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Bologna Children's Book Fair: A Gathering of the Clans

Russell Bekins reads between the lines of the annual kids' content extravaganza.

The clans gather at the annual Bologna Children's Book Fair. Courtesy of Bologna Children's Book Fair.

In the spring, when thunderheads threaten and sun streaks through in a crazy chiaroscuro, the clans gather at a fair in a crossroads in Northern Italy.

There is the book agent clan, proud paladins often travelling alone, taciturn about their business -- unless they have a deal for you.

There is the foreign rights clan, who will only speak with you hurriedly between meetings. You are not here to buy translation rights? See you later.

Then there is the licensing gang, all business and meetings, busy defining new finance models for European co-productions and busy reverse engineering Disney.

There is Clan Illustrator, the more bohemian participants, meandering the aisles with their portfolios and posting samples at the notice board.

Then there are the untouchables, the Translators. They are the oppressed working class of the fair, stuck in a corner of Pavilion 30, discussing their ever-deteriorating working conditions.

The most curious thing about the Bologna Children's Book Fair is that the articles about it are so varied, like the parable of the blind men each describing the part of the elephant they are touching. It's almost as if a horde of reporters descended upon a market town and each came away describing the place in a different way, depending on what shop they visited: "the town of sausages," "home of the artichoke," or "the capital of cheese." It's perfectly normal when there are so many stories going around. It's like finding your way through the Istanbul souk or the back canals in Venice. Everyone's encounter with the exotic is bound to be different based on the baggage they bring with them.

But underneath it all is a choreography of meetings set up well in advance, with little patience for anything that goes off script, such as a reporter showing up and asking questions.

Publicity-shy agents felt… exposed… in their new location. Unless noted, photo credit for all images: Russell Bekins.

Clan Agent -- Fleeting Horrors

The Bologna Children's Book Fair has made it into the annals of publishing history because publisher Arthur Levine discovered the Harry Potter books there. His lead came from a British publisher to a British agent, who took him to J.K. Rowling, and the rest is history.

Agents, therefore, often hold the keys to paradise, and finding so many in one place sets producers and executives on pilgrimage.

This year, the agents had a new venue, upstairs overlooking the halls. These secretive folks were most upset over their new location, a sort of goldfish bowl where their deal-making was on public display and the tables packed as close as an upscale sushi restaurant. There were rumors of a petition to return the agents' area to a more reserved location and stories of agents working out of publishers' booths... which might also be closer to the bathrooms.

The buzz seemed to focus on horror and fantasy, or more precisely, fantasy as the gateway to more horrific offerings. McIntosh and Otis was offering How to Cook and Eat Children by Keith McGowan. The Donald Mass Literary Agency offered The Big Splash by Jack D. Ferraiolo, a juinor high school noir about scholastic mafiosi. Other offerings included Todd Strasser's Wish You Were Dead, where a high school student's adolescent wish to see popular students disappear comes true. But it was impossible to see these offerings among all of the other books on the floor. You had to dig in the publishers' blogs to know where the action was.

But fundamentally the book agents were the wraiths of the fair, flitting and disappearing, occasionally dropping a card as evidence of their passing. If you could catch one, you might get some information. Or not, as we will see later on.

Clan Publisher -- Fiefs and Dragons

Here the business is dolloping out translation rights into the various languages of the world. "We come here to license our content to international publishers," says Rick Pam of Brighter Minds Media, conceding a brief interview before turning to his next appointment. Though most of the deals are made on books from Europe, the market is for the entire world, and Pam asserts that business is good.

