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Marcella Terrusi takes us on a journey through the 2023 BolognaRagazzi Awards
Standing on a chair, a tiny baby gently rests head and hand on a large, rounded belly barely peeping out of an orange T-shirt, whispering words, paying homage to the wonder of a female form whose contours continue out of picture, concealing an unborn child as yet invisible to the eye.
The cover of the winning BolognaRagazzi Fiction Award book is a powerful metaphor for children’s literature as a whole: physical, sensation-evoking storytelling through form, figure, affect, material and sound, capable of forging relationships between different worlds ultimately inaccessible to one another. In a ceaseless aesthetic and philosophical quest for a kindly, welcoming register and an overall sense of things, through belly-whispering and storytelling adults explain the world to themselves as they show it to children, seeking and creating intelligible forms from it, interleaving meanings and awe-inspiring possibilities.
Hidden from our gaze and in constant transformation, at heart childhood is always inaccessible, submerged and transfigured by layers of time and memory. And yet it is always purely sensation-based, primarily made up of body and movement – the exact experience of being a child all around the world.
The winning 2023 BolognaRagazzi Award books seem to pay homage to this somatic, bodily dimension of childhood in these children’s books. Reaching beyond the tangibility of design, they put the onus squarely on stories in which the body stars in a variety of different ways: as the primary location of what it is to be hurled into this world, of our experience of being alive from our earliest days.
Browsing the rich variety of award winners, meticulously reviewed and picked by three different juries, the gaze instinctively alights on cross-references, kinships, perspectives, constants and dissonances among books, stories, forms and signs. It took forty-eight hours of judging to pick winners from 2349 submissions, the awards office laying the books out on tables with extreme care to create a map and snapshot of world publishing.
To my eye, the thread of somatic and sense perceptions runs more or less visibly through practically every one of the books that won awards and mentions this year, intertwining in a vast range of variations, interpreting aspects related to the body, the body’s truth and acceptance, the senses of touch, the act of listening, speech, sound and vision, not forgetting gesture, skin, appearance, and body changes.
Concealed behind shifting veils and cultural, pedagogical, and affective barriers, child readers are in effect like that unborn child in the belly, on the receiving end of countless messages about issues great and small.
Published by Limonero in Argentina, Yael Frankel’s Todo lo que pasó antes de que llegaras (Everything That Happened Before You Arrived) is an intimate and affectionate tale of a big brother who narrates the world as it is and was before your arrival. The truth and narrative aesthetic value in the narrator’s voice become a tender and loving inspiration for arranging a welcome, dredging up memories of self, knowledge of possible taxonomies that lend order to a world in which, because we are immersed, we find it hard to map out its forms and boundaries. What ensues is a tender and funny dialogue/monologue, naming things to arrange and line them up, taking them all in with a sweep of lucidity and naturalness, describing a variety of actions or elements from everyday life: school, the weather, families, games, waiting, even subtle anxieties.
Frankel’s figures, particularly the adults, seem to be mainly bodies with tiny heads, texturally outlined in a way that, without being shapeless, are endowed with soft, mobile contours; yielding, almost. Framing and the child’s voice are evoked through minimal strokes and minimal colours, conjuring up a universe that is truly rich in nuance and emotion.
이사가 (Moving Away) by Ji Yeon Lee, a Korean book that won a mention in the same category, published by NCSOFT Corporation, turns its gaze on something that is by no means invisible, even if it is tiny and therefore requires being looked at with great care: a procession of ants. The elegant little book is a wordless exploration of storytelling, its precious box and paper designed with total rigour. Readers are enchanted by these minute, vivid, poetic worlds and unexplored universes, silently teeming with life, conveying the universal childhood experience of contemplating tiny, moving beings in leporello form. From an ant-level point of view, mimicking the proportion and physical scale children see around them, the book delves into the theme of measurement, the large and the small that, in liminal zones and atmospheres, are able to encounter and observe one another.
