Bologna 2023: SCBWI Scholarship Winners Anden Wilder & Jess Racklyeft

By Elisabeth Norton

Spotlight image: Jess Racklyeft and Anden Wilder at Bologna Children’s Book Fair, photo courtesy Anden Wilder.

This year, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was thrilled to be back at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair! The booth was busy, with many fair attendees stopping by to learn more about how SCBWI chapters around the world support authors, illustrators and translators on their publishing journeys.

This year SCBWI awarded scholarships to allow two illustrator members to attend the fair. Winners received a ticket to the Bologna Book Fair, travel fare, and a stipend for accommodations. In addition, the winners’ art was featured on the SCBWI promotional cards that were given to booth visitors during the fair. The winners also participated in the ever-popular dueling illustrators event at the SCBWI booth, drawing illustrations on the spot as an SCBWI Golden Kite Award-winning picture book text was read aloud to an appreciative crowd.

The winners of this new scholarship were illustrators Anden Wilder from the US, and Jess Racklyeft from Australia. I had a chance to visit with them both at the fair, and after they returned home, I asked them to share their experiences with Cynsations readers.

You attended the fair as winners of the SCBWI Bologna Children’s Book Fair scholarship winners. Can you tell us more about why you applied?

Anden: I have always wanted to attend the fair but it always seemed like something that might happen if I got very lucky later on in life, but certainly not now, as my career is just getting going and my children are so young. Some of my favorite illustrators hail from countries other than the US and have been celebrated at the Fair—Beatrice Alemagna, Isabelle Arsenault, Sydney Smith, Marc Majewski, Felicita Sala, Suzy Lee, to name a few. I thought I would throw my hat into the ring because it never hurts to try, and I am so glad that I did!

Jess Racklyeft with the Italian translations of two of her books, at the stand of the Italian publisher.

Jess: I applied because I knew the fair would be an amazing boost to my career after working as a freelance illustrator for ten years. Being tucked away in Australia, I knew having access to the wider world of books – seeing what was being made, different publishing styles, new art etc – would be an inspiration! Having the support of SCBWI and the networking opportunities available through the scholarship was also an amazing boost to the experience.

How did you feel when you found out that you’d been selected as a winner?

Anden: I cannot express how excited I was when I found out that I won. It was just the most incredible news! I was so thrilled and I immediately asked if I could be in contact with the other winner and it was my great good fortune that it ended up being Jess Racklyeft.

Anden Wilder at the SCBWI booth in Bologna

Jess: I was of course shocked, elated and very honoured! The application process was so easy – just four images of work, so I really didn’t think too much about it at the time of applying. I was so surprised when I found out, I literally fell off my chair.

Had you ever been to the fair before? If so, how did your experience this time compare to your previous visit? If not, what was your initial reaction when you attended the fair on the first day?

Anden: No, I hoped to attend at some point in my life but it always felt like a far off dream.

The first day was a bit overwhelming. I had no idea how huge it was going to be. I found the illustrator’s wall to be particularly intimidating. The amount of talent that is showcased at the fair from people all over the world is astounding. The venue is also large and it took me a couple of days to get my bearings and figure out how to make my way around.

Jess: I had been to Bologna over a decade ago and in a completely different role. I used to sell co-editions for an Australian publisher, so I went to sell books – with back to back meetings for the entire fair, I knew there was so much to absorb but I was unable to!

Art that inspired Jess at Bologna (artist unknown, photo by Jess Racklyeft)

This time felt fantastically indulgent and very special to be able to go back and take my time to peruse the stands and exhibitions, and soak up the magic of the fair with less time pressure. I learnt so much more and really connected with the work on display, finding new inspiration for my work as an illustrator. In addition, after the covid years just being overseas felt truly like a gift. With young kids, and then covid, I hadn’t been abroad for ten years and I felt a lot of emotions just from the experience of being in beautiful Italy too.

Fountain of Neptune photo by Jess Racklyeft

Did your impressions of the fair change over the course of the week?

Anden: Definitely, once I figured out how to make my way through the maze of buildings and booths and thousands of people, I felt much more at home and was able to really take everything in. I found that wearing my headphones and drowning out some of the noise allowed me to relax a bit. I was able to concentrate on the incredible books and art I was seeing.

Jess: The first day myself and Anden felt overwhelmed – with over 1000 stands and 30,000 visitors it was a lot to take in! Day two and three we were much more settled and able to navigate about easier. By the end we knew the fair well, but I was also aware I would be processing the experience for weeks to come as there was so much to absorb.

Did any particular experience(s) that you had over the course of the week stand out for you?

Anden: The entire week is a wonderfully busy blur. I really enjoyed the Dueling Illustrators experience and I was so happy to be with other SCBWI members. I had a great time at the party at Libreria Trame bookstore. There was also an exhibition of Beatrice’s Alemagna’s original work on display at a gallery in the center and that was a highlight for both Jess and I.

