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The Text and Illustrations in the Bulgarian children’s books

An illustration in a children’s book really is worth a thousand words, as Napoleon used to say. Is there a future for illustrated books in the age of internet?

Horace once said that pictures are poems without words. This is especially true for the children’s fairy-play genre. Merry and sad, light hearted and fearful what would these magical stories have been for us if they were not accompanied by beautiful illustrations? It is precisely the pictures in children’s books that gave us our first and lasting impressions of the word, and which inspired our imagination.
Today it is true that illustrations are more accessible than ever before: on Facebook and the Internet, not to mention video games, electronic comic strip and 3D movies. However, what happened to illustrated children’s book? Can they withstand such competition? Do children still like the books that belonged to the childhood of their fathers and mothers, and of their grandfathers and grandmothers? Is there a future for the Bulgarian illustrated children’s book, which, as you will see, has had such an interesting past?

From the collective fantasy to an individual author.

As is the case everywhere, Bulgarian literature for children developed from traditional folklore. As early as the beginning of the 1900s, Elin Pelin, Nikolay Raynov and Ran Bosilek built bridges between oral legends and authored work. An encyclopedic writer and artist, Raynov changed the language, relieving it of archaisms and borrowed words. His collections represented the new mythology of the previous generation that was raised and grew up in the patriarchal Bulgarian village, but which settled in a different, more dynamic and already alienated urban environment. Characters such as the Three Smarties of Elin Pelin are based on the self-irony of the Bulgarians, who did not manage to become full-fledged citizens (by the end of the 1900s, the “smarties” lost their ironic nuance and turned into “fools” attraining worldwide fame as Donyou Donev’s animated characters).

Among the first eminent illustrators was Alexander Bojiniv. His decorative compositions, ornamental letters and verses in the Golden Book for Our Children (1921) and Alphabe for the Little Ones (1926) became examples for generations of artists and designers who followed him.

Rascals and foxes.
Elin Pelin is among the first who begun to make specialized magazines for children in the 1920s. He translated Max and Moritz, and wrote stories about children in verse and in prose. Yan Bibiyan, which was first published in 1934, continues to this day to be one of the most favorite stories for children. The main character remained without a head after entering a Faustian contract, but with the help of the devil’s tail (which he stole) he became a greater rascal than the little devil himself. His facial features underwent visual change with subsequent editions; one of the most successful graphic images of him was created by Petar Chuklev in the 1970s.

Children in Bulgaria also identify with Peter the Sly, who always outwits Nastradin Hodja. The philosopher and artist  Iliya Beshkov illustrated Sava Popov’s book by always showing the character with his inseparable friend – the donkey. Peter the Sly is a symbol of the Bulgarian down-to-earth and pragmatic daily wisdom.

Ran Bosilek’s patilantsi (pranksters) outwit granny Tsotsolana. The rhymed letters  ressemble the rhythm of folk music. It is impossible to think of “Pranksters’ Kingdom” without the illustrations of Vadim Lazarkevich, Russian emigrant from the Whiteguard.­­­ The book was later illustrated by Stoyan Atanasov – with robust, stylized silhouettes and funny mimics and gestures. Together with The Maiden who Was Not Born and Unprecedented Hero (ornamented with the decorative secessionist drawings by Georgi Atanasov), Pranksters’ Kingdom by Ran Bosilek is among the first three choices for the most cherished Bulgarian tale of all time.

Propaganda for all ages.
After 1940 the children’s tale got caught in the grip of propaganda for the “new social order”.Their characters were diligent pioneers and excellent students who were always ready to volunteer. Gifted Bulgarian writers and artists made compromises in order to survive. Some of them wrote metaphorically hoping that their books would not only be read by children. The censors were sometimes overzealous in the practice of decoding truths for the contemporary reality. The Donkey with the Silver Hoofs by Ivan Kozhuharov was seized from bookstores in the late 1960s, and was  not published again for more than 20 years. The first illustrator of these tales, Alexnder Denkov, changed the appearance of the Bulgarian book with the new styles and freedoms. His illustrations of the fairy-tales of Angel Karaliychev ware innovative. Az for Kozhuharov’s book, only very recently, in 2009, did it find its most suitable contemporary artist – Veselin Pramatarov.
The years of the “thawing” after the death of Stalin saw the appearance of the fairy-tale saga The Adventures of Foxy by Boris Aprilov (1957). There are no dogmas or suggested themes in that story, such as were so characteristic during the period of the so called “building of socialism”. The  bold Foxy travels – in three novels and nine mini-novels – to Squareland and to the sea; there he meets the little dolphin Moni and argues with the author. His adventures contain funny and sometimes philosophical dialogues, but also touches of sadness. Children like when stories are a little bit sad. And they also learn from Fo xy something that will be important for the rest of their lives – “ When somebody is in trouble, you must come to their rescue.”

Sparrows and frogs.

Yordan Radichkov is an emblematic author who wrote for children during the period of developed socialism and then during t he transition. We, the Sparrows, with his drawings and design, and where even blank spaces on the pages are full of meaning, is a real masterpiece. His later book Little Frogs’ Stories, with illustrations by Victor Paunov, asks hard questions about national identity:

“If it is good to live in Europe, why do you have come back to our swamps and puddles?”
“Why have we come back?…Well, because we did not want to share the fate of the water quails,” replies the frog, who, after a short silence, continued to speak. “Once we arrived we opened the doors of the wagon and saw that Europe herself was standing at the door with a mouth opened soooo wide. Europe eats frogs and, in order to hide this from others, she calls frogs water quails.”
“Ooooo!” all the frogs in the swamp exclaim in chorus. “Look at this Europe, what she does!”

Valeri Petrov, playwright, poet and translator, also wrote a substantial number of works for children  – with vigorous rhymes and dramatic turns, portraying inter-generation relationship and delight in nature and daily life. Though his books have been translated into many languages , they still not found their best Bulgarian illustrator.

“Best friends,” they are professed,
but what makes one really “best”?
Is it because he’s first to pounce
into the fire to save you, first
without an ounce of doubt about
whether you’re best or worst?
First for you he steps on the ice,
First for you his blood he shelds.
That much, it would suffice
To know this friend is “best.”

New themes, new approaches.
In the turbulent years of the political transition, children’s literature dived into painful family and social themes. During the last ten years or so, artists experimented with  the book in a new way