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Montreuil Children’s Book Fair - #SLPJ2020

4 – 7 December 2020

France may have been placed under lockdown at the end of October, but that didn’t stop the annual Montreuil Children’s Book Fair (SLPJ) from stepping up to the challenge and showing solidarity with young readers, authors, illustrators, publishers, and booksellers across the country. Inséparaaaaaaables was this year’s slogan, and inseparable they were!

The 36th Fair stretched far and wide as 200 writers and illustrators met young readers in schools, bookshops, and libraries in line with local restrictions. The SLPJ aired interviews, readings and other activities on its own dedicated TV channel and website. A network of 500 libraries and bookshops also showcased this year’s prize winners, the Pépites, and ‘visitors’ to the fair were encouraged to support independent bookshops when buying books they would have normally picked up at the Fair. The SLPJ also put solidarity into practice by purchasing large numbers of books by the guest authors to distribute to tens of thousands of children in the Seine-Saint-Denis region via schools, youth centres, hospitals and other social services. Illustrators were not forgotten either! Twelve artists worked on 44 images, using a range of techniques, to create a travelling exhibition turning the world on its head, helping visitors climb walls, and open doors and windows – a figurative breath of fresh air in times of confinement.

I enjoyed dipping in and out of the readings by actors, interviews with authors, and sessions with illustrators at work. The daily Journal news bulletins were also a great way to get a feel for what was happening. It wasn’t all about books though. Looping, the charming animated robot, even had some quick yoga moves to help get you ready to read in the morning, after school, and before bed! If you want to practice your French, you can still watch a lot of the online content here.

I spent most of my time however at the Days for Professionals. With 80 webinars over two days, the SLPJ definitely left us spoiled for choice. It was a wonderful opportunity to discover new releases, listen to writers explain their craft, and find out more about the latest trends on the French and Francophone markets. I was also delighted to spot a panel on literary translation. The recordings were available until the start of January, a nice bonus for the Christmas holidays. Looking back at my notes, I can see I was drawn mostly to the teen and YA panels. Stacks of great new titles and series in my favourite genre for that age group, realism, which I find is generally strong amongst French writers.

Here are my highlights from the fair and a bumper selection of titles for my 2021 TBR!

Environment & Sustainability

The environment and sustainable publishing were themes that came up in more than one panel. Sarah Hamon and Angela Levy, founders of Cabane bleue, and Flora Prevosto, co-founder of Maison Eliza, discussed the practical aspects of solidarity and sustainability in publishing. Cabane bleue has strived to source paper in France from certified forests, for example, and also avoids plastic coatings. The entire value chain needs to be considered to avoid paper waste or unsold copies. They also highlighted the way they work with writers and illustrators, focusing on a more collaborative and participative model, explaining that their ethical commitment includes respect for the people involved too. Maison Eliza explained the challenges involved in trying to do something different, noting the complicated logistics involved when working with cultural associations to donate books (1/6 of the copies they print are donated to projects in France and abroad). Both Cabane bleue and Maison Eliza have picture book catalogues with a strong focus on the environment, nature and tolerance – reflecting the principles they apply to the practical side of publishing.

Climate Change

Glénat also focused the environment and climate change in its new series for teens - #Onestprêt (We’re ready). Sami Cheikh Moussa explained how the idea came about at the end of 2018 when the hashtag started as a movement on social media encouraging people to make small changes for 30 days to help stop climate change. There was a call for writers to get involved to reach young readers beginning to build their own identity. Sophie Adriansen and Guillaume Nail are the first two authors to be published in the series. Adriansen’s L’été de changement (The Summer of Change) brings together two teenagers who begin to reflect on the environment around them as they head off on two very different kinds of summer holiday. Nail’s Le cri homard (The call of the lobster) explores the balance required between the need for economic growth and the need to protect the environment. The series is not about ‘lecturing’ young readers, but rather a way to ‘open a door’ through books they enjoy concluded Moussa.

