Our guest in July Ismail Keskin, who is one of the children's books editors of Hayykitap. He was born in Bilecik in 1984.
Our guest in July Ismail Keskin, who is one of the children's books editors of Hayykitap. He was born in Bilecik in 1984. Before coming to Istanbul for his undergraduate studies at the History Department of Bogazici University, he lived as a young person in Bilecik and Eskişehir. His first novel, Gift Evdoksia (Hediye Evdoksia), which has been in literary preparation for seven years, was published in 2011. During this time, he traveled frequently to Thessaloniki, to the lands where his grandfather Vasil was exiled. He studied at the University of Athens as an exchange student for one semester. When his interest in history and literature and his researcher identity meet with his sensitive heart and careful eyes, his last book came out the Exile of the Cactus Flower (Kaktüs Çiçeğinin Sürgünü). Published in 2015, the novel is about refugees. From 2015 onwards, he continues to be the editor of children's books in Hayykitap. We had a pleasant conversation with him about the childhood, the technology and contemporary world.
Both of these books are for adults. So, we are actually together with not only the editor but also the writer İsmail Keskin. You have a Bachelor's degree in the History Department of Bogazici University and you continue your graduate studies. We are curious to know how children's literature has been involved to your life, as a researcher who is interested in history and various cultures and spend most of the time in the archives?
That transition was actually a feeling of discomfort about the age we live in. I saw a need about this topic at least for Turkey. We talk about Turkish children's literature; but Turkey is one of the countries where crimes against children are most prevalent. The children of the communication age are vulnerable to and accessible by the world's threats; a malicious person anywhere in the world can easily reach a child anywhere in the world. Children can be protected by the family from a direct physical threat; but a child who reaches the means of communication, is alone and there is nothing that his parents can do to protect them. Filters do not work at all. Even in the smallest game applications, there are extensions for chat. Besides, Turkey is a country where sometimes the threat can come not only from distant places but also from close ones.
Since my childhood I have been working on "imagination" and I have emphasized on it in history, literature and peace studies. Perhaps by the influence of having nephews, I have always questioned the ways of how these children can be functionally protected against the dangers of the outside world and began to develop the products for this. As a writer, "creating fiction" is my favorite work. I did first a literature research and then I deepened my reading on children’s literature. When I was a child, there were many good books that were untranslated into Turkish. After reading those books, I begun to think about the aforementioned question of "what can be done to raise the awareness of children and protect them" and discussed this topic with my friends. The chief editor of our publishing house was one of the people I talked about this. There is an important point that Hayykitap aims at: spread goodness to the world. In this sense, this was a point that the publishing house also considers. When I mentioned my research during our discussions, the chief editor asked if I would like to take part in the general publication due to the fact that the catalog of the publishing house was in the process of transformation. I accepted it, and after that point, my editorial career has begun.
We, as the members of the Children’s Literature, have a file that we have been investigating every month. Our July file is “Technology of Writing and Writing Technology in Illustrated Children's Books.” We wanted to deal with the subject in two ways; on the one hand, there are children's books, in which tablet, phone, video games are included, and talk about technology. On the other hand, even if the topic is completely different, digitized children's books are supported in various applications. They are not e-books, but as technologic as them. There are vivid stories when you verify the QR code with your phone; tales supported by computer games; and adventure books read with 3D glasses. Such products are important tools in internalizing the digital culture that the children already has.
What kind of relationship, do you think, must be formed between a successful and "beneficial" children’s book and the description of technology or with technology itself?
Functionality is very important; because in today’s world, the development of computers, tablets and mobile phones and their penetration into our lives are very fast. In this sense, children's literature, unavoidably, started to seeking an adaptation and harmony. Because there was a “possibility of maintaining the old fashion” or a possibility of losing the market completely in the face of the digital media. Therefore, I believe that the important thing is functionality. What does this mean? For example, you want your child to eat fruit; so if you give her a fruit cake all the time, you will harm her. It's like saying, “My child should not get out of the age, and must grow up with the technology.” This is an understandable concern but it will be harmful for children.
The pioneering books on the field are three-dimensional ones produced with folding technology eighty ninety years ago. When you open a book, there is a castle rising. There are princesses, princesses and cats with boots made of papers. It's full of details which strengthen children's imagination! However, none of these exists in books which you verify QR code. These products do not allow children to do anything extra and kills their imaginations; hence, they cause laziness. If we talk about digital attraction, the publishing market is not in a position to compete with the game market anyway.
