By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University
The week’s selection The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, The Trickster Spider was selected for grades three through five on the 2012 USBBY Outstanding International Books list. This collection was written by KP Kojo, the pen name of Nii Ayikwei Parkes, who was born and raised in Ghana, the original homeland of Ananse (sometimes spelled Anansi or called Kwaku Ananse or Anancy). Many U.S. children are familiar with picture book versions of Anansi stories. Authors such as Verna Aardema, Eric Kimmel, and Gerald McDermott (who also illustrates), have retold these stories for a young readership; they are all cultural outsiders to West Africa. Illustrators of these titles include Lisa Desimini and Janet Stevens, who are also cultural outsiders. There is no information in The Parade about the illustrator Karen Lilje, whose charming black ink drawing are sprinkled throughout KP Kojo’s collection.
It is believed that the Ashanti people of Ghana were the first to tell Ananse stories. “Ananse” is the Akan (language) word for “spider.” Although Ananse often assumes the physical appearance of a spider, he behaves as a man in almost all his stories. He is always a trickster. In folktales, the trickster is a character who breaks or bends the rules. He appears both clever and foolish but in the last analysis and regardless of his intentions, the trickster’s actions usually have positive outcomes. Told well, Ananse’s stories are funny, especially to listeners who can laugh at their own foibles. The Ananse stories spread beyond the Ashanti to other Akan-speaking peoples and were brought to the Caribbean by African slaves. When this character came to the southern United States, tellers changed his gender and he became “Aunt Nancy.”
In the introduction to this collection, KP Kojo, whose heritage languages are Ka and English, tells how, as a child, he learned the Akan language, which deepened his understanding of the tales. In these retellings, Kojo uses or combines words from several Ghanaian languages to create African animal names that cultural outsider tellers may struggle to pronounce correctly. Tellers may also need to conduct a bit of research to learn more about the foods mentioned in these stories, such as kontomire, fufu, and jollof rice. The book does not include a pronunciation guide or glossary.
The title story in this collection is called “The Parade.” The author said he made up this story to answer two burning questions that had stuck with him since childhood: “Where did Ananse’s wife come from? And why did Ananse become a trickster?” (7). KP Kojo based this original story on the characteristics associated with authentic traditional Ananse stories: “encapsulating origin myths of animals, pointers for good behavior, and examples of Ananse’s inventive thinking” (7). Of course the author has the “right” to use motifs from these stories to develop his own, but I wonder if including that story in a folktale collection could confuse readers or tellers who may not realize it is an original story.
How does KP Kojo’s original story and his retellings compare with other versions you have read? I looked at several picture book versions of the story KP Kojo calls “The Pot of Stories.” Reteller Verna Aardema and illustrator Lisa Desimini share this story in their book Anansi Does the Impossible (Atheneum, 1997). Author-illustrator Gail E. Haley retells it in her Caldecott award-winning book A Story, A Story (Atheneum, 1970). Adapter Stephen Krensky and illustrator Jeni Reeves call their variant Anansi and the Box of Stories (Millbrook, 2008). In two of these books, Ananse is illustrated as a spider; in two he is a man. In two of these tales, Ananse wants stories in order to share them with children; in the other two, Ananse believes it is wrong for one person to own all the stories. In KP Kojo’s book, Nana Oppong, chief of the entire forest, keeps the stories in a clay pot. In the other three versions, it is Nyame or the Sky God who keeps all the stories in a box or a calabash (gourd container). In each of these stories, Ananse has to trick three or four animals and bring them to the chief or god to exchange for the stories; the combination of animals is different in all of these variants. In three of the stories, the chief or god declares that Ananse “paid” the price and bought the stories. In KP Kojo’s version, Nana Oppong refuses to turn over the pot of stories. In anger he throws the pot and the stories are scattered far and wide, accessible to everyone.
With all of these variations one could ask if details matter in the Ananse tales. “Folklore is, of course, imperfect history because it is history constantly transforming and being transformed, putting on, chameleon-like, the colors of its background. But while it is imperfect history, it is the perfect guidebook to the human psyche; it leads us to the understanding of the deepest longings and most daring visions of humankind” (Yolen 50). The Ananse stories surely give story readers, tellers, and listeners an opportunity to consider the human psyche. How did you connect with the stories in this collection?
For many classroom teachers and librarians, reading and telling folktales has been a staple of support for young readers’ development of cultural competence. While folktales provide a historical perspective on cultures and give insight into a people’s core values and beliefs, these tales do not reflect many aspects of present-day societies. What do you believe about the role of folktales in the classroom curriculum and in library programming? What is the role of these stories in the canon of children’s and young adult literature?
Next Week: Aesop’s Fables by Beverly Naidoo, illustrated by Piet Grobler
Aardema, Verna. Anansi Does the Impossible. New York: Atheneum, 1997. Print.
Haley, Gail E. A Story, A Story. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Print.
Kojo, KP. The Parade: A Stampede of Stories about Ananse, The Trickster Spider. London: Frances Lincoln, 2008. Print.
Krensky, Stephen. Anansi and the Box of Stories. Minneapolis: Millbrook, 2008. Print.
Yolen, Jane. Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. New York: Philomel, 1981. Print.
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