Songs and Verse, which includes previously unpublished material - "A Nobleman Visiting Coutts" - alongside classics such as Lauren Child's criminally inclined Goldilocks from "Revolting Rhymes" and Mini Grey's Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book will be published by Jonathan Cape in November.

In an attempt to broaden the parallel universe, a New Horizons illustration award has been set up for picture books from countries where children's publishing is relatively new and working under pressure. Editions Bakame was set up in 1995 in Kigali, Rwanda, the first children's publisher in the country. It is committed to publishing affordable books in the national language, kinyarwanda, and touring primary schools to encourage reading for pleasure. The award goes to Bakame's first picture book published in kinyarwanda, John Kilaka's Ubucuti bw'imbeba n'inzovu, a tale of friendship between a mouse and an elephant shattered in time of famine, but eventually repaired. "A very special book," says judge Antonio Faeti, professor at Bologna's Academy of Fine Art. "It has a soul and identity of its own that speaks to us, and artwork greatly in harmony with the text. This is a resource that we can all learn from."

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