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To Bologna and back

One could say the international publishing industry was an early victim of the pandemic when the London Book Fair, scheduled in mid-March, was canceled two weeks before the event. Another popular event, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF) scheduled this week, was canceled with longer advance notice—and yet, I am happy to say I managed a full attendance. Virtually, of course, thanks to technology.

The BCBF organizers produced a surprisingly wonderful special online edition of the fair, available for visitors from May 4-7. The fair theme was, aptly, “Always Here.” And what a colorful, enjoyable, fanciful, sensory experience it was; one almost forgot it was a mere proxy event. I fully appreciated what publisher Ani Almario told me about the BCBFs she has been to—we both love the Frankfurter Buchmesse, but for her the BCBF is much more fun and pleasurable. And why won’t it be such a happy place when the focus is on children’s book illustrations? That alone is an enormous advantage over all other book fairs.

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There were many exhibits and discussions vying for my attention. A mainstay of BCBF is the Wall of Illustrators which welcomes everyone to post their artwork. The exhibit is divided into regions of the world and the countries represented. The Philippines had nine illustrators from Ang Ilustrador ng Kabataan showcasing their art: Jeannelle Pita, AAron Asis, Pergy Acuña, Jamie Bauza, Aangela Taguiang, Beth Parrocha, Jay Lumboy, Kenny Tai, Fran Alvarez. No doubt, an excellent way to manifest their caliber.

The Illustrators Exhibition is a separate exhibit that began in 1967, one that artists covet being a part of, as the works are first reviewed by a jury of five international experts. In a forum, “Reasons behind a choice,” the jurors discussed how they went through the difficult and overwhelming process of whittling down 12,870 original illustrations representing 2,574 submissions from 66 countries to their final choices of 76 illustrations from 24 countries. It is a prestigious lineup, as the exhibit also travels to Japan, South Korea, China.

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What does it take to be selected? The jury talked about the originality of technique and experience portrayed, and desiring to be surprised and transported to an imaginative world. They were hard put to categorically state what they were looking for, as they conceded to the bottom-line subjectivity of responding to art. The Japanese juror said she was surprised that her top choices were Asian, but explained that she appreciated the Asian artist working with Western influences but retaining the Asian voice. The jurors were unanimous in saying how they were slightly disappointed in the quality of submissions and wished the illustrations showed more fun, more mischief, more playfulness.

This virtual experience had many more offerings than the face-to-face BCBFs of the past. There was an incredible “24H Marathon—The Worldwide Illustrators Survival Portfolio Review” which engaged 24 international experts to do a video call conference with 240 young illustrators all over the world who had complied with portfolio requirements earlier. It involved careful planning as the marathon traveled from Australia and moved on across the world, depending on the time zones, while grouping the illustrators by 10s for a one-hour session. What a service for illustrators aspiring to grow their careers.

Predictably, my most favorite exhibit was “A Universe of Stories Starring: The Book,” which featured picture books that celebrate the book. It was about “stories of libraries, bookstores, publishers, activists, writers and pioneers.” “Let Me Finish!” by Minh Lê, with illustrations by NY-based Filipino illustrator Isabel “Pepper” Roxas, was included in the exhibit. I came away with a new long reading list of 100-plus books, as there were only a handful I was familiar with; the count should really be less, since there were many foreign-language editions. Who can resist titles like “Ordinary, Extraordinary Jane Austen,” “My Worst Book Ever” or “I Do Not Like Books Anymore”?

The BCBF could not have happened at a better time. As we cope with the pandemic, we needed to be transported to the happy world of children’s books as a refuge.

What solace stories and illustrations can gift us with, always. The BCBF has shown us what the much touted “new normal” would be like with this online edition, which can be used as a template for the Manila International Book Fair in September and the Frankfurter Buchmesse in October: how we welcomed the throngs then, how physical distancing must now be the norm, and how books and reading still need to endure.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Aangela Taguiang, AAron Asis, Beth Parrocha, Bologna Children’s Book Fair, Fran Alvarez, Jamie Bauza, Jay Lumboy, Jeannelle Pita, Kenny Tai, London Book Fair, Pergy Acuña
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