Friday, April 6, 2012

Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo

Once, I visited a school where the kids put on a play of  Tikki Tikki Tembo, in my honor. The kids were absolutely great, the teachers were quite lovely and the play was really well done. They had all worked hard on it and  I was very grateful for the warm welcome the school gave me, yet deep down I felt a strange awkwardness that I couldn't put my finger on.

So, when a friend of mine, recently sent me this blog post written by Irene Rideout, a lightbulb went on. When I read it, I suddenly thought, Oh that's why I felt weird!

With Irene's permission, I've republished her blog post here (her blog is private) for people to read. I think it's good food for thought:

Rethinking Tikki Tikki Tembo
by Irene Rideout

As a child, did you love Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel? Did you find the absurdly long name "Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo" intoxicatingly fun to chant or sing? First published in 1968, the book has won some honors:

When I overheard my half-Chinese/half-Caucasian 6-year-old daughter singing the name a couple months ago, I had to ask her where she learned it. "In music class, at school," she replied. And to tell you the truth, I felt uneasy.

My first encounter with Tikki Tikki Tembo occurred around middle school. A Chinese-American friend was talking about the way other kids chanted "Tikki Tikki Tembo" around her. I had never heard those words before, so I asked her, "What does that mean?" The quiet seriousness of her response struck me. She looked me in the eye and said, "It's racist."

This is how the story is summarized on
"In this beautiful edition--complete with line and wash illustrations by artist Blair Lent--Arlene Mosel retells an old Chinese folktale about how the people of China came to give their children short names after traditionally giving their "first and honored" sons grand, long names. Tikki tikki tembo (which means "the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world") and his brother Chang (which means "little or nothing") get into trouble with a well, are saved by the Old Man with the Ladder, and change history while they're at it." (
The Multiculturalist, a publication by Northern Illinois University, warns that, contrary to common misconception, not all children's books about other cultures are authentic.( On page 4, the article states:
"Teachers who want to share other cultures may unintentionally choose books that are racist or not representative of a particular group... A book that is often recommended (see Huck, Hepler, & Hickman, 1987) is Tikki Tikki Tembo (Mosel, 1968)... The text and illustrations, however, are inaccurate depictions of any Chinese... The message about Chinese names is less than flattering."

I do think the use of the word "unintentional" is important. I hold my daughter's school system in very high regard, and from the beginning, I had to assume that the teachers and administration - not a single person of color among them! - simply did not know about the racist perceptions of this popular tale. I mulled over the idea of calling up the school principal and just letting him know that the story isn't exactly culturally sensitive. But I admit, part of me thought, "Maybe another Asian parent will do it." It wasn't until I found out that the entire school would be acting out the story and performing the song "Tikki Tikki Tembo" at a school meeting that I finally realized, "No one else is going to speak up."

So, in a phone call with the principal, I explained why the story is racist.
  • The book purports to be an "old Chinese folktale," but it is not. It is actually thought to be based on a Japanese folktale called Jugemu. ( Presumably, that tale was picked up and retold by Westerners, who mistakenly attributed it to China and added to the story. The result is a story that is neither Japanese nor Chinese, and it exemplifies the racist attitude of, "Chinese, Japanese, what's the difference, they're all the same." 
  • Though the book's illustrations are beautifully drawn by Caldecott Medal-winning artist Blair Lent, they do not authentically depict Chinese people, as noted by The Multiculturalist above. Tikki Tikki Tembo's shoes are actually strikingly similar to traditional Japanese geta footwear, again reinforcing the inaccurate perception that all Asian cultures are the same.
  • Tikki Tikki Tembo's little brother does have a Chinese name, Chang, which, according to the book, means "little or nothing." The book was written in 1968, well before pinyin was standardized, but even if we generously consider all tones of "chang" and "zhang," none of the dozens of possible translations even come close to meaning "little" or "nothing." 
  • According to the story, Chinese people traditionally gave their first-born sons long and honorable names. This is not true. I tried to find a source to back up this point, but apparently there isn't really a good way to find evidence of what a culture is not. This Wikipedia article, at least, provides information on Chinese names, modern and historical, and makes no mention of first-born sons ever getting especially long names.
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.