Each in their own way, the other two special mentions for fiction are dedicated to the senses of hearing and sound. Or rather, to the relationship between noise, silence and communication. 噔噔噔 (Thump! Thump! Thump!) from the Chinese 21st Century Publishing Group sports a stern yet iconic hen on the cover. Wearing a red dress and blue scarf against a yellow field, she is a main character in this perfectly orchestrated and hilarious comedy of misunderstandings in which two neighbours hear strange noises in the night. Mr. Duck immediately accuses his new hen neighbour of creating the racket; she has no doubt the condominium owner is being noisy. Gossip abounds, but as it moves from mouth to mouth, the truth is slowly revealed. Combining information, the two (not on speaking terms) neighbours realize it is being caused by invisible new underground tenants, mice, making a racket with their nocturnal renovations. Depicted with great vividness and pictorial felicity by accomplished illustrator Wang Zumin, the gallery of characters in this odd “wireless telephone” has a superbly refined narrative touch, presenting the tiny figures before the title page, showing the mice moving in, and then not bringing them back into the story until the denouement. All these elements render this book about coexistence and communication a perfect children’s story with a surprise ending and memorable characters.
Sound stars once again in Spinne spielt Klavier (Spider Plays Piano) a wordless, or pictures-only book that invites us to produce sounds from figures. The idea may not be new – indeed, it’s a classic, especially in books for very young children – but it’s reinterpreted with unprecedented vigour and humour in this full-bodied volume drawn and conceived by Benjamin Gottwald for Carlsen Verlag GmbH.
A collective work by one author and five illustrators for Big Picture Press (Bonnier Books UK), the Art of Protest won the Non-Fiction category with its act of protest through artistic gesture. The book invites us to consider and embrace a variety of protest modes and languages, ascribing value to the inherently political dimension of artistic gesture in a cross-cutting compendium of styles, images, history, activism, common-sense rebellion, and dissent. Leveraging the power of art in a decidedly relevant and contemporary way, this highly contemporary, awareness-raising book full of concrete calls to action puts the theme of physical and political protest, not to mention active citizenship, back in the limelight.
Throughout art, history and culture, (often female) hands have made countless decisive gestures. In one book, moving hands convey material and immaterial knowledge whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Published by Chronicle Books (USA), beautifully illustrated by Uzbek illustrator Dinara Mirtalipova, the inspiring Woven of the World tells the story of working the loom in a picture book that has its own special register and use of language. The book deploys mimesis to showcase (on double-page spreads) looms across time and the globe, interweaving knowledge about looms from different cultures and eras assisted by the poetic cadences of Katey Howes’ musical rhyming text. The book ends in an effective and well-integrated historical and technical appendix.
Weaving bodies have left their mark on history and culture since the dawn of time; other marks on a body can, on the contrary, cause discomfort. For example, marks on people’s skin, especially women’s skin, be they hairs, pimples, spots, what advertisers call skin “blemishes”, not to mention body shapes that, far from the prevailing canons, do not conform to media-condoned size or tastes. All these aspects are part of Agata Lučić’s unique treatment in Ogledalo bez mana (The Flawless Mirror), published by Mala zvona d. o.o. A student of Svjetlan Junakovic’s, this talented Croatian illustrator has produced a book that is both bold and divergent, in which the body and face become inhabited, renarrated places, related and mirrored continuously, often deformed compared with models, words, and expectations projected from all sides onto the female body. Ironic, quirky, and visually interesting, the book is a brave tribute to every body and every face, especially female, taking in every teenage insecurity, every quest for self-acceptance, doubt and stumble. Countering the supposed impeccability of images and representations, with irreverent and brilliant irony, the author questions the very concept of the mirror as a place for approval and constraint.
