A Bulgarian book with a prize awarded by the wife of the American president

Text by Magdalena Gigova

NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ plans on translating ‘Dobry’, the book that underwent 11 reprints over 30 years in the US

NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ is seeking ways to translate and release ‘Dobry’, the novel for children and adolescents, unknown in Bulgaria, that was a total bestseller in the US, breaking sales records in 1934. Between its publication and 1966, the book underwent 11 reprints and continues to be republished as a classic to this day.

How did the story of a Bulgarian peasant boy from the beginning of the 20th century become favourite reading for American kids and adolescents? With luck, and with its treatment of eternal virtues. Artist and sculptor Atanas Katchamakoff was not only the creator of the illustrations, but also the main character in the story.

He was born in 1898 in Lyaskovets. His mother, who had become widowed early on, hoped that her son would take over the work in the field when he grew up, but the youngster demonstrated a talent for drawing from an early age, so she gave him all the money she had saved up so that he could study at the Art Academy in Sofia, where he was admitted to Prof. Ivan Lazarov’s sculpture class. In 1924, he departed for Paris and then to the US. In 1931, Katchamakoff won first prize in the great exhibition in New York, for his marble work, ‘Indian Woman and Child’.

He soon settled in Hollywood and became an art director. He worked for the super-productions ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘The King of Kings’, ‘Helen of Troy’, and ‘Noah’s Ark’.

Over 80 years ago, the children’s book ‘Dobry’ came to life spontaneously. In the evenings, friends used to gather at the sculptor’s house, each having to share their own story. When the host began to unravel memories of his childhood and youth, writer and journalist Monica Shannon insisted on taking shorthand notes. The Canadian-born author turned the stories into a book, which was published in New York in November 1934. Merely a month later, it was selected as the most interesting work in the US for December. A jury chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president at the time, awarded him the prize.

In June of the following year, the second edition of ‘Dobry’ won the John Newbury Medal (1713–1767) for ‘the Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children in 1934’.

Even then, the Bulgarian consul in the USA, Konstantin Popatanasov, in a letter to the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, announced the success of the book, but no one translated it into Bulgarian. Until now. The hope lies with NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ to realise his dream today.

The plot is straightforward, and precisely because of that, enthralling. Dobry lives in a small village with his widowed mother and his grandfather. They work in the fields and the boy helps them. He spends his rare moments of rest with his best friend, Neda, the daughter of the local shoemaker.

Although working selflessly, Dobry feels that field work is not for him. He is in love with the arts, revealing his enormous talent from an early age. In order to buy art supplies, he takes on the job of a cow herder, and does not stop creating. His mother (she is called Roda in the novel) is worried that he shows no attraction to agricultural work. However, his grandfather manages to convince her that a gift like Dobry’s should not be wasted. When the boy creates a captivating snow sculpture at Christmas and the whole village admires him, Roda realises her infant’s talent.

On New Year’s Eve, she gives him all her savings to continue his studies. Dobry leaves, promising however to return to his childhood friend Neda. Gradually, their friendship turns into a romantic love and the artist swears that he will marry her after graduation.

American sources point to Atanas Katchamakoff as the creator of the illustrations in the book, but few mention that he was in fact the ‘lyrical hero’.

In the late 1970s, upon his return to Bulgaria, the artist held an extensive exhibition at the National Art Gallery. His works (30 drawings and 2 sculptures, donated by the artist) are kept in the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ Fund.

They often leave the repository in order to tell stories of the way of the life in the Bulgarian village from the early 20th century in thematic exhibitions on Atanas Katchamakoff.

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