Another common argument in defense of Tikki Tikki Tembo is, "Children know the difference between truth and fiction. They know this is not a real story of actual Chinese culture." Perhaps some do, but what if the book is actually presented by a teacher or librarian as an authentic Chinese folktale describing Chinese culture? Weston Woods, a production arm ofScholastic, a children's book publisher that specifically creates educational materials for schools, provides a lesson plan for use with their Tikki Tikki Tembo video. Two explicit objectives of the lesson are to "learn about Chinese culture" and "enjoy a well-known Chinese folktale." ( Of course, in reading this particular book - or watching a video based on the book - the class will do neither.

In 1968, when cultural diversity wasn't yet the major issue it is today, any book that featured a foreign culture was probably welcomed, even if only for its novelty factor. But now that it's 2012, and the children's sections of our libraries are filled with authentic books about other cultures, there is no longer any need to rely on inauthentic tales like Tikki Tikki Tembo as an example of Chinese culture. I am a big fan of Grace Lin, who writes children's books of all levels ranging from picture books to chapter books. Her books are set in America, but they feature a Chinese-American family and plenty of Chinese and Taiwanese culture. For a book set in "old China," I recommend Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim, a book my daughter actually discovered herself in the school library.

So what did my daughter's school principal say and do in response to my concerns? (My on-the-spot explanations were not quite as organized as my post here, but I think I got the ideas across!) I was so pleased and relieved to hear him say, "I had never thought about the book that way before, but now that you explain it to me, of course I understand." He repeatedly stressed his desire to be culturally sensitive, and he suggested a compromise for the school's upcoming performance of Tikki Tikki Tembo. (I knew the school had been practicing the show for months, and it was too late to do anything drastic like cancel the performance or choose a new story and song.) Rather than introduce it as "a Chinese folktale," they would simply call it "a story" and avoid any references to China or Chinese culture. I thought that was a great idea.

Moving forward, seeing how popular Tikki Tikki Tembo is in schools and with parents, I think it's unrealistic to expect everyone to simply remove it from their bookshelves. My hope is that if people do continue to pass on the story of Tikki Tikki Tembo, they do it in a responsible way.
  • One option is to use the story to bring back oral storytelling, and to leave out all references of China and Chinese culture. Without using the actual book at all, parents and teachers can tell the tale of Tikki Tikki Tembo, simply setting it in "a far away land." The younger brother can have a name that does not strongly evoke any particular foreign culture, and it can be comparable to the syllables in Tikki Tikki Tembo's name. Perhaps something like Pip.
  • Another option is to use the book as a teaching opportunity. Parents and teachers can enjoy the book and its illustrations, but follow it up with a discussion about how not all books are true stories, and not all pictures are true representations of what they are trying to depict. Inaccuracies in the story and pictures can be explicitly pointed out, and the book can be followed by a reading of another book that does authentically portray Chinese culture.
For another person's insights, I recommend this article. It gives what I think is a fair and balanced review of the book, and then it discusses the appropriateness of the book in today's diverse society. It goes even further by suggesting other books about names, and Asian names in particular, that can be used to supplement a reading of Tikki Tikki Tembo.


anne said...

awesome and thought-provoking post! thanks for posting the other blogger's thorough explanation, too. Honestly, always loved the rhythm of Tikki Tikki Tembo, but never focused on if it was truly authentic, or not.

Teresa said...

Wow!! I've loved the rhythmic bounce of "Tikki-tikki-tembo..." since I was a kid back in the 70's and have read this to my Chinese-American children many times, never even thinking about the "authenticity" of it, probably because I am not Chinese. I love the way that Irene approached her children's school and they were open and willing to address the matter of authenticity in their production. Wonderful!! Thank you, Grace, and thanks to Irene for sharing this story and enlightning me, a Caucasian mom to Asian children.

jetticabettica said...
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Beach Mama said...

I appreciate this post. Although, I have not heard of this particular story/tale, I am always looking for books and stories of China. I have taken for granted the authenticty of such folktales. I will be more careful in the future when selecting such stories for my daughters.

Kate said...

Thank you for sharing that post. I am a children's librarian. I remember the book from my childhood and have read it to groups on occasion. I haven't read it for a while though. I'm Caucasian and I'm a little uneasy about the story. The suggestions at the end to tell the story with alterations is very helpful.

Sarah said...

Thank you for posting this. As a child, I LOVED LOVED LOVED this book. As an adoptive parent of a Taiwanese American child, I too have felt uneasy about the book but couldn't put words together to describe what was wrong. It's hard to know that something that I used to like very much is wrong, but that's how we grow. Thanks again.

