Bologna 2019 - lions, flamingos, llamas among diverse showcase

Mary Hoffman
News - Children Monday, 08 April 2019

Mary Hoffman reports from the children's book fair, where YA was not over but there was an emphasis on younger fiction, as well as on diversity


It was with some trepidation that your Bologna correspondent returned to this year's Children's Book Fair, having broken her ankle last year midway through and ended up in Italian A & E for five hours. No mishaps this time (apart from leaving my phone in the UK, which turned out to be a bit of a blessing).

Traditionally, Bologna begins with the Penguin Random House party at the Royal Carlton hotel on Sunday night, where a wall of sound hits you as you enter and you soon have your first glass of prosecco in hand. Authors, illustrators, agents, editors and PR people swirl around a packed room, exchanging air kisses, glugging bubbles and generally getting into a mood of excitement about the next four days.

I went out to dinner with illustrators John Shelley and Mike Brownlow and Mike's wife, Dilly. John had been nominated for the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA) for the second year running, and Mike had been commissioned to write one of this year's World Book Day titles, Ten Little Bookworms, and it was good to hear how the fair seems to those who usually do the pictures rather than the words.

There is always a guest country providing an exhibition of book art at the fair, and this year's was Switzerland (left). Books in French, German and Italian sit next to each other (maybe in Romanch too, but I didn't see any). The art of these Swiss illustrators was just stunning, and I was charmed by the interpretation of 26 of them in an alphabet featuring C for Chalet, E for Edelweiss, P for Peace and S for Skiing. I would be thrilled to have a text interpreted by any of them.

Illustration is much to the fore as you walk into the exhibition halls, with the international exhibition of established artists coming first and then wall after wall of would-be illustrators' work (right), whose space has greatly swelled since my first Bologna in 1993.

My first appointment was with Jane Harris, MD of Bonnier Books, and I plunged straight in with this year's question: did she feel that YA was having a dip? "Not at all," she said. "I feel positive and buoyant about YA. We have to hold our nerve."

Unusually, the Bonnier rights guide starts with YA and teen fiction and continues down the age ranges. Robert Muchamore, the bestselling author of the C.H.E.R.U.B. books, has a new series about a modern-day Robin Hood and his gang of friends. Wilbur Smith has written a trilogy for teens, with some help from Chris Wakling, which is attracting international attention. Yasmin Rahman's debut is a hard-hitting YA novel called All the Things we Never Said (left)about three teenage girls who get caught up in a suicide pact and a sinister website that won't let them change their minds. But there are plenty of middle grade titles too, including a new series by Caroline Lawrence, called The Time Travel Diaries, about a 12-year-old boy who travels back through London's Mithraeum in search of the blue-eyed African girl, whose remains were found there. And Bonnier has a stunning picture book for older readers by bestselling Sally Gardner and illustrated by Rovina Cai. I saw the proof of The Wind in the Wall, and it looks like a winner.

Next stop Emma Hopkin, the MD of Bloomsbury Children's Books (and of all Bloomsbury's consumer publishing), where both non-fiction and fiction are thriving. Emma says that YA fantasy still sells well, though it tends to come from the US authors such as Sarah J Maas; it's contemporary British YA that has slipped. Middle grade fiction is doing well at Bloomsbury: its highlights include a new title by Katherine Rundell - a heist story called The Good Thieves, about a girl in New York who sets out to get revenge on the conman who cheated her grandfather out of his home.

I had my annual peek at the artwork of Jim Kay, who is doing the lavishly illustrated Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, meticulously working his way through the books and devising portraits of the characters that owe nothing to the films. And Emily Gravett is the artist working on Quidditch Through the Ages. Hard to believe the last book in the Harry Potter series came out 12 years ago.

Andy Harkness' Wolfboy was bought by Bloomsbury the Friday before the Fair, and had two foreign editions by the end of the day. The author-illustrator was the art director on Disney's Moana, and the artwork for this story of a vegetarian wolf is based on clay models.

A quick ride up the escalator (right), ignoring the gelato stand, took me to the agents' centre to see Sophie Hicks, whose hit of last year, Kathryn Evans' YA novel More of Me (Usborne), has just been followed by her Beauty Sleep, a high-tech take on the Sleeping Beauty story. Sophie was also excited about Sif Sigmarsdottir's YA novel, The Sharp Edge of a Snowflake: described as a "captivating, feminist, Nordic thriller" and "Jo Nesbo for teenagers", the Icelandic novel is about two girls who get involved in solving a murder, for which one is a suspect.

