Serpil Ural



Project to enhance friendship between Turkish & Greek children through picture books

Last year the Turkish National Section of IBBY extended an invitation to the Greek National Section suggesting a cooperation in a project called “Books to My Neighbour”. The aim of the project was to enhance the friendship between Turkish and Greek children through children’s books, in line with the general objective of IBBY. The target groups were 7-8 year old children.

The power of children’s books in creating better communication and better understanding fosters the need to develop projects as the need arises. Let us remember at this point that it was first in 1984 when Greek, Turkish and at that time Yugoslavian children’s books met in a project created by Staatsinstitut für Frühpadagogik in Munich/Germany by Vassillios E. Fthenakis and Michaela Ulich with the contribution of Pamela Oberhuemer and Dörte Thorbeck-Hess. Although the Books To My Neighbour Project is different in essence, nevertheless we feel we should pay our respect to all the mentioned scholars who helped to create this publication by writing the annotations for their respective countries in 1984: Prof. Dr. Meral Alpay  from Turkey; Alexandra Stravropulos from Greece and Borut Strazar from former Yugoslavia.

After this brief historical input let me return to our project. The Greek IBBY responded positively and the project “Books to My Neighbour” started in March 2007.

Three national section members (Lia Karavia, M. Tsialta, E. Kaliskani from Greece; Ayfer Gürdal Ünal, Serpil Ural, Tülin Sadıkoğlu from Turkey) formed the project teams.

Two picture books from each country (Watching TV Again, Themos? / Vangelis Iliapoulos, and Always/ Maria Papayanni from Greece; The Magic Kiss / Zeynep Bassa and Lazy Keloglan / Gülçin Alpöge from Turkey) were selected and it was decided to have the trilingual (with text in Turkish, Greek, English) picture book A Bridge of  Sea by  Lia Karavia-Serpil Ural as a mutual book in the Project.

Three schools were picked from three different cities in each country:

  1. Ayşe Abla Private primary school in Ankara
  2. Sezin Private primary school in İstanbul
  3. Gelişim Private primary school in Izmir /Turkey
  1. Fotis Bougas Private Schools in Kalamata
  2. N. Bakoguanni Private Schools in Larisa
  3. Hadjivei Private Schools in Atikki/Greece.

In this way each school had a correspondent school in the neighbor country.  

Before exchanging them, the selected Turkish picture books were translated into Greek and the Greek books into Turkish so that the children could read them in their own language. A teacher from each school was chosen to implement the project.

When the school year started in September 2007, before starting to work with the books, a questionnaire was prepared in order to find out what prejudices, if any, the children had about foreigners and the people of the neighbor country. Also, to find out what basic knowledge they had about the neighbor country.

A few examples to cite here according to the results of the questionnaires:

      7% of the Greek students wanted a Turkish friend as their first choice among children of other nationalities and 13.9% of the Turkish children wanted to have a Greek friend as their first choice.

     77% of Greek students knew that Ankara (not Istanbul, not Izmir) is the capital city of Turkey and 64% of the Turkish students knew that Athens (not Thessaloniki, not Pireus) is the capital city of Greece.

     86.8% of Turkish students and 86.1% of Greek students said that foreign friends are different from themselves, first in physical looks and then in terms of behavior.

Then the books were read.

The teachers and the children talked about the stories and used them in various activities such as dramatization (they played the parts of the main characters), art work (they did new cover designs for the books), literature (they wrote letters to the characters of the stories) etc. Through all these the children became aware that there were children in the neighboring country who were both like and unlike themselves. At this point they wanted to find out more about those children and wanted to communicate with them. Letters started going between correspondent schools. In addition to letters children made gifts for the other children –bookmarks, drawings etc. Each had a message on it. They exchanged photos.

With communication developed knowledge and understanding about the other.

They were becoming friends and now the question was whether their ideas about the other had changed.

A second questionnaire was prepared by the project team and answered by the children.

All questionnaires were evaluated by a professional agency in Istanbul. Some examples of the change in children’s knowledge and attitude are:

     15.4% of Greek children wanted to have a Turkish friend as a first choice among all other nationalities and 25.4% of Turkish children wanted to have a Greek friend as their first choice

All the children had learned the capital city of the neighboring country.

They all knew now that foreign friends are not very different from themselves.

When they were asked which country they would like to go to if they had the chance to visit a foreign country, before the Project they wished to visit

Greek Children                                                                       Turkish Children

1.France                                                                                   1.Italy
2.Germany                                                                                2.England
3.İtaly                                                                                       3.U.S.A
4.England                                                                                 4.Germany
5.Bulgaria                                                                                 5.Greece

After the Project:

Greek Children                                                                          Turkish Children

1. TURKEY                                                                                1. GREECE
2. Italy                                                                                     2. England
3. Bulgaria                                                                                3. Italy
4. U.S.A                                                                                    4. U.S.A
5. Spain                                                                                    5. France


It is advisable to add to the budget a trip to the other country for the project children.

