Illustration by
Olga Epikhina

Why illustrators have to visit Bologna Children's Book Fair

The Bologna Children's Book Fair is the leading professional event dedicated to the children’s books publishing industry. It includes an exhibition of 77 illustrators selected from over 3 thousand applicants, stands of hundreds of publishing houses from all over the world, lectures, meetings, book presentations, autograph sessions, workshops, and portfolio reviews. In this article we’ll look at what the fair is all about and why it is important for illustrators, authors and artists to visit it.

The Illustrator’s Exhibition

The main event of the fair for any illustrator is the exhibition of illustrators. Since 1967, the Illustrators Exhibition within the Bologna Children's Book Fair shows the works of the illustrators selected by the jury which consists of five international experts (publishers, illustrators or teachers of illustration and curators). Each year over 3000 illustrators from more than 70 countries submit five original artworks.And 77 illustrators are selected for the exhibition from thousands  of submitted applications.

This year due to the global pandemic the whole selection and application process took place online. The jury consisted of Beatrice Alemagna, a renowned artist and children’s book illustrator, Atak (Georg Barber) an artist, graphic designer and illustrator, publisher Suzanne Carnell, a curator and Associate Director of the Itabashi Art Museum Kiyoko Matsuoka, and Maria Russo the Editorial Director of mineditionUS, an international publisher of picture books. 

In the time span of several months, they looked at illustrations sent from all over the world and picked the finalists together. This year, the organizers of the fair held an online workshop with the members of the jury, where they explained this year's selection process and criteria.

 This year’s selection is also very special of us, the founders of the Brush Up Mag, since both of us applied for the competition independently and were selected to be exhibited at the fair! Yulia Drobova Submitted her collage series I dreamed about an elephant, and I (Olga Epikhina) submitted a stencil print series A list of very improbable things.

From the series "I dreamed about an elephant" by Yulia Drobova
From the series "A list of very improbable things" by Olga Epikhina

Due to the global pandemic the exhibition will be held online this year but we are hopeful that the following years the situation will go back to normal.

The exhibition of illustrators as well as the fair itself gives one a rare opportunity to have a general overview of contemporary illustration and allows to experience the differences of illustration in different countries. One can also observe global trends and general evolution of imagery, topics and stories. 

 A bit of history and facts

Since 1963, Bologna Children's Book Fair has been held yearly for four days in March or April in Bologna Italy. It is the meeting place for all professionals involved in making and publishing children's books, and is mainly used for the buying and selling of rights, both for translations and for derived products like movies or animated series. It is also the event where a number of major children’s book related awards are given.

In the recent years Bologna Fair began to go beyond the city and even the country: now it is also a co-organizer of the Shanghai Fair and the Moscow Fair. This year the full integration of Bologna Children’s book fair and the Moscow Fair is planned.

Publisher’s Stands

As previously mentioned the main goal of the fair is selling of the rights, so publishers from all over the world bring their best-selling books to Bologna in order to sell the rights and publish them abroad. Usually publishers from the same country are situated around the same area at the fair. So one goes to see "the Korean stand" or "The Polish stand". Another important task for the publishers is to search for new projects. This means meeting artists who want to pitch their books and portfolios.

photo courtesy of Olga Epikhina

To meet the publisher, you should contact them several months in advance and send a pdf with the dummy of the future book and a cover letter describing the idea.

A glimpse of the past 

I visited Bologna back in 2019, the fair encompassed six halls at Bologna’s modern, glassed exhibit complex. Scattered throughout the floor space were areas and exhibits devoted to literary agents, translators, and illustrators. Switzerland was guest of honour at the 2019 Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

Visual Identity

I did not arrive at the fair on the first day, but on the 3rd, and everyone told me that on the third day the atmosphere was more relaxed than at the beginning. The first thing you see when approaching the fair is the screen with the visuals created for the fair each year by a different artist selected from the selected illustrators of the previous year.

Photo courtesy of Olga Epikhina

 In 2019 the Visual Identity for the fair was made by the Russian illustrator Masha Titova with the help of Chialab design studio. The world she created consisted of walls that turned into books that turned into windows to many other worlds. Various characters inhabited those: men wearing hats, foxes, tamed dragons and butterflies.

Masha Titova in front of her work. Photo by Olga Epikhina

Illustrators exhibition

The central atrium is where one found the coveted Bologna Illustrator’s exhibition showcasing original illustrations from around the world. There were lots of different artwork styles, and sometimes I struggled understanding why one or the other illustration was selected, and I’m very thankful to Victoria Semykina for her insightful tour of the illustrators exhibition.

