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  • BIG THEMES IN CHILDREN'S BOOKS. Selected Articles by Lilia Ratcheva
  • Marin Bodakov
BIG THEMES IN CHILDREN'S BOOKS. Selected Articles. By Lilia Ratcheva. St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2019, 432 pages. ISBN: 978-954-07-4814-6

Wisdom between Theory and Practice

Years ago, in an interview for the Kultura weekly, I asked Lilia Ratcheva how one could avoid people looking down on children's literature. She answered: "By speaking and writing about children's books. By cultivating respect for these books in society and educating readers about criteria for evaluating books and illustrations. By enhancing the literary and artistic culture of children and training experts in children's literature. Obviously, parents, however intelligent and well educated they may be, cannot follow everything. … Even librarians and teachers cannot read everything. They should read selectively. There just has to be some selectivity, some criticism, some references."

Big Themes in Children's Books sets an example of how to pursue this complex mission. So why is Lilia Ratcheva's book important to contemporary Bulgarian literature and culture?

At first glance, it is a collection of articles and papers presented at prestigious forums on children's books. In practice, however, this volume functions as a history of contemporary children's books. One should not use the word Bulgarian to describe the scope, because Ratcheva does not at all restrict her studies to a single, essentially small and peripheral, national culture like Bulgaria's. In her intellectual paradigm, there is no distinction between "small" and "big" literatures—therefore, she draws parallels between works whose authors look in the same direction, no matter where they live. There is yet another significant feature to Big Themes in Children's Books: it avoids the dominant Bulgarian misconception of children's literature as a kind of dry run for writing big, "real" literature, literature for grown-ups.

The years after the transition to democracy were full of hardships for contemporary books for children in Bulgaria. Such books changed logically from a jealously guarded terrain for the ideological indoctrination of adolescents under state socialism to something quite outside the sphere of interest of operational criticism. Children's literature itself, on the one hand, ran into overproduction in the turbulence of emerging market relations, and on the other, went into a dire decline in quality and taste. Everyone could suddenly be an author for children. A polarization emerged into relatively few high-culture children's books and numerous popular massmarket children's books. In Bulgaria, there is a lot of precise scholarship on individual topics in [End Page 99] children's literature, but a lack of literary journalism and professional criticism to help situate authors and their works within larger literary, historical, social, and cultural contexts, thus allowing for a historicization of the present.

Ratcheva is an extremely astute observer of the works within their contexts. For this reason, she avoids simplifying generalizations and prefers to consider specific authors and works, to draw precise and very inventive parallels, to blur the lines between home and abroad. Her background knowledge is more than excellent and she is a wise practitioner who refuses to get stuck in the local receptive mores; therefore, she can afford to write clearly, soberly, and without the pretensions of academic jargon, as article after article reveals a nuanced panorama of an significant segment of literary production.

In fact, it is worth clarifying also that in the predominant Bulgarian tradition, text and image in children's books are not considered together. Literary history in Bulgaria, fixed upon the text, rarely sees the illustration. Ratcheva, however, deals precisely with their symbiosis and interaction and applauds the happy partnerships between writers and artists. In Bulgaria, picturebooks are already being taken seriously as books, partly due to Ratcheva's efforts.

The book marks yet another breakthrough: in standard school curricula in Bulgaria, literature is treated as a tool to teach history and instill patriotism, and this is mostly done through the often hysterical praise of the past. Ratcheva, by contrast, shows what elements in current books on contemporary topics can be deployed by teachers, why, and how. Her choices of literature and books point to an extreme sensitivity...