The Project was completed in June 2008, by the end of the school year. Evaluations of the teachers and the Project Team members of each country were the last part.

The School in Izmir: The students enjoyed the project. They learned a lot about Greece because we teachers gave them information before starting the project. It would be better if each child were given a copy of the three project books so they could keep them as memoirs of the project. They kept saying that they wanted to buy the books but they were not on sale in our country.

The School in Istanbul: Our students developed ideas of becoming friends with their peers from Greece by writing to them and even going to visit them in the future. They started exchanging letters and may be some of these letters will lead to long lasting friendships. We believe it is very helpful to widespread such projects. It will be more effective if exchange of students between the two countries can be possible. We observed that the outcome of the project was much more effective than we expected. Seeing the enthusiasm of our students we increased the number of students who took part in the project. We are planning to publish a book with the letters and art works of the children of both countries.

The School in Ankara: At times the classroom was the Aegean Sea, at times it was the house where Manos or Osman lived. The students pretended that they were the protagonists of the story and acted. I cannot describe their excitement when they themselves discovered that the Greek boy’s and the Turkish boy’s names were made up of the same syllables (Manos and Osman). They were most sincere and happy as they worked for the project. Their following expressions show that the Project reached its goal:

   - They do the same things we do, they play like we play.
   - They like watching the sea and watching TV just as we do.
   - They too have amusement parks because as we are, they too are children.
   - The children are always the same, aren’t they?

A School in Greece: In the process of reading the books, our students were amazed by the lack of difference between Greeks and Turks. They really thought that these stories could easily transform into a Greek aspect, without a single change in it.

 “It reminds me of something… Maybe it’s an old Greek fairytale…” said two of the pupils about the “Lazy Keloglan”, confirming the general sensation of similarity.

In fact, they were impressed so much that they themselves asked for a multiple revision of the stories. What intrigued them all in all was the truth of the stories’ characters, which characteristically were found to be close to Greeks’ personalities. That is why one commented on “Magical Kiss”: “Even in Turkey boys are opposed to girls!

While reaching the end of the programme, we read the stories one last time. The discussion among the kids was a true revelation. The debate turned out to be a fountain of arguments, supporting each book.

The story of “Keloglan” connected to two of the participants, as they admitted: “We get lazy sometimes!” On the other hand, the “Magical Kiss” was found to be so real, and so close to some of the kids’ own selves. Finally the “Bridge of Sea” that brought together two kids from different countries showed that Greece and Turkey are so close to each other after all…

Turkish Project Team Members:

Tülin Sadıkoğlu: Literature is about human and human nature. Despite the cultural, geographical diversities, all the people around the world have similar human experiences. These unique experiences shall be enough to unite us all.     

Yet people get to know each other’s way of thinking, living, understanding.

Isaac Bashevis Singer considers the children as the genuine critics of literature for they just care about the story but nothing else. Their ability to perceive and the clarity of understanding the world has always been dazzling. As this hugely important project proceed I, once more, realize how the children are ready to accept and embrace the other. From children the adults learn a lot. Being part of this project the children from both countries have become friends and the adults have had the opportunity to realize how easy it is to communicate when you are open to it.

Serpil Ural: At the end of the Project it was clear that Turkish and Greek children learned about the neighboring country, got to know each other’s way of life and were happily surprised to find out many similarities. They even discovered that the two countries have mutual cultural aspects like the Karagiozis Puppet Theater.

Ayfer Gürdal Ünal (The Initiator of the Project): I was responsible for the Istanbul part of the Books to My Neighbor Project and also for the design and evaluation of the questionnaires. What this Project taught me yet again is this:

When you get to know the other, ‘The OTHER’ becomes one of your own.

I watched this happen with the Turkish children. I only wish that in the future both governments will get involved and there will be trips to the respective schools to seal the benefit of the Project.

I think it was important that Serpil and Lia were good friends because that eased the communication. I personally feel that I contributed to world peace, by initiating and by being a part of this Project.


We are happy that we implemented this project in cooperation with the Greek IBBY and proved that children’s books can be used as a tool for better understanding of the other, thus easing the way for peace in the area.

One very important point is that this project was done on fully volunteer basis, with no financial support of any group or organization. We managed mainly by friendly relations among those who put their efforts into it. However, we believe that with financial support the project will be much more effective. With support, student exchange can be possible, a book with children’s letters and art-work can be published, professional translators can be provided which is very important since children write letters in their own language and teachers of two different countries try to communicate with each other, books can be bought from the other country and distributed to each child who is participating in the Project, etc.

We now hope that “Books to My Neighbour” will be an example to other national sections and they will use picture books to enhance understanding and tolerance between their future generations and that of their neighboring countries. We are ready to share more of our experience with whoever is willing to do a similar project. In this way a bridge of books can be built among neighboring countries. Such bridges can go all around the world creating passages to friendship and peace.

Serpil Ural (Turkey)

IBBY World Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008