Ural Serpil


Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-21 16:00-18:00 Room I

Speaker: Serpil Ural (Turkey)


By Serpil Ural, Turkish Author/Illustrator


The authors of children’s literature* may be writing to entertain, to educate or to help develop the child. Whatever the aim is, the final goal is to show to the child the basics of a better life and to lead him to that kind of life - to an “ideal world”.

The young reader is to be a part of that ideal world. He shall build that world. Therefore he should have the essentials needed for his role. So, the authors equip the protagonists of their books with those character traits that are needed to construct “the ideal world”.

However, the “Ideal World” is an ever changing concept in children’s literature.

Throughout the history this concept has changed parallel to the social developments and along

with that, the image of the child who is to build a better world also keeps changing.

Let us look at the history of children’s literature starting with the 18th Century to see how this change has taken place.

18th Century: Child of the Natural World

Jean Jacques.Rousseau, who is referred to as the “most significant of those who shaped 19th Century”(1) aims to educate the child and “defines education as ‘the course of nature’” in his famous work Emile (1762).

Emile is the symbol of the social struggle to go back to the good old days of living close to nature (living on the small farm with rituals of the past). Nature and natural ways of life are stressed as a challenge to society and social life. Saying that the “major problem with society is that it messes me up psychologically by creating in me all kinds of dissatisfactions” while “nature makes us free, nature makes us independent, nature does not corrupt our natural sympathies for other creatures”, Rousseau advises to “organize life purposefully and meaningfully in the changed social world of the bourgeoisie (the increasingly affluent merchant middle class) and points out that this is only possible by a continuing education of the child that protects him “against the seductive illusions of the society – books, plays, social roles, imaginative speculation”… (2)

Emile is a protagonist who is the product of such an education. He is the “natural boy”.

This idea of man’s having to live in nature and/or in a natural way, not being a part of the social world is also seen in another famous literary work of the Century: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719).

Although it was not intentionally written for children, this story of a shipwrecked protagonist who had to survive on an uninhabitable, barren island has ever since attracted so much attention from children of many countries that it is almost impossible to find a history of children’s literature written without mentioning it’s name.

A similar plot also appears in a book written for children by Robert M. Ballantyne, titled “The Coral Island” (1857). This time it is “the story of three boys shipwrecked on an island paradise”. (3)


* Please kindly note that due to the limited time of presentation I will restrict my argument and supporting examples to children’s books only and will not touch on children’s theater, poetry, songs and other kinds of literature.

Two other very famous children’s books that should be mentioned in this category are, of course, “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri (1880) which tells the story of “a completely natural child in the natural setting of Swiss Alps” (4) and the “Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling (1894) in which Mowgli, the protagonist, grows up in the natural world of a jungle along with the animals of that particular environment.

The Grown-up’s World as the “Ideal World”

In addition to having the child go back to natural ways, another important influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau on children’s literature is the didactic tone in books written for children. With the importance Rousseau put on educating the child, the attitude of the authors to see the child as someone who needs to be educated continued on and into the 19th Century. To be educated, the child had to learn the rules set by grown-ups and to obey them.

Two typical examples from Turkish children’s literature are “Hayriye” by Nabi and “Lutfiye-i Vehbi” by Sumbulzade Vehbi, which are of the early works of children’s books written in the Eighteenth Century. Both of these titles are the names of the authors’ sons and both books are compiled advice to those two boys on how to behave properly. These books were written mainly to teach children the traditional moral values of a Moslem society.

In this educational approach, the “ideal world” for the child is where the rules are set by the wise grown-ups. Because such a world theoretically protects the child from all misfortunes and teaches him what is good and what is bad, it will lead to a good life and bring happiness. The child protagonist in this case is the one who obeys and fits into the world designed by the adults. This is the good character and he will win at the end.

However, things were to change in the coming century and hints of a new image of the “ideal world” were seen in some very popular children’s books like “The Secret Garden” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” by Francis H.Burnett and “Pollyanna” by Eleanor H. Porter.

Similar to many of the characters in children’s books written in those times, Mary Lennox (in The Secret Garden), Cedric (in “Little Lord Fauntleroy”) and Pollyanna are expected to live in worlds set up by adults. Mary goes from India to England to live with her uncle, Cedric goes to his grandfather’s castle and Pollyanna goes to her aunt’s mansion..

“When I ask a question, Pollyanna, I prefer that you should answer aloud and not merely with your head” (5) says her Aunt. When Pollyanna is not punctual and doesn’t come to supper at six o’clock as ordered by her aunt, she is “to suffer the consequences” (6). That is to have only bread and milk in the kitchen.

All these rules set by Pollyanna’s aunt are typically symbolic of what is expected of children: To obediently fit into the world designed by adults.

Yet, Pollyanna’s own way of taking things very differently and optimistically, Cedric’s self-confidence that is quite unexpected in his grandfather’s world and Mary’s relations with people around her, all lead to changes in the well established worlds of the adults. The characters of these three children do not fulfill the expectations of their grown-ups. Instead they are different, they are themselves.

This approach of having the children be different from what adults expect them to be (as in the above-mentioned books written by the end of the 19th and early 20th century) can also be interpreted as being symbolic of a new understanding. Actually, all three books are heralding a real change to come in the image of the child protagonist and the concept of the “ideal world” in children’s literature.

20th Century: His Own Childish World

The change came right after World War II with a book written in Sweden, in 1945, by the world famous author Astrid Lindgren: “Pippi Longstockings”.