Sophie is strong in YA, also representing a Shamim Sharif novel called The Athena Protocol, which Patrick Ness describes as a "ferocious, take no prisoners thriller". It's kind of YA Bourne Ultimatum, and has been sold to three foreign publishers as adult fiction, though a Spanish children's publisher is also taking it. "The line between YA and adult novels is blurred," says Sophie. She also represents Eoin Colfer, whose new middle grade title, The Fowl Twins, is about Artemis Fowl's younger brothers. There's also an Artemis Fowl graphic novel realised by Michael Moreci and Stephen Gilpin.

And, very excitingly, Lucy Coats' Beasts of Olympus series is in development for television with Dreamworks.

Over at Scholastic, Catherine Bell and Penelope Daukes were enthusiastic about Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's new collaboration The Smeds and the Smoos, a Romeo and Juliet story set in outer space. It's Scholastic's lead picture book, with over 20 foreign editions already optioned.

Hearts are still warmed by the story of the unlikely success of The Wonky Donkey by Australian duo Craig Smith and Katz Cowley. The "Scottish granny", Janice Clark, went viral in a video last August, reading the rhyming picture book to her baby grandson and collapsing into infectious giggles. Scholastic swooped in and reprinted two million copies to meet the demand worldwide. And now there's a much-demanded sequel, The Dinky Donkey, by the same team, coming out in November.

Another big autumn title for Scholastic is a new Liz Pichon, Shoe Wars (represented left). The author/illustrator of the Tom Gates books, which have been translated into 44 languages, has invented a Shoe Town in Wedge World, where Ruby and Bear are determined their father's outrageous designs will win the Golden Shoe Award.

Vashti Hardy's middle grade novel Brightstorm is to be followed this year by a new stand-alone, Wildspark. The first novel was bought by Norton Young Readers in the US at the fair.

Chicken House sits on the same stand as parent company Scholastic, and I was soon back there to meet founder and publisher Barry Cunningham and rights director Elinor Bagenal. The publisher has enjoyed successes with not only the winners but also the shortlisted authors from the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction competition, and this year was highlighting a winner, The Last Chance Hotel by Nicki Thornton, a middle grade debut about a kitchen boy with a magic cat.

Barry is of course a legend in children's publishing since his discovery of J K Rowling at Bloomsbury, but he is not too grand to publicise his own wares. Here he is (right), learning to knit, to draw attention to Granny Magic by Elka Evalds. After the death of Peter's granny, dark magic begins to unravel in the village of Knitford.

Chicken House's YA novel The Loop by Ben Oliver had sold six foreign edition and a film option on the basis of its first 100 pages. Described as a mixture of Prison Break and Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is an example of what Barry calls "bucking the YA trend". Indeed, so many publishers told me they were doing the same that I begin to wonder if talking about a drop in the YA market was a self-fulfilling prophecy: other publishers may have encountered problems, was the general line, but not us.

Monday night was Gruffalo night! Macmillan was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of the picture book, and I had spotted Axel Scheffler drawing his most famous creation on the publisher's stand earlier in the day.

At the party, Julia Donaldson (pictured left with Axel and the drawing) gave a stirring performance of The Gruffalo in several European languages. The book really is a phenomenon, having sold more than 13.5 million copies in 70 territories - I bumped into a publisher from Kazakhstan, who had published it for the first time the week before.

I was very pleased to make it to the HarperCollins stand next morning, having missed it last year. Geraldine Stroud, now "PR and brands communication director", and Louisa Sheridan, publicity and events officer, enthused about some of HC's coups, including a new chapter book from Judith Kerr called The Curse of the School Rabbit. Illustrated by Judith in black and white line, and out in June to coincide with her 96th birthday, it's bound to be a worldwide hit.

HC has new picture books from Oliver Jeffers and Rob Biddulph, and a sequel to last year's Three Little Monkeys, an inspired collaboration between Quentin Blake and his one-time pupil Emma Chichester-Clark. Three Little Monkeys on Holiday will be followed by more stories of havoc and mayhem.