Among this literary clan, loyalties and family names are as confusing as the Yorks and Lancasters in a Shakespearean history play. One passes these reassuring household names you once found on school textbooks and discover that their world is a bit... Balkanized. Ah, Random House, a familiar name, is part of the... Bertelsmann clan? Are we taking about Random House Australia, London, or New York? For each is a proud fiefdom, sporting their own books in the name of glocalism. Ah, there's McMillan! But is that Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Henry Holt, Kingfisher, McGraw Hill, or a welter of other agents there at their stand? Not one agent could tell you anything about the properties of the other, nor was anyone forthcoming about the fact that the entire group is now owned by German publisher Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH. Perhaps the feudal metaphor is apt.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux's elegant subsidiary rights manager Deane R. Norton showed us Starlight Goes to Town, the promising story of a Tennessee chicken who wants to be a runway model in Milan. Authored by Harry Allard and drawn by George Booth (whose work inspired the live-action film The Stupids), this seems a work more appropriate for animation. By the way, FSG published one of the winners of this year's Bologna Ragazzi Book Awards, The Wall by Peter Sis, which recounts growing up in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War in prose, drawings and montages.

Illustrators displayed their portfolios for art directors and anyone else who would look.

If you can catch someone from Harper Collins, they will talk to you about their properties Fifi and the Flower Tots, Roary the Racing Car, and their relationship with Chapman Entertainment. They are pushing the Bella Sara horse series books for pre-adolescent girls. In another instance of the tail wagging the dog, the books started as a card trading game with a strong online presence by a Danish company. It has moved on to games and books, with the next steps film and television adaptation. Oddly, no one seems to talk about their owner, Rupert Murdoch; how they fit into his overall publishing scheme; and what synergies he may cook up with other parts of his media empire. Fox is said to have a first-look deal with HarperCollins.

But let us not forget we are in Europe. Stefan Davey, international rights director for Penguin Group UK, guided us through the various companies under the Penguin logo: The Penguin Classics line, DK for adults, Puffin for kids, and the BBC line. "Anything that gets put onto a BBC station we would publish -- Teletubbies, Dr, Who." The latest is In the Night Garden from Ragdoll. But do not suggest that this means they are simply the beneficiary of licensing rights. "We are the instigator, really," he affirms, pointing to another of their assets, the Beatrix Potter series. One gets the feeling that rabbits don't move, much less reproduce, without their permission.

As for the French, Bayard Jeunesse continues to use the success of its preschool Sam Sam series to expand its ambitions for synergy between TV and publishing. "The program was very successful, so we waited six months after its introduction for the first books," said Franck Girard, director of Bayard Editions. "We always work on three levels: magazines, books and video. [With the book,] we decided [on] this small format, with a small price, and it's going well so far."

The nimbler of the small publishing companies have found new strategies to confront the problems of the supposed declining market. One of the companies thriving in this atmosphere is Templar Publishing. "Five or six years ago, everybody was panicking about books being a dying industry and a lost art," says Ruth Huddleston of Templar. "We went back to the fundamentals... Why do you buy a book? Books as treasures, useful objects to keep and hold -- not just a story." The strategy led them to publish a series of books which has more to do with pop-up books than normal page-turners. Textures, hidden messages, paste-ins and ongoing puzzles are the hallmarks of Templar's "Ology" books. "People have price resistance on books [that] they don't have on toys or games," Ruth tells us. "A lot of our line is designed to feel like toys. So you don't get the parental price resistance."

Their Dragonology book, a sort of 19th-century field guide to dragon species and dragon-keeping, was adapted to the Wii and Nintendo DS platforms. Another of the Ology books, Egyptology, is also in development. Los Angeles-based literary agent Stephen Moore of the Kohner Agency dropped by the table to tempt us with announcements about to be made: at least one of the projects is moving on to the production slate of a major studio. He would not say which, but we have heard that Dragonology is at Universal.

Ah, well, as we said, Clan Agent is quite secretive.

Great booth. No idea what they're selling…

The Immigrants

But on the margins of this staid world, new gypsy encampments are cropping up. Back in the foreign pavilions, behind the offerings from Finland, were purveyors of customizable software and print-your-own books, stuffed animals and toys, cubes and blocks make of foam to teach math. Wags will see the decline of Western Civilization in the addition of these new players to the book fair. Others see the perfectly normal evolution of a market -- like proposing turkey sausage for health-conscious consumers.

But some of the new folks are not bashful about their arrival to the club. Some arrivistes have dared to buy space at the center of the action in Pavilion 26. What is Hasbro doing here? Are games now books? Can we look forward to the epic G.I. Joe trilogy? The Monopoly Diaries?

