Children’s Literature in Turkey

61st IFLA General Conference – Conference Proceedings – August 20-25, 1995

Fatih Erdogan, Library Science Department, Istanbul University, Istanbul, Turkey

Before we start discussing our children’s literature, it is essential to take a look into the history of literature with its connections to sociological and political developments. Professor Meral Alpay, in her article Turkish Children’s Publication/Yesterday and Today1 divides the history of literature in Turkey into two main turning points. One of these is the acceptance of Islam by the Turkish population and the second is the influence of the West. According to Alpay, the diffusion of Islam into Turkish life helped an Islamic civilization to settle down and develop. The Westernization process had an influence on political, social, cultural and economical features. According to Alpay, we can group the history of literature in Turkey in three main historical periods:

  1. Turkish literature until the acceptance of Islam.
  2. Turkish literature under the influence of Islam.
  3. Turkish literature under the influence of Western civilization.

Turkish literature for children starts around the first half of the XIXth century. The period 1839 1876 was a time of social, economic and political reformations in Turkey. Authors in this period, who were basically western oriented and inclined to French culture, began translating La Fontaine’s animal stories. These were followed by the famous children’s classics: Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, and almost all of Jules Verne’s titles.

There were indeed, pieces of literature for children before this reformation period. The famous poet, Nabi, who lived in 1642 1712 for example, had written religious advice to his son, in his text in verses named Hayriye. A similar one was written by Sumbulzade Vehbi ( 1809) named Lutfiye. Besides these written pieces, there is a rich oral collection of tales, nursery rhymes, and anecdotes.

Magazines for children started in 1869. The first one that we can trace is Mumeyyiz (Examiner), which was subtitled Newspaper for Children. 2

During the years following the Reformation Period, until the foundation of the republic, children’s literature was accepted as a tool for education and the emphasis was mostly on poetry. Almost all of the modern poets of the time have written poems for children.

With the announcement of the republic, the themes were mostly selected to support the ideal of a new nation on the “ashes of the Ottoman Empire.”

Novels and short stories appeared in which heroes were either idealistic historical warrior Turks, or poor village children who fight with their fate in the city.

After the 2nd World War, one of the most popular authors of novels for children has been Kemalettin Tugcu. This author has a very special importance in the history of children’s literature in Turkey, because his style had been discussed widely by many critics until today. Some said his novels had no literary value, others said he gave children a pessimistic world view through his heroes who generally are from lower level sections of the society. Crippled beggars, fatherless or motherless children who are good, are put against “rich and ruthless” upper level people. The plot always ended up with the good being “saved,” but you generally were to find yourself saddened as you read it. His novels on the other hand were also important in the sense that they were not written in the educative style of earlier authors.

Another turning point in children’s literature is the period which started in 1975 and ended with the military coup in 1980. The political left had reached its highest popularity by 1975. Not only children’s literature but literature in general was effected by this. This could easily be seen in the themes that authors chose as they wrote for children. Class struggle was the main theme and plot was set up so that the regime of the superior forces was destroyed by the ones who were oppressed until then. Animal heroes who worked for the superior animals were to make their revolution and set up their new regime of brotherhood and equality. This plot was the most commonly used plot of the period. It cannot be defended but, it was not surprising that the 1980 military coup had prohibited the sale of some children’s books to children.

From the literary point of view, this period was a loss in the sense that the political tone highly determined the production of new titles. This resulted in having almost no titles with themes regarding children and their needs.

The other important feature of this period was a predominantly negative attitude towards fairy tales. This was partly an imported approach. As you know some Marxist authors like Jack Zipes had claimed that the feudal life style in fairy tales was not to be regenerated anymore. After the coup, on the other hand, publishing of fairy tales by Grimm and Andersen started to rise. This was partly because the political left approach was prohibited, and fairy tales were neutral material to publish. Also new pedagogical findings questioned the common negative attitude against fairy tales.

The production of fairy tales by many publishers had helped in another way. Since some publishers have hired local illustrators, the importance of illustrating books had been emphasized more than before. (In fact, an Association of Illustrators has just been founded.)

It is not easy to cover all the issues regarding a part of the literature in a country in a short paper, but generally, it is important to note that the history of literature and the social history of a country must have parallel features. Or, literature in general, must be a reflection of a specific life style and culture expressed by the individuals who breath the same culture. Literature is the voice of these individuals’ interpretation, their struggle to give meaning to their lives by using their ability in linguistic expression. In other words, literature gives us messages about the society in which it was produced.

In our case, during the period of Reformation (1839 1876) and afterwards, when the influence of the West was visible, the gap between life and the expression of life had been deepened. For example, the French influence, which made concepts like nation, country, freedom, law popularized after the French revolution, had effected Turkish authors. This means, the author was not only an individual who interpreted and expressed the life he lived, but was almost a “missionary” who interpreted and expressed some other life he wanted himself and his society to live in.

