European Journal 2023, Part 1: Bologna

I wasn’t sure if I would return to Angoulême this year for the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée (FIBD). As always, I wanted to visit exhibitions, check out new books, and, above all, I wanted to take the opportunity to see many people who I rarely see. But it can be a complicated and expensive trip to plan. And now that the Festival has definitively reclaimed its traditional late-January date (after last year’s much more temperate March event), the thought of a return to Angoulême in January with the constant threat of chilly drizzle (or worse) was, admittedly, not enticing. But more than temperate weather, last year’s event was suffused with intense interpersonal warmth as friends and colleagues were reunited for the first time since the pandemic began. My fond memories of last year’s event functioned as a powerful lure to return, but I also admonished myself not to let that once-in-a-lifetime event define my expectations as I contemplated another trip to Angoulême.

Fortunately, I was given much less to think about when I was invited to judge the comics category for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair’s annual awards. The Fair takes place annually in March, but judging takes place ahead of time and was scheduled this year for the weekend of January 19 - exactly one week before the start of the festival in Angoulême. I quickly accepted the invitation, and got to work planning a week in France to follow my time in Italy. Shortly afterwards, I was asked if I’d moderate a panel with representatives from Drawn & Quarterly as part of the FIBD’s professional programming. Suddenly I had an agenda shaping up.

I touched down in Bologna on Thursday, January 19. A driver met me at the airport, and I followed him outside to his car: a jet black Maserati. I made myself very comfortable in the back seat as he took me to the hotel. The Art Hotel Comercianti Bologna is situated right off of the town’s historic main square - and in getting me there, my driver made at least one turn that did not seem to my eyes to necessarily be open to automobile traffic. Nevertheless, he deposited my jet-lagged form precisely in front of the hotel doorway, where I was greeted by both a flesh-and-blood concierge and a full suit of plate armor seated behind a manual typewriter. My first trip to Italy was off to a good start.

A statue of Poseidon is the central feature of the Bologna town square, steps away from Biblioteca Salaborsa where judging took place.

The following day I was led to the Biblioteca Salaborsa, Bologna’s central library, a short walk from the hotel. Festival organizers and jurors assembled downstairs in the gorgeous Auditorium Enzo Biagi, which had been cleared to make space for dozens of tables covered with thousands of children’s books in various categories from all over the world. The sight of countless colorful books, face-up in single point perspective under that glass vaulted ceiling, stunned us all.

The Bologna Children’s Book Fair annually serves as the site of a major international rights marketplace, exhibitions, and other associated events, and every year gives the international BolognaRagazzi Award (BRAW) to books in a small number of categories. Three comics awards—for early readers, middle grade, and young adult readers—were added to the BRAW program in 2020. That comics represent three of the Fair’s eight awards speaks to the robust nature of this relatively new category. To be sure, however, traditional picture books are the star of the show in Bologna. Juries for the five children’s book categories had thousands of books from all over the world to consider in two days; the comics jury merely had hundreds.

Myself, Igort & Roel Daenen. This photo courtesy of the Bologna Children's Book Fair

This year’s comics jury consisted of myself; artist, publisher and Bologna resident Igort; and Roel Daenen, editor of the Flemish comics magazine Stripgids. While our perspectives had much in common (see above image), we enjoyed productive points of difference based at least as much on our individual critical temperaments as our professional and cultural backgrounds. Igort, the artist, functioned as the passionate heart of our trio; his strong sense of love for the expressive power of comics and their ability to connect emotionally with readers became a lodestar as we considered these works designed for younger readers and confronted difficult decisions.

For each of our reader categories, we had to pick one BRAW winner and also had the opportunity to award two or three “Special Mentions” to other worthy books. Within each category, we had to efficiently consider books in wildly different formats emerging from different cultural traditions and published in many different languages. Each book was accompanied by an information sheet which included a short English-language synopsis, which was quite helpful. Beyond that, for books in languages that none of us could read, we relied on each book’s visual storytelling to provide a basis for our narrative evaluations. Books for young readers especially prize clarity for obvious reasons, so this seemed like less of a baked-in visual bias than it might have been in a process involving work for adult readers.

Igort presents our Young Adult category winner and Special Mentions to the assembled jurors.