Dim Sum, Bagels, and Crawfish said...

Thank you for re-posting Irene's thoughtful words. What I appreciate most about her post is the fact that she took action and in such a positive way. So many times we assume or hope that someone else will step forward to make a change, and in this case her words have not only made an impact within her child's school, but are also seeping into the minds of readers in very different corners of the world. Thank you.

Dragon's Gazette said...

Thank you for the repost of this very thoughtful article. My family owned a copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo and I loved saying his name and can still say it. I am also a school librarian in Hong Kong and currently have this book in our folklore section which I will change. I do disagree with the suggestion to possibly change the story as you read it to children. I thiink if you can't read something the way the author intended then you may just not want to share it. We've come a long way and there are some books that we loved as children that it may just be time to let go.

Judy Freeman said...

I've been thinking about this issue since reading your original post, Grace. The thing is, while folklore should be true to the country of origin, this story is a retelling of, basically, an old Japanese joke, reset in "old China." Ying Chang Compestine did the same sort of thing this year when she reset the old Danish folktale, "The Talking Pot," in old Beijing with her delightful picture book, The Runaway Wok. We've seen many cultural variations on that theme--with runaway dreidels, matzoh balls, and Chinese rice cakes; Gingerbread Boys in Central Park; and The Little Red Hen Hen moved to the Sonoran Desert in Helen Ketteman's Armadilly Chili and turned into an iguana in Ann Whitford Paul's Mañana, Iguana. This then turns us back to the Little Black Sambo debate, where the story--a literary folktale, (i.e. original story written in folkloric style), originally set in India by Helen Bannerman in 1899--was declared racist (and certainly was illustrated as such in many historical editions of the story) and banned. But then look what happened almost a century later. In the same year (1996), two distinguished children's book icons decided that the story itself was, well, wonderful, emboldening, and irresistible to children, and resurrected it--Fred Marcellino with his The Story of Little Babaji (set, once again in India), and Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney with Sam and the Tigers, set in the American South.

Judy Freeman said...

continued . . .
So where do we go with all of this, Tikki Tikki Tembo-wise? I's a story that speaks to children--that great, long name; the disobedient but favored first son; the resourceful, loyal younger brother; the old man with the ladder who rescues the boy (and pumps the water out of him and pumps the air into him). Knowing that it is based on Japanese folklore sets it as much into the 398.2 category as many other folk tale retellings that take great liberties with an original text. I think many of the books we place into the folktale section can't stand up to minute scrutiny, but were written to bring delight to kids, which is why many librarians place such books into the picture book section of the library. (They also put them there so more kids will discover them, since, sadly, the 398.2 section of the library is not as celebrated as it should be.) When I read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (which is a magnificent book that I championed from the beginning and cheered when it won a Newbery Honor), I wondered which and how much of the stories Minli hears are directly based on Chinese folklore and how much you had changed/retold/or made up in the style of the oral tradition. Were you allowed to do this? You bet, as was Arlene Mosel when she retold Tikki Tikki Tembo. In those days (and even now), folktales for kids didn't usually come with long explanatory notes as to their origins. (As a storyteller and book reviewer, I am thrilled when they do--it's so interesting to read about the history of a story.) Does it have to be perfectly authentic? I don't think many stories will stand up to such scrutiny. As a school librarian who used to tell this story (and follow up with the Brothers Four song, set in the U.S., "Eddie Koochy Katcha Kama Tosa Neera Tosa Noka Sama Kama Wacky Brown"), I found it delicious to tell. I agree with you about anomalies in the Blair Lent illustrations, but I'm betting you can find such errors in many folktale books. (I see them all the time in Jewish folktales, where the illustrator is Irish and makes the characters look Irish, too.) And that brings us back to the question writers have been debating for years--can only Irish write about the Irish, Africans write about Africa, and Chinese about China? I think the debate makes us more aware of cultural ignorance or insensitivity, but there are no easy answers here. Can men write about women and vice versa? (I remember one very well-reviewed book about a slavery quilt that a man had illustrated and the quilt looked so un-quilt-like--more like a smudgy blanket. Can only quilters illustrate quilt books? Hmmm. And then there was the debate about whether there really was any valid research proving slaves used quilts as escape maps . . .)

