Jumping off the page – Lara Marlowe at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

The Irish children’s book market is thriving

The walls of the exhibition hall are decked with thousands of pieces of paper, like notice boards in supermarkets or university buildings. The images were posted by book illustrators advertising their wares at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the world’s largest, held annually in April for the past 61 years.

A few dozen of the fair’s nearly 32,000 trade visitors stand in a forest of books, perusing texts suspended at varying heights from the ceiling. In a clearing amid the maze of illustrators’ walls and exhibitions, Mac Barnett, a children’s author from California, talks to a rapt audience. “Children’s books must be recognised as literature, on a par with books for adults,” he says.

Every imaginable species of animal appears in the 3,355 books submitted for the BolognaRagazzi Awards. But concerns of the grown-up world are also present. Contemporary themes – from climate change and the environment to the rights of the disabled, migrants, women and transgender people – have found their way into children’s and young adult literature.

On a wall reserved for Ukrainian illustrators, one picture shows uniformed soldiers embracing in grief. In another, a soldier mends a Ukrainian flag. The words “No missile can attack our imagination” are emblazoned on a teacher’s red apple.

The €431,000 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award – “the Nobel for children’s literature”, given in memory of the creator of Pippi Longstocking – was this year awarded to a foundation that promotes the literary aspirations of the aboriginal community in Australia.

Margaret Ann Suggs represents the 80 members of Illustrators Ireland. In her latest book, The Dandelion’s Tale, Suggs’s lovely watercolours illustrate dandelions who are driven out as weeds. They turn into white fluff and travel over walls, fields and train tracks, looking for a welcoming place to land. When they find it, they say, “We will be happy here”.

In Wonder-Vet, Irish author and illustrator Jennifer Farley tells the story of Aleen Cust, the first female veterinarian in Ireland and Britain.

Farley also illustrated Shooting for the Stars, My Journey to Become Ireland’s First Astronaut, by Dr Norah Patten, and provided illustrations for Girls Play Too, about inspirational Irish sportswomen.

Kerry-based author Olivia Hope’s first book, Be Wild, Little One, is about embracing nature. It was short-listed for the KPMG Children’s Books Ireland Award and has been translated into French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Irish.

Hope’s second book sprang from memories of taking the train from Killarney to Dublin with her mother and is entitled Little Lion Girl. “The City roared like a jungle and Leonie roared at the city,” goes one memorable line.

Irish authors and illustrators, including Suggs and Hope, are often published by UK houses. “Our bookshops and our book industry are dominated by US and UK companies,” says Kunak McGann, rights director at the O’Brien Press.

“It can be saddening when you see some of our best talent published elsewhere. I totally understand why it happens, but yes, it’s a difficult one to swallow.”

The children’s book industry is far less lucrative than books for adults, which is one reason the sector is dominated by women. Bookshops devote little space to children’s books. Their retail price is low and commissioning illustrations can be expensive. And yet, the Irish children’s book market is thriving. “In Bologna, foreign editors come looking for the Irish stand . . . With Irish writing, there’s always a twinkle in the eye, a sense of humour,” McGann says.

“There’s been a huge swell of artists,” says Elaina Ryan, CEO of Children’s Books Ireland, whose mission is “to inspire a love of reading in children and young people in Ireland”. The organisation received 158 submissions for the KPMG prize this year, up from about 85 in the past. The boom in Irish children’s publishing is attributed to the energy of Children’s Books Ireland and Illustrators Ireland, investment by the Arts Council and more courses for illustrators.

A diminutive man with a bald pate and shocks of white hair graces four books entitled: The President’s Dog, The President’s Cat, The President’s Glasses and the President’s Surprise. The books, written and illustrated by Peter Donnelly, “have been a huge hit worldwide”, says Ryan.

The Irish stand hosts a reception, sponsored by the Irish Embassy in Rome, at the same time on the same day every year, “So folks know where and when to find us,” says Ryan. Ambassador Patricia O’Brien tells a small crowd that the Bologna book fair is “one of the dates in my personal calendar that I treasure . . . We are indeed a nation of storytellers. I think our national love of storytelling translates particularly well to children’s literature.”

Alphabetical proximity has placed the Irish stand opposite the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only a few metres separate them, but no Iranian representative crosses the aisle to share a glass of Jameson or prosecco.

Irish participation in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair was financed by Culture Ireland.

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