Retro Reading: Tikki Tikki Tembo and cultural sensitivity….

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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,

Bruce

Retro Reading: The Divine Ms Blyton

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Enid Blyton – that mistress of adventure, magic and exploration!  In my quest to re-read books from earlier in my considerable history, I decided to plunge back into Blyton’s world of wonder.  Selecting “The Secret of Spiggy Holes” as my text – part of the Secret Series, following the adventures of Jack, Mike, Nora and Peggy –  I settled back as the fifth member of the adventurous party.  While reading, the memories came flooding back and I realised that Enid Blyton writes in such a way as to make certain assumptions about life as she knows it self-evident.  So I present to you some of the “Universal Truths of the Queendom of Blytonia (otherwise known as Enidville)”:

1. The natural state of children is to be left alone.  Parents are merely the mechanism by which children are delivered into the world.  After this, parents are to leave  children to their own devices as much as possible, and this may be achieved through sending them to boarding school for the better part of the year, followed by shipping them off to mysterious and highly explorable places during the holidays, to be watched over by eager-to-serve, yet averse-to-intrusion adult guardians.  The parents in Spiggy Holes have accomplished this essential part of their duties to such an extent that they even purchased an island to which their offspring may retreat whenever the whim takes them.

2.People with foreign accents should be assumed to be smugglers, or involved in some other type of shady dealings, unless proven otherwise.  To this end, they should be kept under surveillance by any means possible, including, but not limited to, midnight watches using binoculars handily supplied by one’s adult guardian.  The exception to this rule is foreign children – for these are almost exclusively members of royal families, and should be befriended immediately.  Developing a friendship quickly and covertly is essential in this case, as it is highly likely that the foreign child is the victim of kidnapping perpetrated by the shady foreign adults previously mentioned.

3. There is always time for tea. Preferably involving a selection of cakes and biscuits, bottles of lemonade or ginger beer, cold pork pies, ham sandwiches, and plums.  Packed into a picnic basket for increased compatibility with exploratory parties.

After dipping a stone toe back into this simple world, I have decided that I will continue to reacquaint myself with old Enid through the St Clare’s school stories.  Please feel free to share your own reminiscences of times spent in Blytonia…or any other Universal Truths that I may have missed.

Until next time,

Bruce

Retro Reading: Choosing one’s own adventure…

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  “BEWARE and WARNING!

This book is different from other books. 

You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story…”

I must admit, when I saw the book pictured here land on my shelf I emitted a gasp suffused with nostalgia and excitement and more than a little trepidation.  It was as if I had dropped back through time (appropriately enough, given the title) to the days when I graced the shelf of a much younger fleshling.

Ah, the phenomenon that was Choose Your Own Adventure!  Designed as an interactive reading experience, some forty titles made their way out into the homes and hearts of young readers, to engage and frustrate and challenge.  Each book contained multpile endings to the story which could be accessed after the reader had made a choice about the direction of the plot.

Surely I am not alone in remembering the feelings of anticipation and angst that accompanied every choice; the complicated internal dialogue that reflected the fraught-ness of each decision…should I stay and search the cave (turning to page 56) or go back and find my dog first (turning to page 89)?   Should loyalty to one’s canine outweigh the potential for discovery? Which action would serve me better in saving myself from future peril? And could I sneakily leave my finger to mark the page in case I made the wrong choice?

How well I recall the feeling of righteous indignation that welled up when, having made a well-considered and strategic decision, I was met with those awful words, written in bold capitals after half a page or less of text – THE END. How could my plucky gamble have backfired so poorly? And what measure of ethics surrounded this “ending” of my adventure? Was it morally the correct thing to begin the story again from the beginning, or would the god of the reading universe overlook, say, a change of heart that involved simply turning back a few pages and choosing the initially discarded option?  After all, a gargoyle is entitled to change his (or her) mind.  It could simply have been that in the time between making the choice, and turning the pages (with possibly a glimpse at those terrible, story-ending words as the pages turned) that a gargoyle reconsidered the criteria on which to base the most prudent choice.  Yes, obvioulsy I meant to choose the other option.  Any fool could see that.  I just…misread…which page I was supposed to turn to.

Surely this collection of books is ready for a second coming.  After all, younglings of this generation are breast-fed on interactive everything – Ipods, smartphones, Wii thingies….why not books?  The series has even been extended in recent years to include beginning readers, with new titles published that cater specifically to children in pre-school and prep.  Imagine, if you will: new parents, who grew up on the heady anticipation of being master (or mistress) of their own story domain, guiding their younglings in the best strategies to avoid disaster….it could be a brave new world of reading pleasure.

Admittedly, re-engaging with this particular Choose Your Own Adventure title as an older gargoyle lacked somewhat in the area of disbelief suspension, but nonetheless, the trip down memory lane it provided was worth the extra effort it took to really imagine one’s self into the story.  But never fear! This is one gargoyle who believes firmly in re-gifting, and will no doubt wrap this one up and pass it on to gargoyles of a more recent vintage to discover…for the first time.

And if the nostalgia bug has burrowed it’s way into your neurotransmitters while reading this post, you may find some relief here: http://www.cyoa.com/

Until next time,

Bruce