Retro Reading: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural sensitivity….

It’s that time again! For those Joany- or Johnny-come-latelies to my musings, I am currently undergoing something of a personal quest to re-read some tomes from my distant past to see whether any new insights come to mind in so doing.

The next book in my meander down memory lane is one that has always stuck in my mind due to its amazingly catchy refrain and the challenge it presents for those who enjoy tongue twisters and saying things really really fast.  It is, of course, Tikki Tikki Tembo, a retelling of a supposedly traditional Chinese folk story, by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent.

tikki tikki tembo

Essentially, this tale claims to explain why Chinese first-born sons are traditionally given short names.  I say “claims” because, not having spent any time inancient China (or indeed its modern counterpart!) I cannot vouch for the validity of this tale as a traditional folktale, as opposed to something some Westerners made up because it is stereotypically amusing and fun to say.

I am quite, well, sensitive, to addressing cultural sensitivity in printed matter and believe that wherever possible, items that offend (when looked at in hindsight, or otherwise) should be re-worked to better fit a contemporary audience.  To that end, I was greatly relieved to discover the Little Golden Book edition The Boy and The Tigers had been re-worked both in content and illustration, from its now cringe-worthy 1970s incarnation titled Little Black Sambo. Although having said that, the original version by Helen Bannerman is still in print. I wonder, then, to what extent Tikki Tikki Tembo might offend the sensibilities of contemporary audiences….

boy and his tigers

Debates over cultural appropriateness aside, this book charts the significant difference in the emergency response times elapsed in the rescue of two young brothers in (separate) near-drownings in the town well.  Chang (son number two, as indicated by his short, not-very-honourable name) is fished out in a jiffy, while the unfortunate, fortunate-first-born Tikki tikki-tembo no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo has to wait considerably longer for help to arrive.

Re-reading this tale has been just as enjoyable as its initial reading. Just one glance at the distinctive illustrations – particularly those eye-catching kites and the bearded Old Man With The Ladder (an prototype for David Hasselhoff’s Baywatch character, perhaps?) – took me right back to my youth.  I could feel the urgency of the poor old second son, Chang, as he stutters over his brother’s ridiculously long (though fun-to-say!) name, while time is ticking away.

All in all, I was very pleased to find this story still in print and available for the new generation of readers who appreciate rhythm in their reading.  At the same time I wonder whether this tome needs a little re-working too, to bring it in line with modern standards of inter-cultural folktale appropriation.  Perhaps something as simple as removing the completely untrue bit  about the name Chang meaning “little or nothing” would suffice?  If nothing else, that bit is deeply hindering to anyone attempting to learn other languages through incidental mentions in children’s literature.

I would love to hear what others think about this – particularly how flesh-parents might go about explaining such issues to their mini-fleshlings!

Until next time,


12 thoughts on “Retro Reading: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural sensitivity….

    • Yes, I will definitely have a look at that one. I did briefly glimpse it when I was looking for images for the post – it’s set in India, yes? Makes much more sense to me for the story to be set in India for some reason….but maybe I’m just showing my own cultural assumptions!!


  1. I, too, had all of my eyebrows up when I recently revisited this story as an adult. Clearly I had only remembered the fun-to-say name and the general story from centuries ago, when I watched the film version. I was excited to discover the book version, I raced to purchase it, and then just couldn’t bring myself to read it to my young students.

    Sambo is alive and well in Japan, and isn’t there that line about a rose still being a rose, even if you call it Albert? (Or something like that.)

    Cultural updates would spare me the whole uncomfortable conversation, but then I would miss the opportunity to explain cultural (in)sensitivity. Must have that conversation, say I.


    • Yes, I think it’s necessary to have the conversations too – if for no other reason than to point out things that otherwise might go completely unnoticed by those not familiar with that culture.

      I was struck re-reading this one with the harshness of the mother in talking to Chang…that in itself is giving a pretty clear message about the author’s image of Chinese parenthood. There’s definitely something to be said for keeping the essence of the story while ditching the contrived context that perpetuates stereotypically negative messages.


  2. Excellent post! I haven’t read Tikki Tikki Tembo in 20+ years, but I suppose it’s still in print for a reason, right? I definitely need to grab this from the library and refresh my memory.
    Thanks for linking up to the Kid Lit Blog Hop!


  3. I loved this book as a child, and am so excited to learn that there is a another version to share with my children! Thanks so much for linking up on the Kid Lit blog hop today “_


  4. Tikki Tikki Tempo! What a blast from the past! How true that we have such different perspectives reading these books as adults. I just recently re-read about 15 “classics” such as Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Swiss Family Robinson and so many more and I was sometimes wondering whether these books were written for children or for grown-ups. It’s nice to see though that some of the classics aren’t being thrown out but rather that they are reworking them to be more *ahem* “contemporary”. I would think it wise to not throw the baby out with the bath water. Thanks for linking into the Kid Lit Blog Hop once again.


  5. Hi there. I found you through Renee’s blog with the Kid Lit Blog Hop. When I was a kid, we knew this book as Nicki Nicki Tembo. I still know how to say his full name, and fast. Thanks for the memory lane.
    Diane M. Robinson


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