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The effect of the Bologna children’s book fair

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At the Bologna (Italy) annual children’s book fair, which the city has hosted for more than 50 years, book illustration has been just as important as the textual element of a book, and illustrators’ names have sometimes been praised more than authors’. The trends, fashions, and the wheat and the chaff of the book art world all gather in Bologna every year. Lithuanian publications for children and their illustrations have been presented at this fair since 1989, and in 2011, our country was a guest of honour. The national stand displays Lithuania’s most beautiful children’s books, and every year, the Lithuanian Culture Institute invites beginner illustrators – those who have not yet published their work or have published no more than three books. After her visit to the fair, artist Aušra Kiudulaitė, who responded to the Lithuanian Culture Institute’s invitation last year, decided to participate in the fair’s Silent Book Contest and was one of the finalists. This year, Inga Dagilė also went to Bologna. Her début work, Svajonių Kalnas (by Rosita Makauskienė), was the most beautiful book in the National Children’s Literature competition in 2014, and the book Drambliai Ėjo į Svečius (by Evelina Dačiūtė) received the award for most beautiful book in 2015.

We spoke with Aušra and Inga about how their paths as book illustrators began and what inspires them to continue.

 How did you begin illustrating books?

 Aušra Kiudulaitė:  “I finished painting studies at the Vilnius Art Academy, participated in commercial projects, and created interactive apps. It could be that motherhood, fairly often, inspires female artists to think about illustrating children’s books. Whether you like it or not, you start thinking: why is a well-illustrated children’s book such a luxury? I noticed that there are few picture books in Lithuania and wanted to fill this need. Before last year’s Bologna children’s book fair, I decided to respond to the Lithuanian Culture Institute’s invitation for beginner illustrators so I could get to know the illustrating world and try it out. I had a very strong impression – my colleagues warned me that it will seem like there’s a lot of everything in the beginning and it will be hard to choose. I saw many wonderful books and great ideas and, for the next half year, I felt depressed by this information. It was hard to sort through everything. It seemed like everything had already been drawn and written! I had to fight off ideas like that, but then I became determined to participate in the Bologna book fair’s Silent Book Contest, where the entries are artists’ books without text – visual stories. I am truly an inexperienced and unknown illustrator, so it seemed like the contest’s conditions were ideal: you don’t need to find a writer and you can come up with everything yourself – you are the author.

 Inga Dagilė: “My experience at the Bologna book fair let me personally affirm the path I was taking. In a professional sense, I love to work on many different things, because the graphic design field is rather large. I’ve created website designs, logos, t-shirts, animation, etc. Book illustration seemed like the least specific, visible and valued occupation. When I was a student, that was my weak point – I didn’t understand the criteria and didn’t know what made illustrations good or bad. After creating my first two books, I understood that I really like illustration and that it was an extraordinary opportunity and responsibility to share and spread my ideas, communicate with such small and important readers, and contribute to their growth! Besides, I also became certain of how important it is to create things the way you want to without trying to please or adapt to others. In Bologna, I saw how many different methods, formats and illustrating techniques – or ways to see the world – there are. I came to understand what I had been doing wrong ten years ago and the value of illustration. All of this captivated me, and now, for the first time ever in my professional life, I am sure that I want to take this path. Now, I can dare to refuse projects and to postpone work that would interrupt my illustration. My goal is to focus on book illustrator competitions. I want to create several projects with Lithuanian authors that I could put my experiences and inspiration from Bologna into.

 Is it enough to simply decide to be an illustrator? How can publishers and authors find out about you?

 AK: For now, I really can’t say that I know the Lithuanian context very well. I know how the mechanisms work and how I should work within them. Bologna helped me refine my style and take my first step in this profession. I saw that there are many ways to draw an elephant, but when you return, you’ll draw it yet another way – your own! The most important thing for me is that I would enjoy and not be ashamed of what I do. That I would dare to speak with my own voice. I believe that when you find your voice, you find everything else as well. Evelina Saciūtė found me and we started creating a book called Namelis Medyje, arba Laimė yra Lapė. I have other plans too.

 ID: At the Bologna book fair, I stood in long lines for open meetings with publishers’ evaluators. It was an enjoyable attempt, but I did not receive any specific offers or advice. Of course, I sent my work to one publisher after I returned. I think that it was more like a big starting investment, collection of ingredients, and accumulation of experience that will significantly influence my professional future. It was important to have courage, to master myself, and to learn to present my work.

