By Olivia Snaije
The French children’s book fair—the Salon du Livre et de la Presse—celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, with Italy as the guest of honor. Held in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, it’s the biggest fair of its kind in Europe that caters to the general public; and is immensely popular with parents and children, as well as professionals.
This year’s event was held from November 25 to 30th and finished yesterday. Though the numbers aren’t yet in, attendance is expected to be even better than last year. In 2008, more than 27,000 children traipsed around the five day event, as part of class trips or with after school programs; an additional 3,700 came with their parents.
“It’s a very enriching work tool for us,” says Hélène Wadowski, head of children’s books at Flammarion and president of the youth section of the French Publishers Association (Syndicat National de l’Edition). “We meet teachers, parents, groups from schools, adolescents, and get spontaneous reactions from them all.”
The fair is a unique opportunity for editors to glean the reactions of their readers, be they a 3-year-old browsing through picture books or an adolescent seeking out a follow-up to Twilight. It’s also a chance to hear what parents and teachers have to say as well.
Benoit Drousie, a writer better known as Zidrou, pens the comic Spirou and also created the comic book series L’Elève Ducobu, which was itself inspired by his own experiences as a teacher, says that he finds the Salon in Montreuil invaluable to his work: “When you meet children they are usually frank and direct,” he says. “It was in Montreuil that I was able to measure the success of Ducobu but also, because of what children told me, I could decide to keep a character or not in later books.”
Added satisfaction comes from comments from teachers and parents, says Drousie, who often tell him that a certain book will have galvanized a child into reading, or helped ease a phobia about school.
Approximately 20% of the books sold in France are children’s books, and the sector continues to grow by as much as 10% each year, as it has done for nearly the past 15 years. Although the French book industry has weathered the credit crisis relatively well, the children’s book sector has fared even better, in part as a result of political support as well as a concerted effort among schools, libraries and publishers to support the industry.
Children’s book author, illustrator and animated filmmaker Gregoire Solotareff, says children’s book publishing in France became particularly active during the 1980s and has since become a leader in Europe. “The politics concerning reading at a young age in school is quite unique. This has helped publishers boost their production…For several years now there has been an increasing interest in children’s books; animated films are now made for young adults, fantasy and heroic themes are for all ages, therefore the children’s publishing industry is benefiting from all of this.”
The fair is also a place where people come to discover books from the smaller publishing companies, ones that are often overshadowed by the releases of the bigger houses.
Most French children’s publishers have their own particular niche, says Wadowski. “Where publishers in the US are more homogeneous, here, Gallimard, for example, is particularly good at non-fiction, whereas at Flammarion we are good at historical novels.”
Illustration is also an important part of French children’s publishing, and whether fiction or non-fiction, books are usually printed in full color and to a high artistic standard. Illustrators attending the fair can request appointments to show their portfolios to editors, who find it a more relaxed exchange, since it’s not a rights fair, and they’re not looking to sign contracts and buy books on the spot.
All in all, it’s a kinder, gentler sort of fair, one that allows the public to mingle” with professionals and seems to please everyone involved.
It’s really “a reflection of children’s publishing in France today,” says Solotareff.
VISIT: The Web site for the Salon du Livre et de la Presse Jeunesse.
CHECK OUT: The image gallery from the Fair.
TRY: The Lucha Libre-themed “rock and roll” pastries from Paris’s Deadilious, who were at the Fair with their fare.
BONUS: Tell us, should the public be invited to BEA?