Angela Keoghan kicked off her international children’s book career by visiting Bologna Book Fair in 2015, and she has been going there every year since. She makes the argument for NZ illustrators to go to the other side of the world to see how everyone else is working, in order to create a sustainable career.
Let me tell you how I managed to get an international career in illustrating books, by going to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.
The Italian city of Bologna inspired me with delicious gelato, abundant history, ancient architecture and more textured walls than I could take photos of! But it was inside the walls of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair that the real inspiration kicked in.
The Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF), which has been running for over 50 years, is the largest children’s publishing-focussed book fair in the world. It’s held for four days every year in early spring, around the same time as the London Book Fair. There are six large exhibition halls full to the brim with children’s publishers and content creators from around the world. This is the place where the deals are done. It’s flooded with publishers, illustrators, art directors, agents, authors, translators and more, all there to experience the latest in books and multimedia products for children.
This is the place where the deals are done. It’s flooded with publishers, illustrators, art directors, agents, authors, translators and more, all there to experience the latest in books and multimedia products for children.
Uniquely, the BCBF allows plenty of room for illustrators: a designated Illustration Cafe hub, Illustrators Survival Area, an exhibition of illustration from around the world, award ceremonies, industry talks, and areas in the exhibition halls where you can put up your own promotional material.
It can be overwhelming, but as an explorer visiting from the bottom of the world, the sheer scale of children’s publishing globally is awe-inspiring. When my husband and I first ventured to the BCBF in 2015, armed with a pocketful of pictures and a handful of stories, the Fair certainly lived up to everything we had read about it. Plastering our promotional posters on the wall was like placing a tiny pixel in a sea of mosaic talent.
The illustrators' wall at Bologna Children's Book Fair
My career before Bologna consisted of many years working as a freelance illustrator in the fields of editorial, advertising, music and packaging. As my library of children’s books suggests, publishing has always been of interest. Aside from a few book projects targeted at adults, books for children became a new field of study for me. I began to build a portfolio targeted at children’s publishing and collaborated with friends who were equally passionate about storytelling for children.
I had already worked internationally and had an agent represent me for a few years in the UK, so my research into children’s publishing seemed to logically start offshore. My husband (and business partner) and I decided to focus on connecting with the broader international market first, and book fairs provided a great opportunity to do this.
Attending BCBF and travelling abroad is great for gaining perspective. It’s like landing in the hustle and bustle of a food market, with rows of stall holders. You’re spoilt for choice with exotic flavours, styles of illustration and storytelling from different cultural perspectives. I loved discovering illustrators like Bruno Munari, Beatrice Alemagna, Isol, Marc Boutavant, Yara Kono, Valerio Vidali, Violeta Lopiz, Britta Teckentrup or newcomer Rūta Briede, all of whom inspire and influence my own practice.
The Illustrators' Hall at Bologna
Being on the ground at a book fair means that you can see where the industry is tracking. Talks about translation, copyright, licensing and trends in publishing are helpful to gauge the business side of the industry. Despite the odds, the business of children’s publishing is thriving and has not felt the full effects of the digital age. This is hugely promising for content creators like myself.
Despite the odds, the business of children’s publishing is thriving and has not felt the full effects of the digital age.
Having attended the fair for a few years now, it has become a ‘must do’ to maintain relationships and keep our feet in the pool of opportunity. Had we not been on the ground I would not have attended talks given by publishers nor had the ability to schedule meetings with Commissioning Editors and Art Directors. To look them in the eye, receive constructive feedback or actual book deals, was the opportunity I could only have dreamt about! While technology is amazing, and email and Skype are incredibly useful tools, sometimes the best option is to get on a plane and chase the dream.
Amazingly my first book, published by TATE Publishing, followed the BCBF and London Book Fair in 2015. It involved a three-hour chat with the commissioning editor over lunch. I was armed with only a synopsis, a small sketch of Inspector Brunswick and a chance (with the use of wild arm movements) to pitch the idea. Over the following month or so, Inspector Brunswick was underway, and I was immersed into illustrating The Case of the Missing Eyebrow, co-written by my good friend and fellow Kiwi, Chris Lam Sam.
Inspector Brunswick and the case of the missing eyebrow in Bologna
Building on the relationships we had established over a few years, I most recently had the opportunity to collaborate with publisher Nosy Crow to work on a really special project in partnership with the UK’s National Trust. The book is titled How to Help a Hedgehog and Protect a Polar Bear and is written by Jess French (BBC children's presenter and vet). Having worked on this 64-page book for over six months, I’m excited to see it now out in stores throughout Australasia, UK and Europe. I have doubts that these opportunities could have happened at quite the speed they did had I not gone to Bologna.
This year, more than ever, I have been inspired to see so many Kiwis in the creative community stand out in the industries of music and film, being recognised at the highest levels and influencing people the world over. My dream is that our Kiwi children’s books, rich with stories and illustrations, will have just as much influence and connection with children and their families from all corners of the world. We just have to get them into their hands.
My dream is that our Kiwi children’s books, rich with stories and illustrations, will have just as much influence and connection with children and their families from all corners of the world.
How do we create more visibility? Having industry champions and support networks to make it possible to get there or be represented is key. For countries like the UK it starts at university level. Cambridge School of Art (UK), which has a children’s book illustration Masters course, hosts a stand at BCBF, showcasing students’ portfolios and book dummies to potential publishers. They use the Fair as part of the course requirements, while also providing students with a platform to launch into the industry.
I think we could also take a lead from our own music industry. The NZ Music Commission has programmes like Outward Sound that enable musicians to develop their audience internationally with a significant cash investment. Alongside NZ on Air and their match-funded initiatives, they are recognising world-class talent, and partnering with artists to allow growth opportunities to exist. Given children’s publishing is such a huge growth market, I’d love to see similar funding initiatives to support our own children’s content creators.
Oliver Jeffers at the centre of the illustrators cafe at Bologna
Thankfully, over the past few years New Zealand has begun to surface at Bologna and this year PANZ hosted a stand. Having Donovan Bixley and Martin Bailey attending, sharing their stories and hosting workshops amongst other illustration giants was great to see. The more Kiwi talent mixes with the business side of global publishing, the more Kiwi authors and illustrators can find the opportunities they need to shine.
I’m mindful that there are many pathways to publishing children's books. It takes courage to back yourself and believe that your work could stand out amongst the crowd, and to know that just because we live at the bottom of the world doesn’t mean our work is at the bottom of the pile.
It takes courage to back yourself and believe that your work could stand out amongst the crowd, and to know that just because we live at the bottom of the world doesn’t mean our work is at the bottom of the pile.
Attending a book fair, especially the BCBF, inspired me, changed my perspective, opened my eyes to opportunities and happily resulted in multiple book deals. The ongoing challenge for us as Kiwis is to continue backing our ideas, developing our talent and supporting them on the global stage and the BCBF is a great place to do that … with a gelato in hand.
Angela is an award-winning, internationally published illustrator. Her many editorial, advertising and publishing commissions include fiction and non-fiction for children and adults. Her illustration style is inspired by exploration, travel, nature and vintage children’s books. www.thepicturegarden.co.nz