 AK: It’s truly rather hard for us to present our work. Of course, the Land of Books’ Tu Gali Sukurti Knygą creative workshop, led by artist Sigutė Chlebinskaitė, has been bringing professionals to Vilnius for years to consult with less-experienced colleagues on their portolios.

 What global book illustration trends did you find the most valuable, interesting or dear?

 ID: What I remember most was the aesthetic cleanliness, quality, and the ability to control an illustration and to present just enough of it for a specific text or page. Moderation, emotion, expressiveness, and the expression of technique. I was enchanted by the Polish stand. There, I found many books that left a strong impression on me. Books that break the mould and the everyday catch my eye. Unfortunately, you won’t see many like that in Lithuania.

 AK: The work of Portuguese publisher Planeta Tangerina were the most vivid and dear to me. Their books are different stylistically, but from the entirety of their display, there wasn’t one in sight that you wouldn’t want to open up. I discovered many Italian publishers – all different, but very professionally produced, books.

 It is often said in Lithuania that there is no demand for so-called picture books in Lithuania, and that it’s not worth publishing them because nobody buys them. What do you think about that?

AK: At the UNESCO gallery during the Vilnius Book Fair this year, there was a meeting with illustrators and publishers from Poland, Ukraine and Portugal. What I remember best was a story by Lvov-based Agrafka design studio artists Romana Romanyshin and Andriy Lesiv about how they had gone from publisher to publisher with their first book and nobody wanted to publish them. When they finally managed to get it published, the situation changed. Now, they can choose who to work with. I believe that all you need is one courageous step, and that even in Lithuania, if a good illustrator and a courageous publisher were to meet, the same process would happen. Of course, it’s also important that the parents buying books for their children would understand that, for a child, the “reading” of a book without text is a totally different activity. It needs a lot of creativity and imagination, and you have to become a co-author.

 Do you agree that, in our context, the “picture book” genre sounds like a second-class item?

 AK: When I was studying painting, it really seemed like the only thing that was worthwhile was so-called “high art,” while books, and especially for children, were ABC-level stuff, like watermelons, chairs and shoes. I had to overcome these stereotypes myself. After all, I wanted to be a painter, not someone who draws watermelons…

 ID: From my studies, I also remember messages about how we’ve got a story here and we’re looking for a student to illustrate it… It’s not just a stereotype but often a practice as well: it is believed that just about anyone can “doodle” something at half price for a children’s book.

 Regarding your relationship with the text – do you prefer working as a team with the author and maintaining a dialogue, or do you prefer creating your own visual story-telling?

 AK: I really like how Evelina Daciūtė lets me tell my own story through pictures. She accepts that I can see things differently and that a parallel story can appear. I’d like to continue working with authors who believe in me and whom I believe in. If I knew how to write, perhaps I would, but I’m afraid that I’d just add to the army of strange books… Working on the Silent Book contest, when I was both the author and the illustrator, wasn’t really my favourite thing to do.

 ID: I have worked with three children’s book authors and one adult book author, and in all of those cases, we managed to form some sort of contact. I understood that one can fall in love with a piece of work or a text, and sometimes only after a while. I like it when the illustrations and the text agree and supplement one another. I also think it’s important what the paper is like, how the cover looks, how the book is published technically. Perhaps I’d like to write myself, but I don’t know if I will. I can accept other people’s works that I illustrate as my own – I root for them, I’m happy, and I call them “my book.”

 Aušra, please tell us about the Silent Book contest. Why do you think you became a finalist? Did you “guess” the trends?

 AK: I carried about the idea I had for my “silent” book for a while, and when there was a month and a half left until the deadline, it changed. I wanted to create a children’s story about how much chaos they can expect and what a difficult life awaits them when they become teens. When I started my work, I understood that it’s not yet time. Later, while talking to a friend on the phone, there appeared a simple everyday story about a man’s trip home and the real and imaginary circumstances of this trip. In a stylistic sense, it was like I had returned to my fundamentals, my childhood: I started to draw and edit without a computer and I saw that I like it and it seems to be going well. I created this book with cut-outs and rich textures. When I went to Bologna again this year, I saw that I had really accidentally hit the mark – I could see that the handicraft style was back. Perhaps it might sound a bit too poetic, but if you do what you believe in most and you enjoy it, but wind up crying on the last day and saying that your work is nonsense and that you won’t send it to anyone, everything is OK. By the way, all of the books that made it into the final of this event will be published by Italian publishers.