Photo courtesy of Olga Epikhina

Illustrator’s Survival Corner 

Illustrator’s  Survival Corner was the place where most of the lectures and workshops took place and the events guide was bursting with talks and workshops to attend.

Illustrators could get on the signup list for a portfolio review there. As a rule, portfolio reviews at BCBF are conducted by publishers, illustrators, authors, and agents. Participating in them is an opportunity for aspiring illustrators to get feedback and recommendations on how to improve their portfolio. However due to the amount of people wanting to have their portfolio reviewed, the time for each person is very limited.

Some of the illustrators do not recommend to do it at all, because the reviewer has very little time, so the comments are rather superficial and general. Some, on the other hand, say that they got useful advice. 

Lectures is what everyone unanimously recommends visiting.The topics range from promotion of illustration work to communication with publishers, writing emails and other topics that are worth knowing for aspiring illustrators. 

Workshops and illustration classes led by internationally renowned artists are also conducted at the Survival Corner.

Masha Titova's stamp workshop at the Survival Corner

Some events required a signup and some didn’t, for some events, like portfolio reviews, there was a huge signup queue at 9 a.m. at the Survival Corner’s registration desk.

Multiple publishers conducted spontaneous portfolio reviews. They placed announcements slightly in advance at their stands. Next to the announcement, they put a sheet of paper for people to sign up their names, and the review was carried out according to this improvised list. Some simply announced the time of the review without a signup, and then a huge queue of illustrators formed an hour before the review.

Illustrator’s wall

The Illustrators Wall is one of most loved places of Bologna Children’s Book Fair every year, usually illustrators cover it with their posters, pictures, sketches  and contact data in the hope that they will get noticed and contacted by a publisher or a potential client. Now one can find a digital version of the Illustrator's wall at the website of the fair. And even though the most sure way to get in touch with a publisher is to make an appointment way in advance, or join a portfolio review, it still happens sometimes that illustrators get contacted after leaving their contacts on the wall. 

The last day of the fair

Usually the last day is where all the publishers start packing their stands, it’s also quite empty and chilled. I enjoyed strolling through the stands on the last day without huge crowds of people, talking to relaxed publishers and sipping espressos from coffee wagons without having to stand in a queue. Another amazing benefit of staying until the last day is that the publishers start selling all the books they brought. One could buy some rare treasures from the Korean or Japanese, or South American stands.

Kveta Pacovska signing her books on the last day of the fair. Photo by Olga Epikhina

Satellite exhibitions and events in the city

Not many people know it, but during  BCBF there are a lot of satellite exhibitions going on around the city. They are absolutely worth checking out! They usually have longer opening hours than the fair itself, so that you can visit them afterwards. Most of them are concentrated in the city center, so you can combine your visit with the exploration of Bologna. Some exhibitions feel more like house parties, some are hidden in small ateliers and coffee shops. It’s an extraordinary experience and an opportunity one should not miss.

Book signings also happen in the city. For instance, in 2019 Beatrice Alemagna was signing her then latest book at the famous Giannino Stoppani book store.

Satellite exhibition. Photo by Olga Epikhina
Satellite exhibition. Photo by Olga Epikhina

So should I visit the BCBF?

The immersive experience of BCBF helps illustrators improve their professional practice in many ways. From overcoming the imposter syndrome to feeling like a part of a large and diverse community of artists and illustrators, to improving the portfolio and understanding the trends and developments of contemporary illustration. Other Benefits include:

Inspiration

Being completely immersed in the world of children’s books, one gets a huge boost of inspiration and loads of ideas for visuals and stories.It helps to focus one’s mind and plan the next steps of the artistic practice. 

New Contacts

Meeting people is a huge part of BCBF. One gets to know various publishers, agents, fellow illustrators and authors.

Seeing the most recent and upcoming releases

As an illustrator one should always stay on top of trends within the industry, and having this opportunity to look at unreleased titles, dummy books, and the new publishers’ catalogues gives one a good overview.

The Bologna Children's Book Fair 2020 was held online due to the pandemic. The 2021 fair will be online as well in June. You should check the fair's website for more details to be able to join it virtually this year and, hopefully, in person next year.

About

Olga Epikhina

Olga is a commercial illustrator from Russia currently living in Berlin, Germany. She firmly believes in the circulation of ideas and collaboration with like-minded creatives. Olga works with a range of analog and digital media.

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