A scientific illustrator at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair
When we talk about children’s books we also, inevitably, talk about illustration. Perhaps the first idea that comes to mind are the albums and and fantasy storybooks that we read as children and, perhaps, a very important part of children’s and youth literature goes unnoticed… that very one!: popular science and non-fiction books.
Scientific illustration, in its purest sense, is an important tool for the study and documentation of human knowledge, but a very large part of our work is also to illustrate for science communication aimed at the general public of all age groups. Children deserve special attention in this sense, since they are precisely in the most important phase of cognitive development and learning. A large part of popular science publications is directed to them and, therefore, I believe that as illustrators with a specialized methodology to communicate science, we can add a lot of value and rigor to these publications. Both publishers and readers will recognize that quality.
In our case, we can imagine that if we have almost exclusively a very realistic and detailed style of illustration, we won’t have much chance of finding potential customers at a children’s book fair. But in reality, the non-fiction books in children literature adapt to all styles of illustration (more realistic, or more diagrammatic, or caricatured), depending on the theme they focus on, the use of the book, or the message that it intends to convey.
Last year I rolled up my sleeves and decided to go to the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair for the first time in 2023. One of the largest and most important fairs of book rights, exclusively dedicated to young readers. With the mission of inspiring myself, meeting illustrators and publishers, promoting the books I have illustrated, attending talks, seeing what is cooked (and how) in popular science books around the world and, of course, trying to open my way to international projects and clients.
Aware that I knew very little about the fair and that I wanted to make the most of the trip, one of the first and best decisions I made was to sign up for the course “A Bolonia vas” of Ilustrando Dudas. Ío Bru nos hizo las mejores recomendaciones y nos ayudó a hacer todos los preparativos para conseguir el mayor provecho de este momento de networking. Además, formamos un fantástico grupo de ilustradores que como yo, asistían a la feria por primera vez. Nos servimos de apoyo moral, compartimos experiencias (buenas y malas!). Ío Bru made us the best recommendations and helped us make all the preparations to get the most out of this networking moment. In addition, we formed a fantastic group of illustrators who, like me, were attending the fair for the first time. We a moral support to each other, and we shared our experiences (good and bad!). On the trip I was accompanied by the Sofía from Faz de Conto bookstore, in Coimbra, Portugal, and the portuguese scientific comic artist André Caetano. And in this way, the adventure did not become so lonely.
– I have designed my PDF portfolio with special care to highlight popular science projects aimed at children.
– I have designed self-promotional material: business cards, postcard-shaped mini-portfolios and a tote-bag to carry everything (this one has helped a lot to attract attention!)
– Posters to stick on the wall of the illustrators
– In advance, I have created my database of children literature agencies and publishers with non-fiction books in their catalog, who I contacted to request an in-person interview during the fair, in case they are interested in my work (I got 3 interviews!)
At the fair:
The wall of illustrators:
– It is a special place, which occupies several corridors at the entrance to the fair, destined to be filled with posters, postcards and contact cards of the hundreds of illustrators who come to the fair and want to show their portfolio. It fills up very fast!!! I arrived a few minutes after the opening of the fair (on the first day) and I barely found a place at knee height to put my posters (DIN A3) and little boxes of cards. Despite this, during those days I saw an increase in the number of followers and direct messages on my social networks. All those who enter and leave the fair pass through these corridors, and it is where many publishers keep an eye out to find new illustrators for their projects.
– The “Illustrator Survival Corner” stand organizes portfolio reviews (you must book an appointment in advance). For 8 min./person we can show our work and get feedback from professional illustrators, who give us their best advice.
– During every day of the fair, several publishers organize portfolio reviews for a couple of hours (5 min./ person), to find new illustrators to work with. Without appointment, so you have to arrive early and almost always wait in long lines. We have to be aware of where we spend our time, and if we’re going to queue, make sure our portfolio fits that publisher’s style.
Get inspired and explore the fair:
There were several things I was looking for when walking all the halls and stands at the fair:
– Be inspired by the work of other illustrators: with their techniques, styles, textures, color palettes, original ways of representing or caricaturing famous scientists, plants, animals, anatomy…
– Find out which publishers had a section for non-fiction books and ask to speak with the editor or art director, to show them my work. If this was not possible, ask for their information to contact later by email.
– In non-fiction books, I was looking to find out which style was more used: realistic style drawing or childish and diagrammatic drawing (in which themes and ages did one or the other apply more)
– Which non-fiction books were the most translated and therefore the most successful internationally
– Get to know award-winning books and illustrators and analyze their work.
– How non-fiction contents (text and illustration) are adapted to different age ranges
– Original formats and materials (types of paper, special colors, die-cuts, unusual book formats…)
Promote the work done:
– I have taken with me a sample of my published books and I have taken advantage of all the meetings and interviews to show them and ask if there was interest in buying the international rights.
– Professional associations of illustrators, such as APIC, had their stand at the fair and promoted the books and portfolios of their members. In this way I have also obtained contact from interested publishers.
Masterclasses and Workshops:
Talks, workshops, presentations, interviews… they happen at all hours and of all kinds, whether they are directed at illustrators, editors, booksellers, translators…
– There was a particular emphasis in conferences about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on the work of authors and translators.
– Others that seemed interesting to me about: the keys to find personal style, the relationship between the illustrator and the agent, data visualization in non-fiction books, the non-fiction book as an educational tool…
Exhibitions and events:
– The exhibitions of award-winning books and illustrators (which are organized within the fair and throughout the city of Bologna) are an excellent opportunity to learn about and study the aspects that are most valued at children literature
– An exhibition in which I could have stayed for days, called “Beauty and the world” brought together more than 600 carefully selected non-fiction books in the Salaborsa library (in the city center), was undoubtedly inspiring.
– The fair is the place to meet in person all the professional colleagues who are from all over the world, this is the best opportunity to celebrate the occasion. At the end of the day it is common for small parties to be organized at publishers’ stands or, out in town, there are illustrator dinners and we can join some celebrations (with invitation), to meet colleagues and publishers in “party mode” and create new relationships.
After the fair:
Now is the time to:
– Take advantage of everything I have learned, mature it and apply it in my work.
– Send emails to all the publishers that were interested in my portfolio and follow up on these new professional relationships.
– Introduce myself to all those publishers that I discovered at the fair and in which I feel that my work can fit (It is advisable to wait a couple of months before doing it, because in the post-fair the editors will be overwhelmed with emails and pending work).
– Keep in touch with all the wonderful people I have met on this trip, with the promise of seeing them again in other editions of the fair.
– Taking advantage of these fairs to present yourself in person and show yourself: how you are and behave, and not just what you do, causes much more impact and gives much more confidence when starting a relationship with an editor, art director or customer. I have obtained interviews and contacts with publishers who had previously dismissed me by email.
– As professional illustrators, those of us who have a specialization in scientific illustration and data visualization are a minority in children literature, however it is an important part of the publishers’ catalogue. For this reason, at the Bologna fair we stand out much more by focusing on this niche.
– Despite having many samples of popular science illustration with a more childish style, I realized that publishers were very interested in my work of scientific illustration in a more realistic style, and they liked my ability to adapt the style according to the need of the project.
– Talking about my background in graphic design and the ability to layout my own work also generated many positive points during the interviews. Perhaps the publishers do not have projects to offer you immediately, but if you offer them the possibility of lending a hand in graphic design assignments it is a way of entering the team.
It has been very worthwhile and I hope to repeat the trip whenever I can.