One of the curiosities was to see an Italian animation company, Cartoon One, with a stand at the fair. They were there to promote licensing of their co-production with Hahn studios of Germany, School for Vampires. CEO Angelo Poggi is the composer of the music for the series, as well as the familiar soundtrack for the Winx Club TV series. Poggi admits that his conversion to cartoons occurred only after looking carefully at the changes in the music industry. "I took a look around at the way the Internet is affecting things and decided to do something completely different," he smiles, sharing a chair with his daughter in the crowded Cartoon One booth.

Cartoon One was named Italian Studio of the Year at Cartoons on the Bay recently, and is working on two new franchises: Red Caps and Teen Days. Red Caps is a fantasy TV series (26x26) about the elves who work in Santa's workshop investigating children's problems around the globe. Conceived by Finnish author Mikael Wahlforss, it is a co-production with Epidem Zod of Finland. TeenDays is an in-house project, a music- and high school-themed animation series (also 26x26) for aspirant pre-adolescents. The production partner is Rai Fiction. Though a relatively young studio, they have some impressive deals in the works with BKN: the upcoming Stone Age series produced by Rick Ungar, and another based on Felix the Cat.

Angel’s Friends, which began as a conversation between a publisher and her daughter, is now a project between Play Press and Stranemani. © Stranemani.

Though it may seem commonplace to someone from the American or Japanese market, this concern about licensing rights is a relatively new phenomenon in Italy. Great news from the festival is the suggestion that a long freeze is beginning to thaw. After commissioning their first Cartoon series in the states, the Italian media network owned by tycoon Silvia Berlusconi, Mediaset, may be ready to commission a series from an Italian company. That may not sound like big news on Wilshire Boulevard, but it's great news for the Italian cartoon industry, which has had but one client, RAI, which has lately struggled to place their product in a welter of programming commitments.

It takes a trained eye to see that the changes taking place in the book fair are those of the industry itself. In the variety of franchises, books and objects up for examination, one begins to realize that this show is a sort of culture blotter, a way to see what the trends are in several industries, not just publishing.

Film and Television Clan

At the Film and Television Rights Center, one finds a growing sophistication in the Italian market. "A company has two products, one is artistic, and the other is a legal product," said rights lawyer Agostino Clemente. His point was that the maturation of the market means a whole lot of new specialists; a lawyer is one of the specialists that make up the team of a modern animation company.

"We have the idea that Italy can be a pool for the exportation of animation," affirmed Massimiliano de Giovanni of Kappa Editions, a Bologna-based consultancy that organized one of the seminars. A case in point is the production company Stranemani (Rat Man), whose leader Luca DeCrescenza announced their coordinated strategy in launching a TV series conceived by publisher Play Press, Angel's Friends. Aimed at a pre-teen girl market, the books were written by Play Press vice president Simona Ferri as a way of playing with ideas of good and evil with her daughter. As to Stranemani, it's not a marriage of convenience. "We chose each other," Ms. Ferri says firmly. "We like how they work."

Kappa Editions has long spread the gospel of the Japanese model of integrating toys and licensing with production. "This means improving relations with publishing," Di Giovani insisted, "a strategy with the world of merchandising, and to be able to coordinate with television programmers in support of the product. It means creating a common 'jump start.' Consider a Japanese product like the Knights of the Zodiac, which was not born as a cartoon, but was created by a company that makes toys."

Rainbow's Igino Straffi offered advice for European companies seeking new ways to structure their production deals.

No one company more epitomizes this than Rainbow, whose Winx Club series is now in its third season, with the second film in production, and leads all Italian companies in merchandising. Rainbow is also very careful to test market its products to verify their market worthiness. It therefore opened a lot of eyes when no less than Rainbow founder and artistic director Igino Straffi sounded a note of caution. "In Europe we are not so subject to this problem of the advertisements and toys," he volunteered. "It's hell to involve the toymaker right away. Whomever is producing has to have the common sense to understand what the derivative products can become, and then, without sacrificing the entertainment values, insert the elements which can become toys and video games, whatever you wish."