Pictured Left to Right: Anden Wilder, Melanie Rook Welfing, Jess Racklyeft, photo by Jess Racklyeft

Jess: Our live drawing on the SCBWI stand was rather nerve wracking but in hindsight very fun! And I also loved bumping into my translated books on an Italian stand. Meeting Anden and the SCBWI crew was a very special part of the week, too. Finally, I spent the first full day with a group of Australian authors, illustrators and publishers and walked the Portico di San Luca which was the perfect way to kick off this special week.

What was your biggest insight or take-away from being at the fair this year?

Anden: I came home full of inspiration. In the states we have a sort of puritanical view of what children’s books are supposed to look like and, based on what I saw at the fair, the rest of the world doesn’t feel quite the same. I have new goals and new perspectives on the kind of artist I want to be and the kinds of books I want to make. Children are so much more sophisticated and emotionally intelligent than we give them credit for in the US, and I want to make books that not only respect them as thinkers and readers but also as artists who can appreciate different ways of seeing/representing the world.

Children’s books from around the world. Pictured here: books by Eva Lindström, photo by Jess Racklyeft

Jess: There is a big world of books out there – with different markets, styles and themes. I now feel like I have new art heroes, have shaken up my illustration process, and felt like my “bucket has been filled” in so many ways. I have new friends and a phone full of photos to keep me thinking and planning for months to come!

Did any trends or impressions particularly stand out to you?

Anden: The styles exhibited at the fair vary widely, but all of the work I saw had its own level of authenticity and artistic sophistication. I am drawn to a certain level of painterliness and gesture in art, so I noticed that in many instances. I also noticed quite a bit of limited palettes. I also noticed that most of the artists weren’t preoccupied with perspective and anatomy, there was a tendency to “break the rules” in really smart and dynamic ways.

Now that you’ve been home and had time to process everything that you saw and experienced, do you think attending the fair has had an impact on you as an artist, or on how you think about your work or children’s publishing in general?

Anden: I can’t imagine that any artist could attend an event like the fair and not come away from it fundamentally changed and inspired. I can tell now in my own practice that I am going through a bit of a growth period (which involves growing pains, for sure) but I know that on the other side if this trying time is a better version of myself. I am currently working on my debut picture book with Little Brown BFYR and I feel a great amount of pressure to do the best I possibly can do. I feel so lucky that I have had this experience at the fair to push me further in that endeavor. It was a magical experience and I have made it a goal to return in a few years. I would encourage anyone to apply for this scholarship, you never know what might happen!

Jess: I feel like I have a new direction as an artist. I think in some ways I have been in a bit of a rut, working hard for ten years but not having a decent look around or refreshing my goals and inspirations. I now feel like I have seen so much amazing new work I have new goals and dreams, as well as ideas on how to make art and what makes a good children’s picture book. I feel like I have a better appreciation for the world of children’s books, and not just what is going on in my home market here. I feel beyond lucky to have had this experience and want to thank SCBWI from the bottom of my heart, as well as Anden, for making this experience so magical.

Elisabeth: Thank you Jess and Anden for taking the time to give Cynsations readers a glimpse into your experiences at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair!

Cynsations Notes

Jess Racklyeft is an award winning Australian picture book illustrator, and sometimes author. She has created over 30 picture books and works primarily with watercolours with some digital collage. Prior to her work as an illustrator, she spent almost a decade working in publishing, so has accumulated a library sized collection of picture books! You can find out more about Jess and her work on her website and follow her on Instagram @jessesmess.

Anden Wilder was born and raised in Denver, Colorado and was a prolific maker from a young age. She attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and graduated with a degree in painting. With a great love for reading and children’s literature, Anden went on to receive a Masters Degree in Educational Psychology and Early Childhood Literacy. She is a mentor for aspiring illustrators at SCBWI and is a professor of illustration at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. When she isn’t teaching, mentoring, or painting, you can find her at home tending to her garden with her husband and two children, William and Posey. You can find out more about Anden and her work on her website and follow her on social media at these links: Twitter @andenwilder Facebook @andenwilder Instagram @andenwilderillustration.

Elisabeth Norton is a reporter covering international aspects of children’s publishing for Cynsations. Originally from the US, she lives in Switzerland where she teaches English as a Foreign Language and writes poetry, picture books, chapter books and middle grade novels in verse. Her poetry for young readers has been included in several anthologies, including Things We Eat (Pomelo Books, 2022) and Imperfect II: poems about perspective: an anthology for middle schoolers, a Publisher’s Weekly Book Life Review Editor’s Pick (History House Publishers, 2022). She serves as the Assistant International Advisor (Outreach) for SCBWI. You can find out more about Elisabeth and her writing on her website.