The New Horizon Special Jury Prize was awarded to a book that pays homage to an everyday, typically female object – the handbag – and the simple gesture of rummaging through it, solely using the sense of touch to find something without looking. Written by the admired María José Ferrada, illustrated by Ana Palmero Cácere, and beautifully graphically designed for publisher Alboroto Ediciones (Mexico), El bolso (The Purse) is a tactile experience through raised images and text written partly in Braille. Packaging and illustration are delightful, the narrative and sensory evocations perfect and inclusive on a variety of levels.
The Opera Prima award went to a picture book that won the jury over with an extravagant and rambunctious homage to a tale of female gigantism. Inspired by a true story, the debut of Laura Simonati Mariedl published by Versant Sud (Belgium), tells of a South Tyrolean giantess faced with a whole series of events, none easy or painless, until she finds her place in the world. The book is a bildung journey of self-determination told with consummate pacing, in a tense yet light (and surreal) register. The lead character is more or less kidnapped by a circus and exhibited as part of a freak show. At all times, the drama she faces is portrayed with vitality and without judgment: never does the author pity or feel sorry for her lead character because, just like her, she is caught up in the unfolding of the story, the journey, the dynamism of this coming-of-age tale for figures that, rather than being realistic, are emblematic. The picture book is funny, bizarre and ultimately liberating, veering between redemption and return, friendship and cruelty, diversity and the search for self. A body that does not fit the dimensions of the home, family, and village is a powerful metaphor much loved in fantasy, hence the giant’s mythical status in fairy tales. Mariedl is all this and, above all, a tribute to everyone’s bildung, our attempts and non-linear paths as we seek out our place in this world, starting with living in our own shoes.
In the Opera Prima category, the jury awarded a special mention to another exquisitely crafted Korean book (whose red twin was also nominated), The Blu: Bench by Mia, published by Studio Woom. Like a diminutive theatrical stage, the book’s cloth cover opens to reveal two booklets facing one another. This layout offers multiple narrative lines and encounters as different characters sit down on the same bench. This quiet, elegant, pleasant-to-the-touch work is a perfect fabulation on the poetics of the chance encounter.
A remarkable 262 entries came from South Korea this year, an extraordinary cohort in quantity and quality, including so many interesting, masterfully published works in experimental graphics, acute drawings and perspectives on the world and childhood, privileging tiny, essential and minimal yet foundational events, miniscule universes that refer back to universal questions, such as that hypnotic contemplation of the ant trail, as well as experimenting with new, graphically stunning forms such as iridescent squid.
Visibility as an ethical and aesthetic category, to which Italo Calvino (the BCBF is celebrating the author’s birth centenary this year with a devoted exhibition and contest) paid tribute in one of his most celebrated American Lectures, is understandably a key concept for the BolognaRagazzi Award 2023 special category dedicated to photography. A special industry jury selected the winners. The winning book declares its intentions from the title onwards. Impressive and surprising in concept and execution, veering between documentary text, artist biography and poetic portrait of the photographic medium, Seen and Unseen: What Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake, and Ansel Adams’s Photographs Reveal about the Japanese American Incarceration by Elizabeth Partridge, with images by Lauren Tamaki for Chronicle Books (USA), is a unique book that combines the languages and poetics of the photographic image to enhance its fundamental value as a historical and social resource and memory.
Three works received a special mention for photography. One captures the value of the physical gesture that leaves a mark, in this case the gesture and mark of sewing and embroidery, telling the story of a captive Brazilian sailor through evocative plates in a dominant of cyan blue, obtained from photographs printed on linen, then embroidered and subsequently transformed into published images. Layered modes of expression (and gesture) not only enhance the photographic medium’s multiplicity and versatility – nowadays ceaselessly and effortlessly hybridized, interpenetrating as graphic elements in other modes of expression – they restore the layering and complexity of poignant human and historical vicissitudes recounted in the book O adeus do marujo (The Sailor’s Goodbye) by Flávia Bomfim, published by Pallas Editora (Brazil).