Despite the virtual overlap this year with MIP in Cannes, the workshops sponsored by the center seemed to be well attended. There was also a licensing shoot-out, sponsored by Global License Magazine, based on the sort of contest they do for MipCom Jr. One needed a road map just to keep track of the players: Taffy Entertainment as the agent and Atlantyca/Scholastic as the publisher of the dapper mouse Geronimo Stilton; Rocket Licensing for HarperCollins opened The Dangerous Book for Boys; Truck Town was presented by Chorion for Simon and Schuster. In the end, Geronimo Stilton took home the cheese. Busy working on a TV series for Stilton, Atlantyca has also taken home many of the publishing licenses from Taffy and their French production partner Moonscoop. Deepening their relations has apparently enriched both companies.

Clan of the Kids

This year an entire day of workshops and case studies, the Kids Licensing Forum, was organized in the medieval architectural wonder Palazzo Re Enzo. One of the best presentations was an outline of how to evaluate properties for licensing by Kids International researcher Eddy Jamous. He revealed some of the secrets of focus groups in evaluating a new animation property. "We fill a room with all kinds of 'disturbing elements,' he confessed. "You know, tempting stuff -- a PlayStation, a Wii. We then put the show on and tell the kids that they can play with the other stuff if they want to. What emerges is a very clear idea of how compelling the property is."

One of the bright spots was to see the work of Florence-based Misseri Studio on view at the Sesame Workshop booth. Misseri got its start doing stop motion for the famed Carousel series during the 1960s. Now in its second generation under Executive Producer Gian Maria Misseri, they had been doing stop-motion service work for years for the Sesame Street folks. At one point they had built an elaborate set of Napoli, so Art Director Monica Fibbi, as a joke, made up plasteline copies of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, posed them on the set, and took some photos -- as if the infamously homebound puppets Bert and Ernie were on vacation in Italy. They sent them to New York and it was an instant hit. They now find themselves in the middle of producing Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures (52x5) in claymation.

Another success story is the Spanish series for the preschool market, Pocoyo. In each seven-minute episode, a nonspeaking child tries out play time activities with the help of his pet or stuffed animal friends. White backgrounds, expressive and simple 3D animation, and bright colors keep things interesting for the preschoolers. Production company Zinkia seems to be something of a bright spot for the Spanish market, holding their products and licenses close.

Einar Turkowski drums up some sturm und drang in black and white.

Disney: The Forbidden Clan

Then there is the biggest and most secretive clan of all, the Disney clan. They took over the meeting hall at the entrance to the convention center and presented their strategy to their European affiliates in an impressive show of coordinated corporate planning. I dropped by their booth for a few words about what their strategy would be in the coming months. After all, everyone here was in one way or another copying the success of Disney tie-ins with the publishing, licensing and home video industries.

Unfortunately, there was no one to talk to.

The story was the typical "rondo Italiano" -- "No, you don't want to talk to me, you need to talk to him," pointing across the booth. "No, it's not me, it's this guy you need to speak to." In short, after four visits to the booth, I found myself on the phone with the director of a publishing wing, Disney Italy, who had skipped an appointment with me, aggressively justifying the action because: "I'm doing all I can to keep up with meetings I've arranged months ago... I don't know who you are!"

Later I was to learn that the head of Disney publishing in Italy, Alessandro Belloni, announced that he was headed off to competitor DeAgostini, just days before the fair, so they were in something of an uproar.

This seems to be a general malady of the large corporations in their rush to go "glocal," and more specifically at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. No one is authorized to speak for the mother company, so no news emerges of the sometimes worthwhile efforts in developing local product. All they can offer in terms of information is a rubber wall: go pound on it if you like; it won't hurt you, but you may well be wasting your time. A Warner executive had to check back with his PR person in Los Angeles. We never heard from him again; nor did a Disney press person in Los Angeles ever get back to us when we made a more direct request through other channels.

Piece of advice for the majors: don't leave your press agent at home.

Sesame Workshop presents their stop motion of Bert and Ernie at the Kids Licensing Forum.

