It is important to be aware of the visual voices of picture book authors and illustrators around the world. We can all inspire one another and in so doing help children everywhere to be brave and good in trying circumstances. Especially in places of conflict and duress, picture books can help children cope.
My sister-in-law Baiba and her husband Ron spent three fantastic weeks in Turkey with Turkish friends before the onset of the current conflict between Turkey and Syria.
While there they bought a copy of Köpek Baliǧi Keskín by Hílal Üsküdar Gürbüz – in cooperation with Psikolojik Danişman, which they have kindly given to me. I do not speak the language, nor do I know anyone who does, so my apologies if any of my extrapolations about the story are incorrect.
This bright and energetically illustrated story is about a shark wearing a yellow fedora who is lonely because the fishes, octopus, and seastars nearby do not want to play with him. Perhaps it is that mouthful of sharp, pointy teeth evident when he smiles? In one image, there are tears dripping from his sad eyes which is humorous since he is meanwhile submersed in salt water. The pointy-toothed main character goes to a sage old shark for advice and is told a story that seems to be about a sinking fishing boat and an enormous whale. In that tale there seems to be a solution which results in a satisfying scene at the end of the book with everyone playing together. The artwork is comprised of vibrant watercolor washes, dramatic scale changes, and good use of asymmetric areas open to the white of the page. Köpek Baliǧi Keskín is part of a series of books available through www.akademicocuk.com geared for ages 0-6.
As of 2015 there were several publishers in Turkey that issued books for children. The problems that sellers of children’s books encountered then sound familiar: rents going up and other economic difficulties. What must the situation for them be like now considering the current upheavals in their country?
Another Turkish author of children’s books, Elif Shafak, gave an amazing TED Global – NYC talk titled The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought in which she refers to a grouping of literary people from various countries that, like Turkey, are led by autocrats as at times a “camaraderie of the doomed”. She goes on to say,
“As I finish, I want to leave you with one word, or one taste. The word “yurt” in Turkish means “motherland.” It means “homeland.” But interestingly, the word also means “a tent used by nomadic tribes.” And I like that combination, because it makes me think homelands do not need to be rooted in one place. They can be portable. We can take them with us everywhere. And I think for writers, for storytellers, at the end of the day, there is one main homeland, and it’s called “Storyland.” And the taste of that word is the taste of freedom.”
For the children of all lands struggling with political turmoil or war, the role of picture books is ever more important. The world is a marvelous place where common ground between creative people everywhere can build connections. What better place to begin than with books for children?