Morag Styles: The BolognaRagazzi Award for Children’s Poetry and Illustration 2021 – A Judge’s Perspective

The BolognaRagazzi Award for children’s poetry and illustration 2021: a judge’s perspective

I was delighted to take part in judging the first BolognaRagazzi Award for children’s poetry and illustration. The international nature of the award ensures diversity and I had access to poetry books from many languages with translation. Despite the punishing schedule, the number of entries was around 200, the overall experience left me both elated and asking a few questions.

First of all, it was exciting to discover how much well-written, thought-provoking poetry was being written in many different parts of the world that we are unaware of in the UK  –  and how many illustrators were dazzlingly original. I imagine one reason might be a lack of interest in this country (and USA) in children’s books that are not in English and also because small publishers, which probably make up the majority of the poetry books we examined, do not have the funding to produce books in English without buoyant sales.

As is the case with picture books, children’s poetry can tackle almost any topic, however challenging, if it is done well. Some of the books we considered seemed to be more willing to take risks with content than often happens here.  Poetry from Latin America made a big impact as it managed to be thoughtful, child-centred, powerful and cautiously include the political. Several books given a special mention tackled taxing themes. María José Ferrada’s moving Niños, sympathetically illustrated by María Elena Valdez using a muted colour palette, is dedicated to 34 Chilean children who ‘disappeared’ during Pinochet’s regime. Love letter, a tender series of poems with an environmental slant by the accomplished Taiwanese illustrator and author, Animo Chen, is written in Taiwanese script, the mother language for many people in Taiwan but not recognised  officially. The Girl Who Became a Tree,an inventive, verse novel by Joseph Coelho, goes back and forth between the past and present, Greek myth and contemporary teenage trauma, exploring different forms and voices. Kate Milner’s dramatic, black-and-white line drawings demand the reader’s attention, as does the overall graphic conception of the book.

There were other strong volumes from the UK but the jury selected Fiona Waters’ anthology of burning ambition, huge in size and scope, with animal poems for every day of the year, superbly realised by Britta Teckentrup’s stunningly imaginative illustrations.The well-known opening line of Blake’s most popular poem from Songs of Innocence and Experience provided the title.

The winning book, Cajita de fósforos / Inside a Tiny Matchbox, selected by Adolfo Córdova and strikingly illustrated by Juan Palomino, is an inspirational anthology of Iberoamerican, free verse poetry. Cordova’s wide knowledge, careful research, and flair is evident in both his choice of poetry and his understanding of what would amuse and stimulate young readers.

Some questions

Should we consider anthologies and single poet collections together? Could it be argued that poets’ collections of new poems might be treated separately to editor selections of a wide range of poetry from the past and present?

I loved the fact that word and image interaction was the focus of the award. However, this is usually done without collaboration between poet/anthologist and illustrator, but by the publisher/editor, who selects a suitable illustrator to match the poetry – words come first.

Has the role of the book designer increased in importance and should it be more openly acknowledged and celebrated?

In poetry, every word counts, so should the art of translation be given more prominence?  

Has the environment become the most popular theme for children’s poetry? It was a strong contender at Bologna, as it should be. No big change there as poets writing for children or adults have always drawn on the natural world for inspiration.

I loved my Bologna experience, learned a lot, was impressed by the quality of the poetry we were judging, found the others on the jury and BRAW organisers most simpatico, and all of us passionate about children’s poetry and illustration. Hope to meet everyone for real in Bologna next year.  

Morag Styles

Morag Styles is Emeritus Professor of Children’s Poetry at Homerton College, Cambridge. She is the author of From the Garden to the Street: 300 years of poetry for children. She has written widely on children’s poetry and picture books, and anthologised many volumes of poetry for children. She is co-author of Children’s Picturebooks: the art of visual storytelling (2019) with Martin Salisbury and is currently working on a third edition of Children Reading Picturebooks with Evelyn Arizpe.