Where Are The Books?

ПепеляшкаWhy is there no modern children’s literature by Bulgarian authors? This is a question I have been asking for years and to which I have no answer. There is a good deal of classical children’s literature available in Bulgarian translation. You can find Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, ou La petite Pantoufle de Verre (Cinderella or the Glass Slipper in English, The Complete Fairy Tales (Oxford World’s Classics)).

Братя ГримYou can find all the fairy and folk tales of the Brothers Grimm (Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales), with ample versions of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood in everything from pop-up books to full, lavishly illustrated collections. Russian witch Baba Yaga (Vasilisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga (Illustrated)), with her house on chicken feet and her cannibalistic appetites, has her day in Bulgaria.

Remarkably, even Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, full of English wordplay, has a well-regarded Bulgarian translation. But Пепеляшка, Снежанка, Червена Шапчица, and Алиса в Страната на Чудесата are examples of neither modern children’s literature nor of Bulgarian authorship.

Франклин посреща гостиThere are translations of wonderful 20th century children’s authors, from Beatrix Potter to Astrid Lindgren to Beverly Cleary to Roald Dahl. You can find what seems to be the entire Franklin the Turtle series by Paulette Bourgeois. I read many of these to my son in Bulgarian, helping him with the issues and themes of the books and me with the language. But there is nothing recent. There is no Mo Willems or Kevin Henkes for pre- and early readers, no Kate DiCamillo for intermediate readers, no Rebecca Stead for middle schoolers.

Петльо ГерестThere are endless versions of Bulgarian national folktales in all manner of sizes and formats and quality. Some of these espouse values one doesn’t especially want to convey to young children, or in fact to anyone. These are the ones in which a certain nasty cleverness always wins, usually the sort of cleverness that results in the innocent character(s) losing and/or the ethically-compromised one winning. Cheating is not frowned upon overly much. There are many stock characters, often represented by animals, that have essentially one overriding personality trait.

Some of the folktales are simply great fun and we read them with pleasure. They impart culture and offer generations shared references just as all national folktales in all languages do.

National folktales, however, were not created specifically for children. They often use, at least in the Bulgarian ones, words and syntax so archaic that they do little if anything to develop vocabulary. They don’t often empathize with other people’s feelings or problems, and relate not at all to a child’s everyday life. There is little to expand imagination or address inner life, as folktales often rely on a few and repeated tropes.

It is easy to underestimate the complexity of good children’s literature. Victoria Ford Smith, assistant professor at University of Connecticut and a specialist in children’s literature says, “What mostly attracts me to children’s literature is how complex it is. We often have a misconception that children’s literature is literature for adults with simpler language, and happy endings.” I agree. A good book is a good book and children’s literature contains a perhaps surprising amount of existential and philosophical ideas. I enjoyed the Elephant and Piggie books just as much as my son. I happily agreed to read Because of Winn-Dixie and When You Reach Me (Yearling Newbery) and thought they were just as worthwhile as my daughter said they were.

Why is there no modern children’s literature by Bulgarian authors? How will Bulgarian children not simply learn to read but love to read without bookstores and libraries full of books written just for them, about their lives, by the people who know them best? Do authors feel children’s literature beneath them? Do publishers feel there is no market? Do bookstores not wish to stock them?

Do you know?


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