Social Media

Patrick Bard and Sylvie Allouche presented their books for teenagers exploring another hot topic, the influence of social media. Both published by Syros, Bard and Allouche draw on stories that have appeared in the news. In POV, Bard follows a young boy with busy parents who is accidentally drawn into the addictive world of online porn. He also presented another novel about a young girl recruited on social media to leave France for Syria, Et mes yeux sont fermés. Stories that seem even more urgent that before, especially following recent attacks in France, which Bard believes must be discussed during his encounters with pupils in schools. Sylvie Allouche saw books as a form of cultural mediation, a way of allowing readers to develop empathy for others. They show teenagers they are not alone. Her Clara di Lazio thriller series doesn’t shy away from themes such as online bullying, violence, evil and other tensions teenagers encounter in the modern world. Two writers who explore sensitive issues and are definitely at the top of my TBR.

Freedom of Expression

On a related theme the PEN Club Français hosted an animated discussion on the freedom of expression. The panel focussed on a topic very much in the news at the end of last year, namely the representation of the Prophet Mohammed. Journalist Philippe Pujas gave a brief overview of French laws and how they changed over time before handing the floor to Annie Vernay-Nour to explain how and when images of Mohammed had been used. The conversation then looked at laws on what may or may not be included in books for children and teenagers. Changing mentalities, morals, censorship, trends today, and the potential for self-censorship by authors were considered. Differences between, for example, the Anglophone and French publishing worlds were also highlighted. A technical panel in many regards, but one that was useful for better understanding the differences in publishing cultures. Particularly relevant to anyone pitching books for translation from French into English and vice versa.

In search of a great maybe – Guide to French YA

What exactly is YA? This is a question that young publishing twins Nathan & Tom Levêque try to answer with their new guide En quête d’un grand peut-être. They began with a whistle-stop tour of how the market for teens and young adults has grown rapidly over the past ten years in France. Whilst it wasn’t easy to pin down exactly what ages are included, which term ‘works’ best (littérature ado, young adult, jeunes adultes), or how age categories tally with books originally published in other languages (i.e. English), it was clear that teens and young adults now beginning to be seen as a separate age group in France. The guide is jam packed with info about themes, profiles of authors, booksellers, librarians, and other professionals in the book sector. It also provides an overview of the French 1949 law on children’s books and how it affects ‘taboo’ themes, a Top 100 list and a toolbox for budding authors on how to get started. All in all, an extremely useful resource for anyone wanting to find out more about books for teenagers and young adults currently being published in French.

New Multi-format YA – Court toujours

Another sign that YA is booming in France is Editions Nathan’s new collection Court toujours aimed at 15–25 year olds. As the name suggests, the books are short, only 64 pages long and designed to be read in one hour. They’re available in several formats – paper and audio – and aim to encourage reluctant readers. Whilst the language is clear and relatively simple, it doesn’t mean that the books are ‘easy’ reads by any means. Like much (French) teen and YA fiction, this series focuses on stories with intense, complex emotions and are written in a breathtakingly fast pace. The first book to be published, Rachel Corenbilt’s Les Potos d’Abord (Bros first), for example, sees two 17-year-old boys head off on their first camping trip without their parents, a test for their friendship as they deal with jealousy, bitterness, sunburn, and mosquitos! Six titles by well-known names are due to be published in total this year: Severine Vidal, Vincent Cuvellier, Florence Hinckel, Gaël Ayomon and Fabrice Colin.

Literary Translation

One panel I couldn’t miss was of course the session hosted by the French Association des traducteurs littéraires en France (ATLF). The lively discussion between translators Lydia Waleryszak and Catherine Renaud and publisher Emmanuelle Beulque gave me so much food for thought that it deserves a blog post of its own. Nudge me if it doesn’t appear soon!

Johanna McCalmont is a literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and has a particular passion for children's and YA books. She also enjoys interpreting at literary festivals. Read more of her reviews and author interviews at WorldKidLit.

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