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All illustration images © John Shelley, not to be used without permission scribblatosis(at)gmail(dot)com

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Bologna Book Fair 2018


The 2018 Bologna Children’s Book Fair took place from 26th-29th March. This was my fifth visit to  Bologna, but it’s been six years since I was last at the Fair, book deadlines have kept me away since I stepped down from volunteering with the biennial SCBWI Stand, so this was a very overdue return to the Halls!

Preparation & Planning

Partly I was there to report on the Fair for Words and Pictures, the journal of SCBWI British Isles (my essay on the Fair is here), but for my personal agenda I had three very distinct plans for Bologna. Firstly, to hear the announcement of the winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, for which I was enormously gratified to be shortlisted this year. I hoped my nomination would raise my profile in the UK, perhaps help me sell the rights to some of my overseas books. And of course, in the unlikely case that I actually won, naturally I wanted to be on the ground to celebrate!

Secondly the Fair provided me with a personal deadline to get some new picture book dummies together. As an illustrator, I’ve struggled to get back into writing after a long hiatus, for the past few years I’ve had my hands full with commissioned art deadlines, books authored by others, and, although my own story ideas have been a-plenty, expanding them into solid book submissions hasn’t been easy. Bologna on the horizon helped me get over some hurdles, so the Fair began working for me before I even got there. I found myself polishing picture book dummies right up to the morning I flew.

Thirdly, I wanted to catch up with my overseas clients, who I haven’t seen face-to-face for quite a while, absorb the creative energy of the Fair, recharge my batteries, refocus on my direction, my work etc., and especially be inspired by fine international books!

I was a little late querying people for appointments so didn’t have quite as many as I’d hoped, but there were enough. I took with me three picture book dummies, copies of my 6 most recently published picture books, a colour portfolio showing spreads from older books, plus a B/W portfolio of line work for novels and sketchbooks. Also a pile of freshly printed A5 promotion cards, most of which stayed in my room!

Enlightenment

I’ve spent much of my career as a commission-seeking professional illustrator, working to the contract, and not so much as the submitting storyteller. Changing from the jobber to the writing, story developing, author-artist requires a very different frame of mind. In the past I sought art commissions at Bologna, and was quite awkward showing dummies of my own stories, but this year was very different, with dummies at the core of my focus. I’m not really seeking commissions from Bologna any more unless it’s something that really keys into my own vision, what I’m really looking for is to become more fluid at storytelling with both pictures and words, to master the art of picture-book making in it’s entirety. What I aim for is a stock of self-written dummies to submit, either directly or through an agent, to a small group of selected editors I have a strong working relationship with.

That, in essence, was my pursuit at Bologna. After Jackie Woodson was announced as the winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award there was a lunch event at the ALMA stand with a small table displaying her wonderful books. These are books she wrote from the heart, her background instilled into every story, her authors voice speaking out clearly to her readers. As the jury stated, “In language as light as air, she tells stories of resounding richness and depth.” I thought for a moment, what if, in a fantasy moment I actually had won, and they were my books laid out on that table? How many of them could I actually say were my stories? The answer is – none! Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of all the books I’ve worked on, especially those in the last 10 years or so, with some fine, fine writers, but inevitably as most of them have been written by others there is something missing in my repertoire – my stories!

It struck me suddenly that every time I work on a commissioned book written by someone else, I’m taking a step outside my core imaginative realm to meet the vision of the writer (or occasionally editor). If it’s a small step, close to my “core inspiration”, then it’s going to be a fantastic book, the meeting of worlds, the best of collaborations – there are some titles I’ve worked on that definitely fit this! But some of my less personalised works have been big stretches away from that core to meet the conditions of the project. They’re still valuable and worthy jobs, but they’re not “my world”. I realised that the “core” part of our creativity is actually a very delicate and shy creature, it’s easily suppressed by outside factors, the smaller it shrinks, the harder it is to connect with it, and if you really neglect it, something that could disappear entirely.

Of course we all do some things to pay the bills, my entire income is from illustration, working to commission is a key part of that! But parallel to this work we must look after, grow and explore that creative core – it’s core material that makes great books that resonate with others – it’s the honest voice from our personal kingdom of experience and imagination. Examples of these kind of books were displayed all over the Fair! The good news is that, finally, thanks to Bologna, I’ve begun to overcome long-standing story-making hurdles, and am finally seeing solid results.

Being the Businessman

One very good bit of advice I had from another SCBWI member (thank you Andi!) was that as a widely published illustrator I should stop thinking of myself as an artist at Bologna, and start thinking like a businessman. I was there to show my new projects and market existing books, not primarily to seek random commissions. This lesson sank in very quickly. After the the first day, I realised my colour portfolio didn’t show my older books properly so I left it in my room. Most of the postcards I’d had made stayed there too!

My dummies went down very well, but I was less successful in selling the rights to my previous titles. I’ve a lot of books published in other countries that have not been released internationally, for which I own the international publishing rights, so I was hopeful to negotiate overseas reprints for them. I didn’t think to make appointments with rights staff though, when I met publishers it was with editorial staff to talk about future illustration projects, not to sell the rights of my existing Asian and American titles. Most US, and nearly all UK publishers don’t buy overseas books anyway. My American editor told me though that there is no special protocol, I should have as much chance as anyone at selling book rights, so this is a lesson for next year! If you want to sell rights, you need to make appointments with the “right” staff!

Highlights

So Bologna was revealing and rewarding. It seemed for me a different, perhaps more mature experience from previous visits, with very positive feedback from publishers on my story ideas, and I left with a new clarity about my work. Here are my top ten memories:

1) Seeing many old volunteering writer and illustrator colleagues from SCBWI Europe and the rest of the world.

2) Discovering a string of immensely fine books (especially French ones) that have inspired and refreshed my vision.

3) Catching up with my US and Japanese editors/art directors, who are all fantastic. One particular highlight was celebrating with staff from my Japanese publisher Fukuinan Shoten their winning of  “Best Publisher of the Year” (Asia).

4) Being nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2018. I had absolutely no illusions about my chances of winning, but it was an incredible honour to see my name bracketed as a UK entry. My deepest gratitude to those who nominated me.

5) Partly as a consequence of 4), having a revelation of sudden and profound clarity about my work, my career, my ‘voice’, the stories I have to tell, and the direction of my art.

6) Being hugged by writer (Sir) Michael Morpurgo after I reminded him of a picture he once bought of mine at a charity auction (artwork from the 2003 book Lines in the Sand). He still has the drawing on his wall, and still loves it.

7) Bumping into the lovely author/illustrator Adam Stower again, who co-ran a picture book retreat event for SCBWI BI last year and enormously restored my jaded spirits.

8) Sketch-Duelling at the SCBWI Stand with the marvellous American picture book creator/illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky.

9) Receiving a unanimous thumbs up to my latest picturebook dummy from every book industry professional I showed it to.

10) On the very last morning having an unexpected happy surprise reunion with my UK editor from the early 2000’s, who I haven’t seen in over 14 years and is back in children’s publishing. That really was the cream on the cake.

#bcbf2018 #bolognabookfair #JohnShelley

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