Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Thinking about alternatives

I was 6 years old when I first heard Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel read aloud by my school librarian. The whole class loved it, and we practiced saying the main character's name: "Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo." The name allegedly meant in Chinese "the most wonderful child in the world." Tikki Tikki Tembo's younger brother, Chang, had a name that meant "little or nothing." The length of Tikki Tikki Tembo's name posed a problem when the character fell into the well. The illustrations by Blair Lent are lovely and the story is top-notch. However, Mosel's story perpetuates a number of Asian stereotypes, mainly the idea that syllables from Asiatic languages are nonsensical and that the elder son is more valued than the younger son. Like Little Black Sambo and The Five Chinese Brothers, the bare-bones of the story itself is compelling but the stereotypes are offensive. (As a side note, some discussion boards point out that Tikki Tikki Tembo is actually based on an old Japanese folktale.)

Before you start to protest,"Oh, stop being so politically correct already!" and "If we get rid of every book that has racism/sexism in it, we'll have nothing left on the bookshelves," be assured that I'm not proposing we get rid of any story. However, we should think really, really hard about the books we read (especially to children) and how the stories affect all of us. At the very least, think about what it would be like to be a Chinese child listening to Tikki Tikki Tembo read aloud in a classroom.

I read about a librarian who used Tikki Tikki Tembo in her storytimes, but instead of the setting taking place in "long ago China," she had the story set on Mars, whereby the Martians all give their children long names. I haven't used Tikki Tikki Tembo in storytimes, but when the time comes where my daughter discovers the story, I'm going to use a similar approach. Still, if the main goal is for children to have a long, amusing name to recite aloud, there are alternatives:

1) Catalina Magdalena Hoopensteiner Wallendiner Hogan Logan Bogan Was Her Name, by Tedd Arnold

I don't care for the illustrations, but the song is great! I can post the chords and a link to the song for a future Song of the Week, if you like.

2) The camp song Eddie Cucha Catcha Camma Toesanara Toesanocka Samma Camma Wacky Brown.

Unlike the protagonist of Tikki Tikki Tembo, the subject of the story does come to a bad end.

In the past, I've deliberately avoided controversial topics. I've wanted to entertain you, after all. Still, I do think about these issues frequently, and want to talk about them with people who also want to talk about them. I've long ago stopped trying to please everyone (it's impossible), but I do have an obligation to present stories that provide fair, non-stereotypical depictions of the people they represent. I have no room in which to say, "Oh, it's just a story."

Do I take stories too seriously? You bet I do! And I'm not about to stop.

Thanks to TadMack for starting this discussion in another forum.


Fridaysweb said...

I remember my grandmother telling me stories of Brer Rabbit and the Tarbaby when I was very small. I now understand that the Tarbaby story was incredibly racist, at least the way it was told to me. It hurts me to know that my grandparents were always incredibly racist, and blaming it on their heritage (you know, growing up in "the deep south" and all that crap) is still no excuse. I agree that there are some stories that should be, perhaps, "reformulated".

AMY said...

I'm not sayin it's a great idea to be deliberately planting bees under folks' bonnets every day, but I am certainly more entertained and more likely to keep comin back when folks are brave and honest enough to write about topics that aren't "safe."

My three daughters are recent immigrants from Sudan and there are many stories I don't really care if they NEVER hear while they're still children, including Little Black Sambo, and The Heart of Darkness. And, frankly, I wouldn't be sad to see them "retired" from children's libraries and schools.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Fortunately, there are alternatives for Little Black Sambo:

The Story of Little Babaji, illustrated by Fred Marcellino

Sam and the Tigers, by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

LiteracyTeacher said...

The first-ever picture book carnival is up on my blog, http://mentortexts.blogspot.com/2007/07/first-ever-picture-book-carnival.html. Thank you for participating! Please consider submitting a picture book for the next one I'm hosting on back-to-school books at: http://blogcarnival.com/bc/cprof_2189.html


Minh Le said...

This is an interesting debate, and definitely a tricky one... especially since I loved the 5 Chinese Brothers story when I was a kid!

I have to say though, since the illustrations are very intentionally Asian in style, I would be wary of retelling Tikki Tikki Tembo on Mars... it's already confusing enough as a kid to hear people referred to as "illegal aliens", so I would be afraid to add to that.


p.s. I'm making progress with the B7!

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Minh Le: Arrrgggh! There's just no winning, is there? I'm glad to have "Catalina Magdalena" as an alternative, at least.

I keep thinking of the person who came up to a colleague of mine after an Anansi story and complained that her story was prejudiced against bald people. Yes, Anansi the spider is bald.

I'm glad to hear you're making progress with that B7! I'm still struggling with the barred B minor.

diana said...

I don't think I am the most "sensitive to others" person in the world, but I have read Little Black Sambo and really was shocked...and at the Golly dolls in some of my older books I have collected. I am glad to know my kids are bewildered at these Golly dolls and didn't know exactly what they were. Thank goodness things change... I remember how much I thought I enjoyed the movie 16 Candles, which was very popular when I was 15. I rented it for old times sake and I could not believe the racism in that movie...pathetic. This passed me over completely when I was a kid.

Schelle said...

lol... by no means saying I disagree with you about the stereotypes... I guess I just have a soft spot for Tikki - not having read the actual story for maybe 25 years, but still repeating his name at least once a year to see if I can remember it (I do) :P kind of like my affection for the Triantiwontigongolope.... or Big Bird singing ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ (pronounced as one word...)

Lone Star Ma said...

I love the rhythmic recitation of the name as well, but I do not like to think of an Asian child in my classroom hearing the story, either. It is so important to be careful and so hard to find ways to preserve the good and jettison the bad. There are so many things that went right over my head (consciously) as a kid that brought me up short when I was reading well-loved tales to the Lone Star Girl. Like the racism of C.S. Lewis in my beloved Narnia stories...what the hell was that about? One of the foremost Christian essayists of his time? Eek! Often, I just skipped over and changed words as I read, but I always feel funny doing that, too. I am so glad you are taking on this issue, Alkelda. It is so important and complicated.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

LSM: It's all about the wheat from the chaff, eh? It's just when the chaff is so overwhelming that I'm tempted to toss it all out.

Schelle: I know the Big Bird song, but not the Triantiwontigongolope... time for more research, I see.

Diana: I saw "Sixteen Candles" for the first time as a tv movie. Yes, I was shocked, too. I'm incredulous that moviemakers got away with this as late as the mid-eighties, when we were supposed to be soooo progressive.

cloudscome said...

I have stopped reading Tikki Tikkit and the Seven Chinese brothers. There are plenty of alternatives now adays. I think it's good to be discerning.

Emily said...

You know, I had never heard Tikki Tikki Tembo? I had heard the camp song about Eddie (remembered in a slightly different version). But when I read this post, I thought, "But that doesn't even make any sense as Chinese. Chinese given names are usually two syllables, and 'tikki' and 'tembo' don't sound like Chinese words."

I am such a stickler for linguistics.