Pippi is a character who is neither living in the world of adults nor according to rules set up by adults, but is as free as can be in her own childish world.

“Pippi was an unusual girl. …..Pippi had no mother. ……Pippi had no father either.” (7) writes the author at the very beginning of the book. With no adult to set limits, can a child be more free than Pippi? She certainly was unusual in all ways.

“This strangely dressed girl living alone with her horse and her monkey, having great wealth and enormous physical strength, stands totally apart from the small-town conformist demands of everyday life and incarnates every child’s dream of freedom and power”. (8)

Pippi Longstockings was establishing the new “Ideal World” in children’s literature. This is a world where the child is no longer shaped by the wise grown-ups. A world in which the child has a personality of his own, a mind of his own and acts as he wishes. He can finally be just like a child and not as a copy of the grown-ups because he too, is a unique individual. He should be free to express himself.

A typical example to such a child protagonist in Turkish children’s literature is “Bacaks?z” (the Kiddo) by R?fat Ilgaz (1911-1993). This boy who is the main character of a series of five books is as true to life as any little boy on the street. He loves to play, loves to play jokes on his friends, makes fun of his school-mates, calls them names; at times, tries to get out of tough situations by not telling the truth, acts on impulses etc.

The Kiddo is a very realistic reflection of all the kids the author got to personally know during his years of teaching in primary schools. “Keeping in mind the fifteen years I spent as a teacher, the child is a being I have had very close relations with” said R?fat Ilgaz. “Because I was very young when I started teaching, I could easily build friendly relations with students who were just beginning their primary education….. Thus I was involved in their lives. I closely observed their likes, their dislikes, their dreams, their adventurous inclinations. I believe I made a great deal of use of these when I wrote my very first works”. (9)

Soon after these pioneering examples, one from Northern Europe and one from Turkey, many such child protagonists appeared in children’s literature throughout the world. With their own minds, their own problems, their own childish acts, they each were a unique personality. Now the “ideal world” was where the child enjoyed himself and expressed himself.

The Multicultural, Global World

This big change in the image of the characters in children’s books can be considered a reflection of the social changes brought by the two World Wars and their consequences. Outlooks on life and ideas had changed drastically. The rise of Existentialism led to “Freedom” in many areas of life. The emphasis put on absolute individuality and absolute freedom, expression of desire for change and the fact that many people had to leave their homes and look for new settlements because of the misfortunes of two big wars led to a world full of diversity.

The first signs of a multicultural world were appearing.

As people changed their places around the globe, the white world in the books also started to change into a world of characters with different skin colors and different backgrounds. One of the first examples of this, is the picture book “The Snowy Day” (1962.) by Ezra Jack Keats (10). The main character in this picture book is an African American boy.

In addition to books with African American characters, books with Hispanic American, Asian American children flourished in no time. The immigrant child enetered the literature of all countries.

A popular example of the immigrant child in Turkish children’s literature is Ökke? by Muzaffer ?zgü.

?zgü, who is another teacher/author of our children’s literature, writes about the funny adventures of a village boy who immigrated to the big city.(11) Ten story books (written 1975-1980) telling about Ökke?’s struggle to adapt to this social change, are among the very popular works of our children’s literature.

Another good example of the immigrant child protagonist is Emily Morawski in “Emily’s Year” by Charles Merrill (12 unlimited freedom).

Emily is the elder daughter of the Morawski Family, who have immigrated from Poland to the USA. In addition to the psychological changes she is going through as a teenager, Emily is trapped between Eastern European values of her background and the modern American values as she tries to build herself a future.

Since the ideal world is now multicultural, the child has to have additional personality traits such as tolerance and acceptance of cultural, social, ethnic differences. He should be adaptable to new ways, new places and be ready to call anyplace home.

With multicultural characters in multilingual books that are sold in numerous countries at the same time, now the ideal world is a global one. A book “that at first glance has a non-international appearance is treated with extreme caution” by publishers. (13) The illustrations for picture books are expected to visualize a global scene without specific references to local settings.

Should the ideal world in children’s literature be so global?

Should it be a world of nature?

Is the ideal world we want for our children a world designed by the grown-ups for them or should they have unlimited freedom and live in a world of their own choice?

The answers to these questions were different in each different time of history because the concept of “the ideal World” keeps changing parallel to the social developments of the time.

The ideal world in children’s literature will always be changing.



(1) www.ilt.columbia.edu/publicAtions/emile.html

(2) malaspina.edu johnstoi/introser/rousseau.htm

(3) Russel,David. “Literature for Children/A Short Introduction”. New York:Longman,1997,


(4) www.heidi-swiss.ch/en/heididorf/geschihte.html

(5) www.biblomania.com/0/0/39/77/frameset.html chapter 4, p.2.

(6) www.biblomania.com/0/0/39/77/frameset.html chapter 4, p.4

(7) www.2geton.net/southele/pippi.html

(8) www.nuneberg.org/authors/lindgras.html

(9) www.blogcu.com/cideli/184037/

(10) Russel,David. “Literature for Children/A Short Introduction”.NewYork:Longman,1997,


(11) Izgü, Muzaffer. “Ökke? Dizisi”, Istanbul: Özyürek Yay?nlar?, 2002

(12) Merrill, Charles. “Emily’s Year”. San Diego, California: Mho & Mho Works,1991.

(13) Salisbury, Martin C., “No Red Buses Please”, Bookbird, 2006 Vol.44, No.1, p.9.