I especially liked Benji Davies' Tad, the unlikely story of a heroic tadpole. Bad Nana: All the Fun of the Fair is a second young reader title by Sophy Henn. HC's middle grade fiction has more or less been taken over by the Davids - Walliams and Baddiel - huge sellers, both of them. But there is also Ross Welford's The Dog Who Saved the World, and a new story coming soon from Michael Morpurgo.

Fiction for young readers or early readers was one of the themes of the fair. It's the logical next step after the domination of YA in the early years of the century and the move to middle grade of the last few years. So it was fitting to spend some time with Liz Cross at the OUP stand. Liz is in some ways the queen of young fiction, having published the first Isadora Moon books by Harriet Muncaster in 2016. There are now 15 titles published or in the pipeline about this half-fairy, half-vampire girl, and they have been published in 29 languages.

Now Isadora is joined by Freddie Bonbon, who is "sweet by name and sweet by nature". Freddie's Amazing Bakery by Harriet Whitehorn and Alex C Griffiths is the first in a four-book series. And for slightly older readers there is Ben Davis' What's That in Dog Years?, about a boy and his dog's bucket list. There is a sweet story behind the picture book Bear Shaped, beautifully written and illustrated by Dawn Coulter-Cruttenden. An autistic boy, Jack, lost his teddy, and a tweet about it went viral. The real-life Jack was inundated with substitute bears but, poignantly, never re-united with the original toy. Still, he gave away lots of bears to children who didn't have them, which made his own loss bearable (sorry!).

It was then time to visit the Quarto stand, where the imprint restored to its proper name of Frances Lincoln Children's Books publishes my own series of Great Big Books of… with Ros Asquith. It was strange to see the dummy of our The Great Big Brain Book, the seventh in the series. Katie Cotton and Katy Flint work on titles both from Frances Lincoln and from Wide-Eyed Editions, an imprint set up by former publisher Rachel Williams.

The Frances Lincoln series, Work It, Girl! by Caroline Moss, has reached astronaut Mae Jemison and inspirational Michelle Obama, both out next March. The Story Orchestra series follows Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Four Seasons in one Day with Carnival of the Animals and Swan Lake. Jessica Courtney Tickle's inspired stories have sold to nearly 20 countries. The Natural History of Fairies by Emily Hawkins, illustrated by Jessica Roux, is a very Templar-looking title, from the days of the -Ologies. It's both a natural history and a spotters' guide.

Wide-Eyed has added to the series and the English language with Illuminightmare, Illuminatlas, Illuminatomy and Illuminature. They are all illustrated by Carnovsky, a Milan-based collective, and written in-house. Wide-Eyed has sold rights in the earliest title to over 20 countries.

Catherine Clarke at the Felicity Bryan Agency has an impressive list of children's writers, among them David Almond, Sally Gardner, Liz Kessler and Linda Newbery. She talked to me about Katya Balen, whose debut middle grade novel The Space We're In will be published in the UK by Bloomsbury and already has an American and various European deals. It's narrated by 10-year-old Frank, telling us about his younger, autistic brother Max. I started reading the book on National Autism Awareness Day, 2 April.

Another of Catherine's star authors is Jenny Downham, whose first book, Before I Die, won the Branford Boase Award and was turned into a film called Now Is Good. Her new book, Furious Thing, will be published by David Fickling Books (stand pictured on the right) in October.

Sally Gardner, who has won the Carnegie Medal and the Costa Prize with her YA fiction, has written a "dark, middle grade fairy tale", to be published by Zephyr (the children's arm of Head of Zeus, to mix metaphors) in the autumn. It's called Invisible in a Bright Light, and is set in the Danish Opera House.

Barrington Stoke's lead title for 2019 is Tanya Landman's One Shot. The Carnegie Medal- winning author writes here about the fictionalised harsh childhood of Annie Oakley, the girl sharpshooter. Lisa Thompson's Owen and the Soldier is about a fatherless boy, who forms a relationship with the crumbling stone statue of a soldier.

Tom Palmer's D-Day Dog ties in to the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and is about a boy who visits the beaches in Normandy with his school and becomes obsessed with the fate of a paratrooper and his dog. Another kind of dog features in a posthumous novel from Mal Peet, on of several he left on his death in 2015. In Good Boy, Sandie is battling the black dog of depression and anxiety.

