Laureates gather in Bologna

From left, PJ Lynch (Ireland); Maria Baranda (Mexico); Leigh Hobbs (Australia); Chris Riddell (UK); Anne-Marie Körling (Sweden) and Jan Paul Schutten (Netherlands).

Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the global meeting place for the children’s and YA publishing industry. Primarily a business-to-business event, there are also exciting events and exhibitions wrapped around the deal-making. Thanks to the Australian Publisher’s Association Children’s Publishing Committee, and the Australia Council for the Arts, ACLA program manager Mike Shuttleworth accompanied Laureate Leigh Hobbs to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, 3–6 April, to meet with other laureates and organisations. Being so far from other countries at all other times makes these meetings an invaluable learning experience.

“The promotion of reading is a huge question of great importance.”

Who was there and what did we do?

More than 50,000 people attend BCBF. The Laureate meetings were widely publicised and reported, including in the book fair’s daily edition of the Bookseller magazine, copies of which were given away free each day.

Australia was one of six countries attending, along with the United Kingdom, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands and Sweden. Three of the six laureates are illustrators, one a poet, one a non-fiction writer and one a reading ambassador. The Swedish Arts Council coordinated the meetings, which were also attended by former director of the BCBF, Roberta Chinni. Roberta is keen to see the international laureate network grow.

Who did we meet?

Anne-Marie Körling is Sweden’s Reading Ambassador. “The promotion of reading is a huge question of great importance”, she said. Reading promotion is part of the national cultural policy, supported directly by the Swedish Arts Council. The Council has published a brief guide to reading promotion.

Anne-Marie Körling, Sweden's reading ambassador, at work.

UK Laureate Chris Riddell, an illustrator and author, clearly defined his work around principles of visibility, advocacy and engagement. BookTrust, the UK’s largest children’s reading charity, backs his role. BookTrust will announce the tenth UK Children's Laureate in June 2017.

The Mexican laureate Maria Baranda, is a poet. She works with a wide spectrum of people, from children in poverty to university level. Maria is a compelling advocate for poetry and young people. (Australian festivals ought to snap her up!)

The Netherlands ambassador Jan Paul Schutten is a non-fiction writer. He emphasises the message, ‘There is a book for everyone’ and told us that he was also inspired in role by Jackie French, our 20114–15 laureate. Jan Paul is backed by the Dutch Reading Foundation (Stichting Lezen).

Jan Paul Schutten, the 2015–17 Netherlands reading ambassador.

PJ Lynch, a multi-award winning illustrator from Ireland, emphasises the creation of art and illustration. The Irish laureate is a program of Children’s Books Ireland, funded by the Arts Council of Ireland.

Julia Eccleshare, the Guardian’s Children’s Books Editor and program manager at the Hay-on-Wye festival, hosted all three formal meetings for laureates and organisations.

What was on the agenda?

In the first session on Tuesday each Laureate spoke about the work they do. While there are shared values, there is no template. In essence, each country is at a different stage of maturity in their development and execution. Furthest along the way are those countries with (a) clear lines of funding and government recognition and (b) an established or recognised culture of reading promotion. It’s evident that since ACLA launched in Australia in 2012 our program has matured and there is a greater awareness of the role an ambassador for children’s literature can provide.

At Illustrator’s CafĂ©, more than 100 people turned out to meet the laureates. Julia Eccleshare (standing) invited each laureate to talk briefly about the work they do and moderated lively audience Q&A.

At the final session laureates and organisations shared more details about the resourcing, selection and governance. This falls into the ‘boring but important’ category and is so critical to the sustainability of programs. Different laureate programs reflect different national responses to the need for reading promotion. This is not just a question of national wealth, but of the value people and countries place on the role of literature in our lives. Ireland, for example, makes a clear link between children and readers and the survival of a national literary heritage. It’s a clear and clever case of the past and the future working together.

Representatives from Italy, Slovenia (which already has a UNESCO City of Literature), and Slovakia also attended the final meeting. They are all working on laureate programs with Italy looking set to go, so the network is certain to expand.

What’s next?

Occasions like the international laureate meeting are a rare chance to consider our work in the wider context and the Bologna Children's Book Fair is a wonderful place to hold these discussions.

I believe that Australia’s program is on the right track – but at an institutional level we have work to do. Australia needs sustainable national and local organisations working collaboratively on effective reading promotion strategies. ACLA’s goal is to create a bigger, more coordinated, more effective laureate program with a clear focus on reading promotion. That can only be to the benefit of our writers and illustrators, publishers and booksellers, and the readers today and tomorrow.

– Mike Shuttleworth

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