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Why going to Bologna as a children’s book illustrator is a no brainer

It's that time of year to start booking flights to the world's biggest children's book fair. As I was thinking about my 2024 trip I found this blog which I drafted in 2022 and forgot all about (oops). But I've added a couple of photos from this year's fair, and the sentiment remains much the same. So enjoy the read, and I'll see you next year in Bologna!

What a magical time! Back in March this year I went to the much anticipated International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy. This year was extra-special because I attended as part of the team running the Cambridge School of Art stand…how cool is that?

I had an absolute ball and am beyond grateful for the experience. I’ll be going back next year without a doubt, and here are the 10 reasons why you should go too.

1. Watch talks by inspiring children’s book illustrators

The Illustrator’s Survival Corner is probably my favourite place in the whole fair. With a roster of star-studded events over the 4 days I spent a lot of my time here listening to some of my favourite children’s book illustrators talking about their work.

The highlight for me was Beatrice Alemagna talking about her freeform creative process, and how she doesn’t tie herself to illustrating books in a certain ‘style’. The talk was so full that they nearly didn’t let Martin Salisbury in(!) And I left with a great sense of confidence at where I am in my creative work being EXACTLY where I need to be.

2. Think outside the box, see books made in all sorts of crazy unique and inventive ways

Each publisher displays their books for everyone to come and pick up and have a peruse. My favourite was this giant concertina book from Andrea Antinori with Liebre called La Montana. It reminded me of the kind of things I drew when I was a kid using Berol felt tip pens.

I felt super inspired to run back home and start drawing from my inner-child. The inventive book design propelled my latest MA project forward as well, resulting in a 5 meter long book!

Next up is the ever inspiring Johanna Schaible. ‘Once Upon A Time There Was And Will Be So Much More’ is one of the most inventive books I have eve come across. The pages get smaller and smaller, and then bigger and bigger, as Schaible takes you on a journey through our amazing universe. Again, this is the kind of thing that 7-year-old Tessa would have loved making…note to self: have more chats with 7-year-old Tessa.

Finally, Herve Tullet is a bit of a legend amongst children’s book illustrators so it was an honour to hear him talk about how he came up with the idea for ‘Press Here’, and his other books about dots. There’s something wonderfully arrogant about making a book about a dot. Very clever stuff.

3. Feel part of a global community

I chatted with publishers from Norway, Italy, Sweden, USA, Spain, Poland and New Zealand. And there were even more people there who I didn’t get the chance to talk to. I really felt how everyone there is out with the same aim: to make beautiful books for children. As a children’s book illustrator with very much the same goal, I decided this year that Bologna is my home…that I belong there as part of a big global family making children’s books. Nice.

4. See prizewinning children’s book illustration

It is super inspiring to see work from graduates of the Cambridge MA winning prizes in the Bologna Illustrator’s Exhibition. Eleanor Lavender’s giant baby illustrations were a real hit, chosen from over 3,500 entries from 92 different countries. Bravo Eleanor!

5. Be inspired to draw the Portico of Bologna

Bologna is an observational drawing dream, and I spent a few happy afternoons in the sun with my sketchbook and drawing buddies. The warmth of the sun and the people inspired me to make good use of my orange and pink chalk pastels to reflect the beautiful, coloured plaster of the Bologna buildings.

6. Meet your favourite publishers

I had the enormous privilege of taking notes in the meetings between my MA tutors and the publishers who had come to see the graduates’ work. It was incredible to hear what sort of themes publishers are hungry for at the moment, especially because happy books were high on the agenda! And non-fiction seems to be a popular request as well.

I loved and see how excited they were to see unique approaches to illustration displayed by the MA graduates, and noticed how well designed portfolios with great colour palettes were the most eye-catching (note to self: focus on design and composition in illustrations).

Every publisher was after something slightly different though, so it was most encouraging to see how every illustrator had a ‘home’. A huge thanks to Thames & Hudson, Usborne, Welbeck, DK and Rocket Bird Books for having me sit in on your meetings, I learned a lot!

And a special shout-out to Sanjee and the team at Sweet Cherry Publishing who were fabulously welcoming and had all the time in the world to talk to me about my work. Thanks so much, you put a Cherry on my Bologna.

7. Meet upcoming children’s book illustrators

I’ve been a fan of the DPictus Unpublished Picturebook Showcase for a while now and it was so great to peruse the stand for new talent. Favourites of mine were MA graduates Bia Melo and Mariajo Ilustrajo, both of whom were helping to run the stand and talk about their work. I shall be submitting some of my own projects to the showcase this year and it’s great to have such a broad range of artwork to encourage me to see that there’s a place for everyone.

8. Find new ways of sharing your work

It’s amazing the opportunities that can crop up from a random conversation. I wandered into the ‘I Am A Bookworm’ stand, as they are a small publisher from Somerset so I thought I’d say hi to a fellow west-counctry children’s book loverrrr. Nick was asking me how I made my books and suggested I enquired about rights agencies who can sell your work to publishers in different countries. On his advice I popped to chat with The Rights Solution on the stand next door and had the joy of meeting the lovely Gwen.

Gwen loved my books and was excited to share them with her team Rachel and Aby when she got back home. One thing has led to another and it looks like the Rights Solution will be representing The Happy Book Company at book fairs around the world and see if publishers in different places would like to acquire the right to publish my books(!!!)

Prior to this unplanned chat in Bologna I had no idea this was even a possibility, as publishers usually look for incomplete projects they can collaborate on. This magical interaction has opened my eyes to the unlimited opportunities there are out there for the taking. I cannot wait to work with my new Rights team and who knows where in the world my books might end up?

9. Eat. All. The. Food

Finally, you can’t go to Bologna with a small appetite, the food is out of this world. Every evening after the fair my MA buddies and I would vow to have an early night. But temptation to ‘grab a quick bite’ would lead to lasagne and 2 aperol spritzes in some beautiful alfresco restaurant. I think I’m an Italian lady at heart and it feels good not to deny myself the pleasure.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my whistle stop tour of the Bologna Book Fair. If you’d like to find out more about my current projects which were fuelled and inspired by the work I saw at Bologna, click here to check out my work on Instagram.

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