Jean Lecointre in Cache-cache cauchemars, Éditions Thierry Magnier (France) uses photomontage as an expressive technique to shatter and put back together visions, deforming the (sometimes disquieting) everyday, sometimes in combination with illustration, transforming domestic photographic images into dreamlike visions.
An explicit invitation to play and look opens our eyes wide to the hilarious and luminous tourbillon of Qui veut jouer avec moi? (Who Wants to Play with Me ?) by Claire Dé, an author who for years has been making excellent children’s picture books that are both expertly experimental and eminently enjoyable. Rich in references and learned quotations, the pages of this book, published by Les Grandes Personnes (France), are filled with a spectacle of call-and-echo scenes, constituting a playful and pyrotechnic invitation that pays homage to forms, kinships and similarities between objects and images as it delicately constructs the biography of an affectionate complicity between two “actors” in a play-inspired friendship. So beautiful is this large-format, hardback picture book, its thick, glossy pages teeming with primary colours and high-visibility patterns, that it has become a veritable object of desire. Within the limited space of its pages and dialogue, the book stakes out a potentially infinite space for experimenting with photographic narratives, offering implicit encouragement to play by multiplying possible visions and experiences, unleashing the prodigious machine of our gaze on the playground of our affective relationships.
The Comics award winners differ greatly in complexity and visual grammar. Comic book submissions for the widest possible readership continue to grow in the most diverse forms, spanning and combining tradition and innovation, manga, picture books, drawing and even game-books.
For Early Readers, Whose socks?, a Taiwanese comic strip by Sun Jun for Hsin Yi Publications combines the irresistible elements of a cat, a sock, and a gallery of condos (people living in the same apartment building), presented as a kind of treasure hunt showcased with a refined palette and brilliant verve. For middle-grade readers, Un matin (One Morning) is a La Partie picture book, written by renowned Jérôme Dubois with drawings byLaurie Agusti inviting readers to explore a variety of reading options, for example suggesting readers jump forward to a certain page to view the rest of the building, or continue reading in a linear fashion to find out what happens next. This structure, which emerged as a popular narrative entertainment form in the late 1980s, has been reinvented and reframed here in a completely novel context. This approach is just one feature of this comic, along with its “immaculate” visual quality, rich references and aesthetic implications, handling a theme – the disappearance of colours – that is both visual and poetic per se.
For Young Adults, the jury chose Planetarium Ghost Travel The Art of Sakatsuki Sakanaun, published by PIE International and created by Sakana Sakatsuki. This Japanese comic book’s surprising concept and atmosphere constitutes a new approach to science fiction storytelling, one whose sensibility and culture borrows elements from manga and Western culture. The jury described the book as “simultaneously epic and intimate”, appreciating its poetic density and the rich visual styles to which it alludes.
Enriched with a new Digital Library category this year, the Bologna Ragazzi Crossmedia Award acknowledges the success of characters, visions and stories that migrate and expand from children’s books and live on as other stories in other media.
The two winners of this book digital development award are: an animated short film based on the book, and entitled as, Otthon, by author Kinga Rofusz for
Hungarian publisher Vivandra books and producer Béla Klingl (K.G.B. Studio), also and Atelier de création Fonfon, Canadian publisher Fonfon’s multimedia platform that combines graphic and narrative elements to create new stories and turn children into authors. Otthon is a highly refined, poetic and silent visual tale accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack, conveying the emotions and nostalgia we feel when moving house. Atelier de création Fonfon emphasizes and encourages active acts of reading, using a revolutionary and creative approach that not only enables readers to discover and encounter others’ narrative worlds and graphic art, they can continually reinvent and seek out new plots, new worlds, new visions and never-ending potential narratives and hopes for the future.
Hidden from our gaze and in constant transformation, at heart childhood is always inaccessible, submerged and transfigured by layers of time and memory.
Marcella Terrusi is a Professor of History and Childhood Culture at the Università di Bologna Department of Sciences for the Quality of Life. She is a consultant to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.