The book ‘Declaration of the Rights of Girls’ arrived at Erdem’s residence in a white envelope that read: “Harmful to minors” (Credit: Ümit Erdem’s archive)

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, a children’s book that showcases stories of female role models, has become an international hit since it was first published in English in 2016.

In Turkey, however, copies can only be sold to over-18s, hidden in black plastic bags that bear the words “harmful to minors”. 

In September 2019, the ministry of family, labour and social Services declared the Turkish translation of the book to be an “obscene publication,” one of the growing number of apparently benign books to fall foul of the country’s social conservatives.

The 2020 print of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is available on Amazon. (Credit: Alican Acanerler)

A month before the ministry announced its decision, the conservative, pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak accused the book, which includes stories about LGBTI+ people, of attempting to “poison children” with the “homosexual disease”. 

This new mood fits with the conservative social values espoused by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who declared his intention to eliminate harmful content from children’s publishing ahead of the 2018 general election. In 2019, the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services announced the results of a survey of 7,423 children’s books, declaring 427 to be “child-friendly”, and classifying nine of them, in addition to Good Night Stories, as obscene. 

“I’m not surprised,” said Canan, a 12 year-old private school pupil from Istanbul who read Good Night Stories cover to cover when it first came out. “I hear it all the time about Netflix shows and other content too,” she said. “It’s disappointing to have to talk about this in the 21st century.”

In recent years, social media users have often shared excerpts of children’s content out of context, triggering campaigns to get them cancelled, with mainstream media outlets sometimes joining the fray.

In September 2020, Turkey’s broadcast regulator prevented Netflix from making the film Mignones, about an 11 year-old child, available to domestic users on the grounds that it portrayed abuse and neglect. In the last year, another ten children’s books have been judged obscene, while in October, families minister Zümrüt Selçuk announced the launch of MIM, an “anti-malicious content” scheme that will allow members of the public to submit complaints about inappropriate material on a website or via WhatsApp. 

The calls for censorship are not limited to pro-government media, with some opposition outlets joining in too. An article published by the Dokuz8Haber news website criticised the inclusion of the word “butt” in two translated children’s books by the Dutch author Ted Van Lieshout. The books have since been officially declared obscene.

Some parents feel at a loss. 

“I’m having a hard time understanding the censorship,” said Mustafa Ünlü, a documentary director, who had been reading Good Night Stories to his daughter at bedtime. “I thought that [the book] helped her develop an assertive character.” 

Ünlü said that it showed that cultural conservatism had gone too far in Turkey, a fear shared by many other secular or liberal-minded parents. In 2017, a petition to have qualified psychologists, rather than politicians, make judgements about children’s content attracted more than 200,000 signatures.

Turkey has long-standing legislation to regulate publishing, dating back to 1927. The original law, which allowed authorities to confiscate books deemed to contain obscene content, was repeatedly toughened after each of the three military coups that Turkey experienced during the twentieth century. Coup regimes added thousands of titles to the list of forbidden publications under the pretext of ensuring public safety, with the result that many books were burned by the government. 

After the end of the most recent coup regime in the 1980s and the restoration of democracy, the law was reformed, although the government retained the power to evaluate children’s books after publication. In a recent column, acting editor-in-chief of the literary magazine İyi Kitap, Safter Korkmaz, compared today’s censorship to his experience of the coup regime as a student in the 1980s. Korkmaz recalled being detained by soldiers for possession of a banned publication. 

“I realised then that all governments are insecure structures, afraid of books,” he wrote. 

Today, the official committee that assesses children’s books sits in the ministry of family, labour and social services. However, who exactly sits on the committee and what criteria they apply in their decisions is kept secret. Its rulings are only published after the fact, in the government gazette, and the particular reasons given for a decision vary, from inappropriate sexual content to material alleged to be spiritually harmful. Last year, two books about vampires were condemned by the committee. 

“We do not ban or censor any books,” Zümrüt Selçuk, the children’s minister, said last October. “We’re warning families about the content.” 

But according to Canan Topaloglu, coordinator of the children’s publisher Tudem, public outcry means that some publishers will halt production or remove copies from circulation even in the absence of an official ruling. 

“Censorship practices may cause publishers to be more timid and cautious in publishing works that have the potential to be perceived as obscene,” she told İyi Kitap in June 2020.

Hepkitap, the publisher of the Turkish edition of Good Night Stories, did not respond to a question from Inside Turkey about whether they have halted printing since the book was declared obscene. The title is still listed for sale on Amazon: a copy bought by Inside Turkey was apparently printed in October 2020, but is no longer available on the sites of domestic Turkish vendors such as idefix or D&R.

Ümit Erdem, a lawyer acting independently, has filed a lawsuit against the government to try and overturn recent decisions to ban three books including Good Night Stories. Erdem, who has a seven year-old daughter and is a self-described “girl dad”, told Inside Turkey that he “intervened in court as the father of a daughter”.

‘Declaration of the Rights of Boys and Girls’ (Credit: Gülçin Kazak’s archive)

Erdem commissioned expert reports on each of the three books, which also includes a pair translated from French: Declaration of the Rights of Boys and its counterpart for girls. Both use humour to challenge gender stereotypes. These reports argue that the books uphold “global norms” on the rights of women and girls, and that Good Night Stories – which was criticised by the government for including the tale of Coy Mathis, an American trans girl – was beneficial to children’s psychosocial development.

“The Coy Mathis story is about a legal victory. The ministry board said that it was detrimental because it encouraged transsexuality, and they repeatedly claimed that the books encouraged children to ‘complain about their gender,” Erdem said. “Not only is this not a crime, the ministry’s accusation is criminally dangerous in itself.” 

The ‘Coy Mathis’ story (Credit:  Alican Acanerler)

For critics of government policy, decisions like this add to an increasing atmosphere of oppression aimed at Turkey’s LGBTI+ communities. In a 2020 opinion poll conducted by Turkuaz Lab, for instance, 54 per cent of respondents said that they would not like to have a gay neighbour. 

Ebru Ergün, a child psychologist, told Inside Turkey that it was wrong to censor children’s books for “encouraging becoming LGBTI+” in an already polarised environment.

Ebru Ergün, a child psychologist (Credit: Tarlabaşı Community Center archive)

“A child can’t become LGBTI+ by reading stories about LGBTI+ [people],” she said. Rather, “explaining LGBTI+ rights and normalising relationships does nothing except facilitate children’s acceptance, creating a more inclusive and peaceful society”.

Canan, the 12 year-old Good Night Stories fan, said that she found the story of Coy Mathis among the most affecting in the book. 

“It was very informative to read about the hardships she experienced, just like the story of the woman who escaped the Syrian civil war,” she said.

“It’s always easier to talk to kids about these things,” Ergün said, “because they’re quick to grasp that gender is a construct. But for as long as we adults fail to rid ourselves of prejudice, the idea will persist that transsexuality is difficult or even harmful to discuss.” 

A decision on Erdem’s lawsuit is due in April.