Monday, April 9, 2012

A Discussion about Tikki Tikki Tembo

Over on the Blue Rose Girls blog, Grace Lin has posted a very interesting and illuminating discussion about the book Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent. This book was one of my favorites as a kid, because it was such fun to repeat the long, complicated name, and like many other children, I took pride in being able to say it really quickly. But I never saw it as part of my culture, and somehow I loved it despite knowing it wasn't true--the sounds in Tikki Tikki Tembo's name sounded nothing like the Chinese words I knew. As has been documented, the story may have originated from a Japanese folktale.

Grace reposted the piece "Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo" written by Irene Rideout, who outlines the reasons why the book is racist, but offers some productive solutions to keeping the book on shelves. Please do go read the post in its entirety, but I thought I'd highlight this paragraph here:
When I read online forums and discussions about the potentially offensive nature of Tikki Tikki Tembo, I am disappointed because so frequently the responses are dismissive. People say, "Oh, lighten up, it's just a fun story for kids." There is, of course, a difference between INTENT and IMPACT. I feel pretty confident in surmising that the author and illustrator of Tikki Tikki Tembo did not set out to offend anyone. In fact, the INTENT may even have been to honor the Chinese culture by sharing a charming story of their understanding of China. But the IMPACT is that an entire culture is misrepresented, and it is not unreasonable that people within the misrepresented culture might feel offended. It's understandable that some people may have happy and fond childhood memories of this book, but their positive experiences with this book does not make other people's negative experiences any less valid.
Personally, I think it's a beautiful book, and I do have happy and fond childhood memories of reading it, although hindsight does make me cringe. I would encourage the publisher to reissue the book with a new foreword.

Many years ago, I had investigated the possibility of publishing a new version of the "folktale," but because of the confusing origins of the story, discovered it would be tough to do. But perhaps it would be worth republishing a version as a Japanese folktale.

What do you all think?


  1. I think there could be a lot of merit in revisiting folk tales that aren't intended to be racist, but have that impact. I like how you broke that down.

    I'm thinking also of Little Black Sambo, which is a tale from India, but which delivers a racist impact here.

    I think I'd find a book written in a style similar to Ain’t nothing but a man: my quest to find the real John Henry by Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson to an interesting way to trace the origins of the story and its intent. Perhaps doing all the research would lead to a really nice, new version?

    Yea, I do think there is much that could be done with this and hopefully it would make the tale interesting for new readers.

  2. Where this book has been released and how long ago. There is so many unveiled stories that many of us is not aware about. Speaking about offending (or rather not) anyone I do also believe that books do not offend anyone on purpose. wypadek uk