The first one of course is an unforgettable experience, a terrifying yet delightful epiphany. The ones that follow allow us to reconnect with the wonderful people we meet; to gradually find our place, to see where and with whom our work belongs, because the one certain thing about books is that there is room for all kinds of work within them, as all kinds of people make them.
I would have thought that 2014, the year I was first published and had my book on the shelves at Donzelli would be unsurpassable, but it's going to take something quite grand to top 2016. This year had something very new and very special. It had an actual purpose, a social dimension, that perhaps has been there all along but it took a set of coincidences, forgetfulness and connections to see it.
While having a gelato on Wednesday, where Hall 25 meets 26, I ambled a bit and came across the IBBY Italy stand. I saw little print out request for book donations.
Idomeni is a small greek village near to border with Macedonia. Thousands of people are ending up in Idomeni in their journey to northern europe. But there is hardly anything there and more and more people arrive in the hope that the border will be open. The situation is desperate. I have often felt impotent and small and irrelevant on the face of such suffering. Refugee camps are better than death in the conflict zones, but they are still horrible places.
Here was the opportunity to actually do something for the refugees. I asked the person there what sort of books they where looking for and she said, "Any books." Their stand looked a bit bare. So when I finished my ice cream I walk over and asked Carmine (my italian publisher) if we could donate one of mine, and he agreed and handed me the book. I put it in my bag and then I had a meeting to rush to and, as it often happens in this place of so many possibilities, I forgot about it.
Later, much later, in the early swine bar hours of the next day I was chatting to someone, who I had just met during this fair. He was telling me how sometimes books are just given away or left at the end of the fair. And then that really important thing that had slipped my mind returned. So later that morning, on the taxi I had my book to donate and the knowledge that there would probably be a lot of books being left or given away which would not find their way to IBBY unaided. But sharing the taxi, was one of my favourite partners in crime, my dear friend and picture book genius, Steve Antony, so by the time we got to the fair we had a plan: the two of us would go -with our natural cheek and enthusiasm- and ask publishers for donations and collect as many books as we could and take them to IBBY ourselves.
It was incredibly exciting. Steve and I went on a spree around halls 25 and 26 looking for donations and personally taking them to IBBY, it was a race against time as most stands go an a furious pack on thursdays getting things ready for their stands to be shipped back to their countries, and we also had to go back to Bologna to get our bags to catch our plane back home!
We started collecting a few here and there, stacking them in our arms, and then going back to Ibby.
As I mentioned before, books are made by all kinds of people, and not surprisingly their generosity and imagination varies a great deal. Soon our wonderful publishes would make it necessary to have a trolley.
All donations, we really appreciated, but above and beyond our expectations Child's Play, Little Tigger Group, Parragon and Hachette (who lent us their red trolley) all donated boxes of books. We don't know how many books were in the boxes but they sure were heavy!
Flying Eye Books donated lots of beautiful books that they could have very easily sold there, as did Adrian from Nosy Crow.
Klaus Fluge from Anderson Press personally chose the titles which would most help with learning to read, giving us more and more.
We didn't need to ask Greet from Book Island, she was already donating at Ibby her wonderful Azizi and the little Blue Bird.
We met Marcella Terrusi , who is coordinating this project for IBBY Italia, towards the end of our collecting spree. She asked us to focus our search on more wordless books (unfortunately not widely published in Britain) and beautiful books.
She particularly was after Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which sadly we could not find for her on that day. You can see how his wonderful wordless book by Shaun Tan about finding new life as a migrant and reuniting with family at the end would be incredibly helpful to children experiencing the hardships of that journey.
We then concentrated a bit more on the italian publishers, who already knew about the collection and were very keen to pick up their best books for their donation.
Lots of publishers donated books, and I feel so proud to be part of a caring and giving industry. Thank you all!
You can follow the journey of the books here. (link coming soon) You can learn more about IBBY's work with children in crisis here.
For the children at Idomeni to experience beautiful books, what ever the future holds for them, to have that time inside those pages to know themselves valued, strong, intelligent, imaginative, to be able to experience the alternatives to reality that exist within all books, to have played a small part in this project, that is going to be very hard to top.