A Taste for the International: Children’s Books Overseas

October 8, 2019

In 2011 I found myself six months pregnant in Bologna, Italy. Ostensibly there to write a piece for School Library Journal I was actually there to investigate a rumor. For years I had heard that the Bologna Book Fair, held in Bologna each year, was not going to be of much interest to me, a mere children’s librarian. After all, it is widely considered primarily a rights fair where big deals are done in the name of children’s books. Heck, Bologna is where Arthur A. Levine reportedly discovered Harry Potter. Yet when I arrived and saw it for myself, I was shocked and delighted by the experience. Display after display after display of international children’s art was made available. Talks in English and other languages abounded. Awards were awarded to books I’d never heard of and would never see in the States.

While there I took a close look at the Illustrators Exhibition. I luxuriated in what I saw, but after a while it became clear to me that something was amiss. This was an international exhibit. Art from all over the world was eligible for display. So where were the Americans? I found only a single piece for Jennifer Uman’s Jemmy Button (a book that wouldn’t be published in the States for another two years). Increasingly it became clear that Americans don’t much care about international exhibits. Not that I minded particularly. But it seemed odd.

Fast forward to 2019. I’m having dinner with the marvelous Michael Neugebauer of minedition fame and the subject turns to a small Korean island. To my astonishment, the guests I was dining with were all well and truly familiar with something called the Nami Island International Picture Book Illustration Concours or just Nami Concours for short. In 2013 an international biannual picture book award was begun on this island and it, “seeks to encourage artistic creativity and advance the quality of picture book illustrations worldwide.” As it is fairly new I think we can be forgiven for not being completely aware of it, but just the same I had to see which Americans had won any of the prizes. Can you guess how many I found? Oh go on. I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count.

Actually, there was an American on the list. In 2017 JooHee Yoon received the Golden Island Prize worth $5,000. And in 2019 three Americans were shortlisted: John Parra for Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, Ellen Weinstein for Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Eternity, and Lissa Park for The Trial.

What is the point of this award? As the website says, it’s to introduce illustrators to a more international audience. To, “Find a way for illustrators from all over the world to be exposed to an even wider audience.” The jury this past year consisted of Evanston’s own Junko Yokota, and was chaired by internationally renowned author/illustrator Roger Mello, who will be conducting a Jammie Time at the Evanston main library on October 17th.

All this is just a long-winded way of say that if you are an American illustrator and you would, perhaps, like a more international audience, why not submit your work? I can’t see the harm, and it looks like you can submit digitally these days. What’s more, you’ll be representing America in the best possible way (and we need all the positive p.r. we can get at this point). At any rate, consider it. I wouldn’t say the world absolutely needs us, but we do need the world. Why not give ’em a little taste of what we’ve got?

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