There are books supported by computer games; the text tells the reader what to do. These books, which are sold with CD inserts, can also be seen as an approximation to the game market, can’t be? Now the QR codes are on the front instead of the CDs. Making children active is not just about today, but about the agenda of the last six or seven years. For example, there are “You are the hero!” books. Children start reading it, the text says after a while; “Go to page number 21 to see the mammoths.” The text has its own transitions. There are now products, which make these passages by codes, but it was used to done by words in the past. However, the options of the children taking the tablet instead of the hand book are unlimited. When the book directs the reader to the digital, it is, in fact, a risk for distancing the reader from the book. Our basic trouble in this age is to pay attention to something. It is very difficult to keep the attention on a certain point. Moreover, paying attention to the book is hard and carrying this attention to the digital atmosphere seems to be too risky to me both as an editor and story maker.
Do you think that the Kindle-type technological tools also bear this risk?
The Kindle may be more functional because it continues as it started: there is no transition in it. The main purpose of it from the beginning used to be reading book. However, if it is tablet in their hands; when saying “Oh the internet is broken”, “Mom, you got a message”, the alerts are increasing.
The integrity in the book has been important in every age. No one wants to start reading a book that is missing twenty pages from the middle. It is also a matter of such integrity in these intertwined books. It can be arranged in very good formulas; but, the internet is an unrivaled field in any sense. It's easy to get lost when you go into that field.
Children's literature addresses a very broad age range. The books we refer to as "My First Book" are not read actually by children but parents; children are just followers of them. When s/he gains the identity of being a literary person and is able to provide the continuity of the book by himself, the book must be suitable for her with respect the fiction it include. This is a measure like using protectors for the sockets at home; it is enough to take measures, which regulates the relationship with the digital, in order to protect the child in the text.
Books have an interesting relationship with technology: Walter Ong says in his book Oral and Written Culture that a cultural transformation has occurred with the impact of the writing and the print, as a consequence of this relationship. This is a positive transformation that has been experienced with the internalization of technology and it develops the cognitive process of human being through the transmission from oral to the written culture. The relation of the book with digitalization is a topic which is quite controversial nowadays… Anxiety of “Are printed books dying” is always in the agenda. Do you think this relationship goes to a dramatic end like death?
At this point, there is actually a "transformation" rather than a turning point. The newcomer does not lift the previous one, it only leads to a transformation, and a categorization occurs in the narrative. Take Homer's Iliad. Yes, it belongs to the oral tradition; it prevailed for thousands of years and the story which we see today probably not the one that Homer told. The Iliad was noted to the paper but the fishermen continued to read it by heart at the same time. It is told that even in the 19th century, fishermen who are not literate read thousands of phrases by heart on the Aegean coast. At this point, when the narrative turns into the writing, a copyright is formed. For example, this is an important thing, and this copyright, which the author decides on, freezing in time, actually is an important threshold... Now, the options of communication have expanded incredibly, "in a way to prove the notion of transformation" and literacy is no longer a sign of elitism but tool that everybody has it. For this reason, copyright began to anonymize to compare with the previous times. We can give an example of this from the social media. People attributes Mevlana’s words to Nietzsche and Ibn Khaldun’s to Nietzsche's words. One shares a Second New (İkinci Yeni) verse, another sees it and writes a poem three or four days later inspired by it. The intertextuality is very strong: it is almost the same poem, but the text is reproduced. The person who shares it will also be forgotten because he is not a poet or a writer. Therefore, it is an effect like the existence of numerous variations of an Iliad narrative in the old times. Consequently, I do not think that book will disappear. On the other hand, I think we are now in the center of the transformation. There are libraries like social media ones. What is this? It does not belong directly to a literary genre, not a novel, not a story and not a poem. It's based on aphorism. The reader takes its photo, shares it and now it has an unlimited number of electronic copies. The photo of the second paragraph of the thirteenth page of Madonna in a Fur Coat (Kürk Mantolu Madonna) is taken, and of course coffee next to it shared and instantly hundreds of thousands like it. Is that shared part a book or a digital product? Is it meaningful to make it widespread; is it a printed product or a kind of placement? These are issues to be discussed.
At the same time, we are at a time when traditional storytelling is becoming popular; drama methods and the workshops, where books are portrayed with games based on senses, are conducting frequently. A dynamism emerged that turns into a kind of sector. The search for alternative activities for children is also a great contribution to this dynamism. Perhaps we can interpret it as an attitude towards children's over-dependency to the tablets.
As a historian, how do you evaluate this dynamism and the return to the traditional despite all the progression?