I can’t go into details of our deliberations, but our collective experience with comics served us well. Despite the seeming impossibility of our task, by the end of two very long days we had determined our BRAW winners and Special Mentions for each category, and quickly written short texts describing the qualities by which each book earned its distinction. We were tired, but very happy. We had come to share a real collegial feeling of mutual respect for one another over the course of two days, but what really bound us together more than anything was our shared love of all of the books we had singled out for honors. The diversity of the works we finally selected speaks to the quality of children’s comics worldwide. Our top prize winners were from Taiwan, France and Japan, and our list of prize winners and Special Mentions included comics in traditional picture book formats alongside graphic novels, Risograph-printed books, hardcover albums and a staple-bound comic book.

Comics — Early Reader

Whose Sock?

Text and Art by Sun Jun
Hsin Yi Publications; Taiwan, 2020

Special Mentions:

  • Après les vagues ("After the Waves") by Sandrine Kao (Grasset Jeunesse; France, 2022)
  • O primeiro dia ("The First Day") by Henrique Coser Moreira (Planeta Tangerina; Portugal, 2022)

Comics — Middle Grade

Un matin (One Morning)

Text by Jérôme Dubois
Art by Laurie Agusti
La Partie; France, 2022

Special Mentions:

  • 그림자 극장 ("The Shadow Theater") by Kyu-Ah Kim (Bear Books Inc.; South Korea, 2022)
  • House of Dracula by 5unday (text) & Heedae Yun (art) (Dogbooks; South Korea, 2022)
  • Le monde des animaux perdus ("The World of the Lost Animals") by Noémie Weber (Gallimard Jeunesse; France, 2022)

Comics — Young Adult

坂月さかな作品集 プラネタリウム・ゴースト・トラベル (Planetarium Ghost Travel: The Art of Sakatsuki Sakana)

Text and Art by Sakana Sakatsuki
PIE International Inc.; Japan, 2021

Special Mentions:

  • Aujourd'hui ("Today") by Loïc Froissart (L’Articho; France, 2021)
  • Avant l'oubli by Lisa Blumen (L’employé du moi; Belgium, 2021)
  • Night Night by Chivas Leung (Studio Mary; Hong Kong, China 2022)

We took turns presenting our winners and honored books to jurors working in other categories. A full list of winners and Special Mentions in every category, including our own, can be seen on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair website. This also includes comments we wrote about each book, so I won’t add anything here other than to emphasize that by the end of the weekend we truly loved all of these books and were very happy with our final choices. I will, however, add a few additional takeaways from my experience.

"Finding the Light" by Jeongim Hwang (South Korea).

Comics are fortunate to be part of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. To be sure, comics are here because they have become a significant force in the marketplace of children’s book publishing, and, to be equally sure, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair is substantially driven by the commercial engine of international rights sales. However, the children’s book industry as represented in Bologna clearly includes many intelligent professionals who manage to negotiate the demands of capitalism while maintaining a strong sense of care and a concern for quality that distinguishes them from their counterparts in adult book publishing, particularly where graphic novels are concerned. If the Republican Party’s respect for the inherent dignity of human life ends at birth, the North American publishing industry’s would seem to end somewhere around puberty.

"Song of the Mountain" by Hyang Lee (South Korea).

International children’s books are dazzling. All weekend, whenever I needed a break from my own daunting task, I was regularly drawn to wander the endless rows of picture books that my fellow judges in other categories were reading. The varieties of formats and visual styles were head-spinning, and the range of papers and inks gorgeously employed to skillful narrative purpose sometimes seemed like nothing so much as a printer’s sample book come to life. North American comics, as a field, seems pretty pleased with itself for having learned about the spot varnish, the French flap, gold-foil stamping and the die-cut. As a great philosopher once said, “Keep banging those rocks together, guys.”

"Tetrix" by Hyangsoo Kim (South Korea).

Finally, I will note that none of the BRAW award winners or Special Mentions in the comics categories were North American books. As a group, the North American comics we saw were well-crafted, but another juror remarked that the American graphic novels (mostly YA-oriented) all looked rather similar, and I could not disagree. As I said, comics are lucky to be part of this event, and I myself was lucky to be there. It was eye-opening to see a global selection of comics for younger readers within the context of a broader children’s book event.

"A Piece of Sky" by Jiwon Kim (South Korea).

Although I didn’t see much of Italy, I did enjoy Italian hospitality every day at lunch and dinner. And after spending two days processing hundreds of international children’s comics, I was ready for a break. I had arrived in Italy on a Thursday and left, with all of this work and many fond experiences behind me, on Sunday for Paris for a few days of downtime and recreation to enjoy before heading to Angoulême.

To be continued, or as we say in bédé, à suivre

Millefeuille à l'Italienne.

Part 2 is here.