But it's not all doom and gloom at Barrington Stoke! Alexander McCall Smith's new Big Top Mysteries features The Case of the Vanishing Granny; and ALMA-winning author Meg Rosoff returns to her McTavish series with McTavish Takes the Biscuit. (McTavish is also a dog).

It was time to make my third trip to the agents' centre, this time to meet Stephanie Thwaites, children's agent at Curtis Brown, and her assistant, Izzy Gahan. Stephanie did say that perhaps YA had been "overpublished", but there was still an international call for it, and the proliferation of streaming services meant that there was still film interest in books for that age group.

She was looking for a home from an American author, Katya Bookchin, whose Skeleton Keepers is about a teenage girl uprooted by her father's work and relocated to Castello in Italy. The town is ruled by the Mafia and infested by witches - this is YA fantasy.

Another author, Justin Somper, who had a big success with his Vampirates series, has written a middle grade book in which the shift happens in the other direction, with a girl being moved from London to California. In Thin Places, Kit discovers the seemingly laid-back town has a dark secret, because the boundary between the living and the dead is wafer-thin.

Other trends: there had been a rise in gothic in the UK, and of "funny for all ages".

Hard as it was to drag myself away from the Curtis Brown table with its tray of delectable mini-pastries, I headed down the escalator again to see Alyx Price at Macmillan.

The Gruffalo really was the king of the fair this year, and has now moved into board books and a boxed gift edition; even his child will get a 15th anniversary edition in September. And there will be very tasteful TV tie-ins coming for the Moominvalley series, to be shown at Easter.

The Two Hoots imprint has some lovely new titles coming, including Emily Gravett's Meerkat Christmas, available in October. Everybody loves a meerkat, and Gravett made them her own with Meerkat Mail years ago, long before the little Russian ones invaded our screens.

Middle grade is well represented by Beyond Platform 13 by Sibeal Pounder and crediting the late Eva Ibbotson, to whose original book it is a sequel. And there is Sophie Wills' The Orphans of St. Halibut's, described as "Miss Peregrine for younger readers".

Another, very special series is Chris Riddell's The Cloud Horse Chronicles. It's magical middle grade, and more diverse than many titles for this age group.

YA is represented by Frances Hardinge's latest book, Deeplight (left), featuring the heart of a dead god found in the depths of the ocean. And there were rumours of a new book by Hilary McKay, whose The Skylarks' War won the Costa and gave her career a new and well-deserved boost.

Last call of the day was to Faber, where young editor Natasha Brown was enjoying a trip to the fair while two senior editors were on maternity leave. She had arrived that day on a very early flight, and had a punishing schedule, but was looking very cheerful about it.

Faber's lead 2020 title is a YA novel by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, The Year the Dolphin Came. This Irish novel tells the story of two teenagers on rival sides in a feud about a wild dolphin that swims into a bay. Is it the source of joyful communing with nature or a tourist attraction?

The company's middle grade and young readers offering is particularly strong, with new novels by the high-selling author Emma Carroll and by Kate Saunders, whose Five Children on the Western Front won the Costa and whose The Land of Neverendings is on this year's Carnegie shortlist. Faber is bringing back into print Ann Jungman's Sasha and the Wolfcub, with lovely new illustrations by Italian artist Gaia Bordicchia that perfectly capture the message of friendship and cooperation between humans and the natural world.

Faber has a strong backlist to draw on. There is a gorgeous 50th anniversary edition of Ted Hughes' The Iron Man coming this August, with outstanding new illustrations by Chris Mould. And, of course, it was Faber that published the original Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; the next in its series of individual poems illustrated by Arthur Robins is The Old Gumbie Cat (January 2020).

A new picture book from Francesca Simon is called The Goat Café: everything is on the menu, including the fence and shed, when goats find an open garden gate.

The last day at the fair began with one of my favourite meetings, with Zosia Knopp, the rights director at Penguin Random House. At least it started with Zosia, but we were soon joined by at least three other enthusiasts. We started talking about the new Ladybird books, which are nothing like the ones you may remember, so brilliantly parodied recently by Bruno Vincent and others.