In fact like many other activities in our time, this is also a sort of "search for magical solution." It is only a sector emerging with an understanding of emergency situation. Narrative workshops, activities for children and games to develop intelligence are some sort of sector just as the sector of organic food and vegetables. The answer of how functional or useful they are is not directly related to our topic ... Just as people, who were used to buy organic vegetables in the beginning, abandon their occupations and start farming; in a similar way, some parents also devote themselves to produce activities. At this point, we again should remember the impact of social media. Instagram accounts sharing a game every day and YouTube channels, which turned into be resources for income, trigger this production of content. In this case, it is also necessary to consider whether this is a return to the tradition or the transformation of it.
The most important contribution of the technology to children's literature is the invention of the social media that you are talking about. Sharing by blogger mothers and children’s book suggestion pages fill all the time. For the first time in metropolitan cities, bookstores selling only children's books began to be opened. In all this diversity, the mediocre and the qualified ones have become indistinguishable.
As being Hayykitap's editor of children's books, how do you evaluate this high demand and the relationship between market and quality?
It's a period when social media tells people "You can be a writer!" Authorship is seen as both possible and prestigious. We can call it "American Dream", a system that only one person has, but hundreds of thousands of people admire it. A personal account, which shares experiences from the times of being parents, awards its followers and the dynamism that the account has by printing a book. In a sense, we can say that famous writers appear. At this point, authorship is not a writing activity that we are familiar with in the classical sense, but it is also about business. Because in the classical definition of authorship, the author publishes the book and disappears. But now, in children's literature, the need for a writer who will be active in addition to the book emerged.
It will be a private question; is it possible to say that the children’s literature sells or earns more, in consideration of the sales figures?
Children's books are an internal space within the publishing industry, and it is a very demanding and expensive area both in terms of content and production. It's also risky. The author of a novel has copyright, it has cover design and editions and it ends. But there is also the need for a children’s book to be illustrated in addition to these, and beyond that, it requires advertisements and social media visibility.
In this age, the impression of a book is more important than the book itself. You may have written the best book of the world and it may be very useful for children. But, unlike history, it is not enough that a good critic says "this book is good" in the column and states all the good reasons behind that. There is an entirely different period; if the “book is seen” in the hands of a famous person, that is enough. For example, there is no need for the famous person to read the book and to express his opinion about it. The consent of ten different expert critics of the field does not make the same effect when the book is seen in the hands of a famous person. It's just a determination, I'm not saying it's true and the ideal, I just determine the situation.
There are very good examples abroad, but there is an illustrator's copyright in addition to copyright of the book, and the costly production added to it and increase the amount of money required. If books cannot be sold that you gave too much effort to buy the rights of the book; probably the entire publishing house bankrupts, not just the children's publications section. That's why I say it's risky. Hayykitap also has a large catalog of publications covering all these different needs. The author that will be active together with the book, the famous writer that has reached hundreds of thousands of followers in social media and the texts which are beyond sales anxiety and are only qualified texts, Hayykitap has all of these.
We would like to ask the last question to the author Ismail Keskin, with your permission: Will the children readers read your stories in the near future, and do you have projects on the field?
I have told you about the need I have felt from the process that led me to take care of children's literature. My concern is to produce the books which will protect children against "invisible" dangers and raise their awareness on this. Scandinavian countries have very good examples written on topics like body consciousness, privacy consciousness, communication with foreigners and good and bad secrets. However, the way the two countries approach children and being understood by children is different. For example, the individuality in those places is decided from very early ages. If you pinch a child there, the family perceives it as a crime, but it is not the same for us. It is considered a very sympathetic, warm behavior. This is not a determination of the normality and ideality of everything in those countries, but I just want to underline the difference. The need that the diversity bring will be different from each other. Turkey is a Mediterranean country, I think that the samples in Scandinavian countries will not be functional here.
Traditionally, Turkey is closer to the fable culture; I chose fable because I believe in its functionality and I can reach more children by that. I have designed an illustrated series that will be liked by parents because the books are read to children by parents. I combined deconstruction and fables in the series and the first book of the series is Does Sea Carry Its Home on Its Back? (Deniz Evini Sırtında Mı Taşıyor?) I happily share this book with you because it will be published soon. There's a turtle character, namely, Deniz. Deconstruction starts when the character meets with the children; "Do you think I carry my house on my back? Our shell is not our home, it is our dress," says Deniz. Then he takes his friends home where he lives with his family; "Why would I live elsewhere if my house would be on my back?" he asks. In this way, this is a book that will change the usual patterns in children's minds.
I have a functional reason for choosing a turtle. I emphasize that the shell is not a house but a dress because it has a meaning that children should cover some parts of their bodies and not to show them to strangers. The preparation took one or two years and it will take its place on the shelves within the next few months.
We did not think you would be talking about a project that would excite us so much, we are looking forward to read! Thank you for your detailed explanations about the field and the conversation at all.