Clan Illustrator

Folks from the animation world begin to feel a bit more at home at the Illustrators' Cafe, where artists discuss their work and their business, surrounded by their art work. The judges of the Illustrators' Exhibit whittled down the choices from 2598 artists to 99 from 23 countries. This year the reigning prince of illustration is German Einar Turkowski, whose pencil drawings made the catalogue cover, and who won the prestigious Gran Prix at the Brataslava Illustrators Biennial. In his book It Was Dark and Eerily Quiet, a stranger lands on the shore of a land and begins to gather clouds, from which fall the objects he adds to his home. The drawings lend nuts-and-bolts credibility to weird objects and big-nosed human beings in the closed and paranoid world. Turkowski carefully researches his drawings and uses only an HB pencil "because it's so easy. It's very interesting for me to use only one material, and look what you can do with it… I don't think I need to use more pencils," he explains.

Despite this limitation, many of the critics refer to the "color" in his pencil sketches. "I'm a fan of every kind of black-and-white technique. My pictures have such a lot of details and objects, I really can go without color." Having worked as a scenic assistant in a theatre, Turkowsky is alive to the possibilities of animating his work. "I think it would be a great project for puppet animation," he beams, eyes alive with the possibilities.

This year's guest country was Argentina. The illustrations were displayed in mock packing crates with shipping labels designed by artist Maria Weiss. "We called the exhibit 'When Cows Fly,'" Maria laughs, referring to the amazement of the Argentine illustrators being offered this elevated platform to show their works. "We really couldn't believe it." And yet the illustrations compare well with the more prestigious international exhibit. Better, actually, if one is thinking about how the pictures might become animation. They feel freer of European and Asian strictures in terms of form and color.

Other national illustrators' groups were not to be outdone. The association "Illustratori Italiani" debuted their annual for 2008, a juried selection with a wonderfully eclectic mix of styles. The British were even more exclusive: they announced the United Kingdom's 10 Best New Illustrators. Perhaps this is a better strategy: the winners are said to have a sudden surge of interest in their work.

Another fixture of the fair is the Sarmede International Exhibition of Children's Illustration near Treviso, which always offers a gorgeous catalogue. Then of course, there was the message corner, sponsored by This is always a fun place to peruse work that is literally "off the wall."

The exhibit

Getting Your Oars in the Water

After a day or so of examining the Bologna Children's Book Fair, one gets that noodley feeling similar to the second hour of meandering in Ikea. As Omar Sharif told Peter O'Toole as they crossed the empty quarter in Lawrence of Arabia, "You are drifting!"

It is easy to get the feeling that you are missing out on something, that you are not one of the elect, even if you are walking around with bodyguards and a television troupe. The fair is all about seeing the folks on the other end of those phone calls and submissions packages. For many it is also about relationships, reviving old ones and making new ones.

So we now present our rules for the show:

1. Watch the blogs and the publishing rags before the show and find out what's coming up.2. Know what publishers you like and make appointments, but give yourself time to meander and discover.3. For those in the biz, the TV and Film Licensing database is invaluable. 4. End-of-day parties are the best places to make contacts in an unstructured environment -- hang a bit after the close of the day and don't be shy about mooching someone's Parmesan cheese wheel and Chianti.5. The best after-hours places to hang and talk to folks are the bars around Via Clavatura off the Piazza Maggiore and Tamburini, two blocks north.6. Leave some time for eating and poking around. Bologna is rich in Etruscan, Roman, Byzantine, Lombard, Renaissance and Baroque architecture in a remarkably intact town center.7. World-class gelato is at Steffino on Via Galiera, Ugo on Via San Felice and Mauritius on Via Riva di Reno.8. Bologna is the hub of Northern Italy. Florence, Parma, Verona, Padua and Ravenna are within an hour's train ride. Milan, Venice and Rome, a bit longer. Take an extra day or two to live your life.

Russell Bekins has served time in story and project development for Creative Artists Agency and Disney. He now lives in Bologna, Italy, where he specializes in concept design for theme park, aquarium and museum installations.