Denise Muir attended the 2018 Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which took place March 26–29 in Bologna, Italy.
The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is about more than just books. Of course, there’s the selling, signing, promoting, and pitching, and the book-related wheeling and dealing, but a mere translator doesn’t always have access to the business side of the fair. As a result, though, this means one is free to wander the stands and dip in and out of the rich program of events; to savor the celebration of books, to laud the power of words and nod in agreement when experts the likes of Michèle Petit claim that “literature enriches dialogue, expands conversations about life, gives young people access to different dimensions of experience, makes the world a more habitable place.”
Image: A display of books featuring historical figures. Photo courtesy of Denise Muir.
The French anthropologist’s words at the “In Praise of Reading” event stayed with me throughout the three days of the fair as I heard multiple accounts of how authors, publishers, associations, and activists are empowering children by bringing literature into their lives. Over a crackling Skype connection with Kabul, I heard Selene Biffi speak about the Qessa Storytelling Academy that Plain Ink set up in the war-torn Afghan city to help young people rediscover the ancient art of storytelling as a way of improving their lives and safeguarding their culture. At the same event, I learned about the work being done by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) on the Italian island of Lampedusa to enrich the lives of both immigrant and local children, giving them access to a library, a collection of “silent books” (wordless picture books), and space to have their voices heard. Before the project began, many of the children had never been read to by an adult; now they are experts on international literature! Such a dearth of reading materials is apparently not just a problem in distant borderlands. Authors from the Italian Children’s Writers Association are taking their tales into schools much closer to home—in Scampia, for example, more commonly known, thanks to Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, as a “hotbed of drugs, prostitution and mafia.” The difficulties each project faces are enormous, but the benefits are too great not to try to overcome them. “We are poetic beings,” Michèle Petit said, “we need art and literature to recreate and inhabit this world.” At a time when more and more people are finding themselves on the margins, it is uplifting to think that books, and the people who make them, are working to make sure everyone is given a chance to (re)inhabit our world and experience all dimensions of it.
It is uplifting to think that books, and the people who make them, are working to make sure everyone is given a chance to (re)inhabit our world and experience all dimensions of it.
“Mirror” books—in which readers can see themselves—were popular at this year’s fair, as were those with protagonists or issues which have been previously left on the sidelines. There was a noticeable breaking of constraints, from the reversal of the savage wolf trope and the importance of truth in Melvin Burgess’s The Cry of the Wolf and Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, both Strega Ragazzi finalists, to the rise in feminist titles, including the Beblade series of graphic novels (pictured left), based on real-life Paralympic fencing champion Bebe Vio and published by Il Battello a Vapore (Mondadori). Big and small publishers alike had shelves lined with female-led fantasy; nonfiction titles featuring fabulous and famous women in history; and young adult fiction with strong, nonconformist female characters. Girls definitely seemed to be “shaking things up” and I was delighted to see several small Italian publishers determinedly fighting the tide of sexism, misogyny, and xenophobia that has seen several Italian regions not only ban many diverse books, but also hold marches in the street to get the books, and the diversity they advocate, out of schools. The tiny, women-led press Canicola is using visual storytelling in new and creative ways to stand up for the rights of girls and promote a culture of nondiscrimination. I picked up two of their graphic novels for my twelve-year-old daughter. Another woman-centric organization won European funding to create G-Book, a library collection of gender-positive literature for children. (And they’re actively seeking to extend it, so all relevant children’s titles, in any language, can be forwarded to them at email@example.com.)
China was the guest of honor at this year’s fair, and it was interesting to see the importance of cultural authenticity in the many titles on display, and the desire by Chinese publishers to redress the import-export imbalance and give English-language readers a richer, truer picture of their country. As I browsed the exhibitions of Chinese literature and illustration, then moved around the Italian stands, there was a definite vibe that authentic, multicultural stories matter. A plethora of titles gave children a reflection of their own experiences, while equal numbers of “window” books (thanks to Bruno Tognolini for the definition) offered children a vantage point into other cultures, other places, other times, and other worlds, both real and fantasy. Italian publishers gave ample space to books and anthologies that celebrate their own folk tales and fairy stories, but there were equal numbers of books presenting the traditions and tales of other nations in picture, prose, and verse.
Image: Cinzia Seccamani, Bruno Tognolini, and Denise Muir at the entrance to the Bologna Book Fair. Photo courtesy of Denise Muir.
My journey around Bologna 2018 closed on a poetic note, with a musical message befitting such a diverse event. “Tu sei tutti e tu sei tu,” poet and author Bruno Tognolini read in a discussion of his lyrical, Strega-finalist book, Il giardino dei musi eterni. This line—“you are everyone and you are you”—echoed the theme of his book and perhaps of the fair in general: that stories expand horizons, and have the power to let children step into anyone else’s shoes while feeling completely comfortable in their own.