I must admit I wasn't a fan of the Ladybirds that were around in my childhood, so these were a revelation. Art director James Stevens and editorial director Louie Stowell talked me through the new list. Take two non-fiction titles coming in October: Hidden Planet by Ben Rothery is a gorgeously illustrated hymn of praise to the glories of the natural world; and the Ladybird Book of Dead Things by Ned Hartley and Binny Taleb is a brilliant idea, encompassing everything from extinct creatures such as dinosaurs to Egyptian mummies and dead stars.

The "reimagining" of Darwin's On the Origins of Species by Sabina Radeva has really captured the imagination of foreign publishers, with the 20th deal just confirmed (various editions illustrated right).

Editor Joe Marriott joined us to talk about working on a picture book by Paul McCartney. Hey, Grandude! comes out in September and has already been bought in 15 markets. The magical granddad figure in the story has a compass that whisks children off to unexpected adventures. Hence a comparison with Mary Poppins; the emphasis is on grandparents being fun.

At the other end of the age range there are exciting new YA titles like Emily Barr's The Girl who Came out of the Woods, a thriller set in India, and Kat Ellis's Harrow Lake, with its elements of horror.

There are some big anniversaries coming up too, with The Very Hungry Caterpillar's 50th this year and Eric Hill's Spot the puppy's 40th in 2020.

To move from the PRH stand in Hall 26 to another behemoth in Hall 25, Hachette, is a bit overwhelming. These "Big Five" houses handle a range of ages, formats and imprints - and they do electronic rights guides, because paper versions would be too bulky to carry away. (My suitcase was 5 kilos heavier on leaving Bologna than on setting out from London).

Right director for the group, Andrew Sharp, introduced me to Neal Layton's A Planet Full of Plastic, due out in June and one of several ecologically conscious books I saw at the fair. It comes out under the Wren & Rook imprint, as does a series of Fantastically Feminist Stories featuring some bizarre stablemates: the Bronte Sisters and Ada Lovelace; Michelle Obama and Emma Watson (forthcoming).

This is not to be confused with Bellatrix, a new series of YA titles from Orion, which are definitely fiction (and have nothing to do with Harry Potter). Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal is a reimagining of Moby-Dick, and The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is about encounters with Dracula. The combination of gothic with feminism is proving attractive to foreign publishers. And The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta is a YA verse novel from Hodder about a Black drag queen.

In younger fiction, Hodder's offer includes Planet Omar by Zanib Mian, a kind of Muslim version of The Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It's already had a six-figure deal from the US as well as Dutch and German sales. And Boot is a series by Shane Hegarty, illustrated by Ben Mantle, about a robot, which Andrew says is going to be "huge".

Two more I liked on this stand were Llamaste and Friends by Annabel Tempest, about a llama who does yoga; and equally "yummy mummy" may be Momoko Abe's Avocado Asks, about an existential crisis - is our hero a fruit or a vegetable?

Otter-Barry Books is on a smaller scale. Janetta Otter-Barry was my first picture book editor (at Methuen in the ‘80s), and she showed me some of the colour spreads Ros Asquith had produced for a new book we are doing called Babies, Babies Everywhere! It's a version of the Ahlbergs' Baby's Catalogue, updated for the 21st century.

That's a long way in the future, while this year's picture books include Astro Girl by Ken Wilson-Max, about a girl who wants to go into space, and Migrations, in which 50 artists from all over the world have created postcard-sized images to illustrate the theme of moving from one country to another - for both birds and humans. Half the royalties go to Amnesty International, and half to IBBY.

Mrs Noah's Garden, coming in spring next year, is a sequel to Jackie Morris's Mrs Noah's Pockets, illustrated by James Mayhew, which made the Kate Greenaway longlist. Jackie is perhaps better known as an artist, but this is an inspired pairing, with the sequel having a different, very colourful palette, as Noah's wife sets about planting seeds to start life all over again. She has her own secret reason for wanting a fresh beginning.

Otter-Barry's top co-edition title is probably Only a Tree Knows How To Be a Tree by Mary Murphy, which I saw in proof.

And that was the end for me of the 56th Bologna Book Fair, my own 19th. The trends were definitely towards younger fiction (5-8); lions, flamingos and llamas were the most popular animals. There was more diversity, both in authors and illustrators, more books about powerful women, more attention to autism, and a significant number of books featuring how to overcome anger and tantrums. Perhaps a good lesson for our turbulent political times.

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