Of course, the difference of “what’s in the book” and “what’s on the street” is an eternal conflict that the authors must always experience. What’s important here is not the typical gap between the common people and the intellectual that’s almost universal, but the voluntary educative/directive role of the intellectual over the public. This gap probably has historical reasons but even with this gap, most of the literature has some sort of connection with the society.

When we look at children~s literature from this point of view, on the other hand, it is not easy to say this. Since the authors for children preferred to “educate” children with the dream of a so far not realized world, which is a world of happiness and beauty, rather than expressing the real life they live in. The motivation is that this world has many things to “correct” and the children (the grownups of tomorrow) will do this task. Therefore they have to be “prepared” for this job. There might be many reasons for this. And it was practiced all over the world as an historical process. The educative animal stories in the famous 3rd century Kelile and Dimne of the East influenced La Fontaine of the West. Turkish children had read these stories more from La Fontaine than they read it from Kelile and Dimne.

The history of educative children’s literature is probably related with the history of the concept of “child.” The meaning of child in a society influences what is given or not given to children in that society. The common factor is that children have to be prepared for life. Therefore we must educate them. And the style of this education differs related with the educational system in that society.

The first children’s books of the West, namely the horn book, which was hung around the neck of the child and included religious verses and the alphabet, is a striking sign of how the child was seen then.

It is a big research project to derive one to one relationships between the social history of a country and its literature, children’s or adults’. But, an overall view of the past ten years, shows that the children’s literature in this period did not find its sources in the lives of the authors, of the culture that shaped him, but rather the imposing of an ideal value system from the top, in an easily understandable (by children) literary form. For this reason, our children’s literature has difficulty in being accepted as an expression of our social life.

One of the main reasons for our lack of the reading habit for children is this traditional “educative mission” in books for children. This mission sometimes forces children to digest an ethical rule, or sometimes it may force them to choose a political attitude. No matter the direction, the attitude is the same: The author has a view and he wants the child to accept it. The number of children’s books in which the author has no plan to shape the child is very few. In the time of the foundation of the Republic (1920s), this plan was to make every child the defenders of the ideals of the new republic. This plan was reshaped according to the disturbances and changes that the society experienced.

It is not easy to tell what the plan is now. According to my observation children don’t have their own authors anymore. Different groups have their own authors. It is necessary to investigate how much these authors are read by their own readers and what these authors give to their readers.

After these general comments, it would be helpful to share some statistics. According to Turkish Books in Print3, among the 821 publishers that are recorded so far, 88 publish for children also. The number of children’s publishers were 60 in 1993. The total number of children’s titles were 3300 in 1992, 3400 in 1993 and 5200 in 1994. That means a 54% increase from the previous year. Also, the number of co production projects with publishers from other countries has increased. This development has only one negative side: The local illustrators and authors had less chances to work for a publisher.


Problems in the field of children~s literature can be grouped as: 1)problems of authors and illustrators, 2) problems of publishers, 3)problems of the reader (children and parents)

First, the problems of authors and illustrators basically are related with the economical situation of the country. A specific example can reveal this very well: I have read that, Maurice Sendak, when he was asked to illustrate Grimm’s Fairy Tales, visited Germany and spent a few months there to feel the atmosphere that the Grimm Brothers had lived in. Then he went back to the United States and finished his work in more than a year. I don’t want to say that everyone is a Maurice Sendak, but an illustrator (one of the best) in Turkey who would illustrate the same book, would get a payment that would only help him a few weeks, let alone help him to buy a plane ticket to Germany. This is related with the problems of the publishers. Authors also suffer from their lack of control over their work.

Second, let us consider the problems of the publishers. The average retail prices of books for children are very low in Turkey. This fact directs the publishers to lower the cost of production. That means cheap text, cheap methods of reproduction of the illustrations, and especially, the serious cost factor of paper in Turkey. There is no government support on paper, and a high cost of paper ends up with a low print run, and that reduces the profit margin.

In Turkey, the reading habit is low. Producing for a small sector of the population is not profitable. It’s almost impossible for a publisher to exist by producing only for children.

Third, let’s look at the problems of the readers. Children can’t always find what they need to read. Television is easier to reach than libraries and bookshops. Parents have no guide in finding good books for their children. The education system doesn’t promote reading other than schoolbooks.

1 Alpay, Meral. “Turkish Children’s Publication/Yesterday and Today.” 1983 Nesin Foundation Yearbook.

2 “Mumeyyiz: Newspaper for Children.” Turkiye’ de Sureli Cocuk Yayinlari (Periodicals for Children in Turkey). Ataturk Kultur, Dil ve Tarih Yuksek Kurumu Yayinlari, 1991, Ankara.

3 Turkish Books in Print (Türkiye Kitap Kataloğu). Basın Yayın Birliği, 1994, Aralık.