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