Judy Freeman said...

continued, still

Should we all be hiding Tikki Tikki Tembo from our children who think all Chinese kids keep falling in wells? What kids love about the story is the injustice (one child favored over another by a distracted mother), the thrill of disobeying and doing something dangerous (that kid just refuses to obey his loving mother--is he passive aggressive? I think so.), and the youngest brother coming to the rescue (which is how it goes in folklore--the youngest, most marginalized child--often called Dummling or a fool, noodlehead, nitwit, and then some--prevails). Not that the mother is wearing Japanese shoes (which maybe Zappo's had at such a markdown, she couldn't resist) or that Chang doesn't mean "little or nothing at all" in actual Chinese. Obviously, symbolically, Chang means just that, as he's not the Best Boy to his mother--but that's how it's historically been through history. The oldest boy gets everything. And the youngest one is always the most worthy. Finally, if a story makes you uncomfortable for any reason, you don't need to read it--there are so many great ones out there that you, as an adult, don't have to feel any regret or guilt if you drop it from your repertoire. Is it harmful for kids, sending them the wrong cultural message? Hoo boy--there are so many stories we can dump if this is so, starting with all the fairy tales where girls are helpless little flowers, waiting for their princes to come. We've countered that, digging up a few stories--Clever Manka, Glever Gretel, Molly Whuppy come to mind-- where the girls are just as full of derring-do as the boys, but that doesn't mean we have to dump Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White (even though I hear she wasn't doing great at the movie box office this month), unless you choose to. Kids are smart--if we introduce a story as a nonsense piece and cautionary tale (Don't jump in wells, kids!), they get it. They love this story because it's got an edge. That's why we actually like the bad boys much more than the good ones--as in trickster tales about characters who never learn their lessons. What's the answer to all this? OK, of course, there is no answer. But it's a lot of fun to discuss it. Thanks for the chance to do just that (instead of working on the deadlines some of us were supposed to be attending to this morning . . .).
Judy Freeman

Grace Lin said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments. Please share Irene's article! As someone who takes "artistic license" with folktales, I was unsure of my own stance but Irene's article really makes things clear.

Grace Lin said...

oops, sorry, pressed publish too soon.
I meant that her article made things clear to me. I agree that it is nature of folktales, especially in the oral tradition, to be allowed to change and grow. They should be allowed to be fluid.

I think the difference, to me, is not that Tikki Tembo has been embellished or even been mixed with Japanese culture (there is a great deal of overlap in all Asian folktales) or that it was written by a non-Asian writer. I actually welcome variations on folktales, I think that is what keeps them alive and why I use them with a great deal of creative license as well.

I think the issue with Tikki Tembo is that there is a misrepresentation. If it had not said it took place in China, had not said "Chang" meant little or nothing in Chinese, and things like that, then I think I wouldn't have as much of an issue with it. If one is going to set "Little Red Riding Hood" in France and state that, yet the wolf says "Ciao!" and the says a croissant is a type shoe--well, that would be very bothersome to a French person, wouldn't it?

Of course, all authors make mistakes and I don't have a passionate hatred against Tikki Tembo; as I am sure there are people who are just as angry with the how I've embellished folktales in my own book(s). This article, to me, is more like shining a light on the line between creative license and cultural misrepresentation that authors have to be aware of. It's a line that is hard to find and is different for each author, but it's a line we must look for when we write.

Hannah Ruth Wilde said...

This was one of my favorite books as a child - along with little Sambo who was chased around the tree and turned to butter. As a child, I was completely unaware of any untoward cultural references. I was mesmerized by the charm of the stories. A few years ago, I picked up Babar and noticed what I thought to be a derogatory reference to an Arab. Perhaps the most troubling to me, as an elementary school teacher, is that inaccurate curriculum was presented alongside Tikki Tikki Tembo. I am very grateful for this thoughtful and positive article.

Jeanette said...

Thought provoking article. Maybe it is time for a new retelling. Of course almost every name has meaning and may be bothersome to someone. I looked up Pip and several sources say it is from the Greek, a form of the name Philip, meaning "lover of horses."

tanita davis said...

here via Fuse #8

A couple of years ago, helping my mother go through some of the books for the school where she worked, I found this one. I read it aloud -- eyes widened, and widened further, and we put it on the discard pile. She was taking a class on children's lit at the time, and I suggested she write her paper on it.

Sure - fun, bouncy rhymes, but CLEARLY racist, and despite the delightful illustrations, etc., showing a culture as the butt of a joke is in bad taste. You were SO gracious as the students performed this for you, and Irene was gracious as her daughter's school arranged this in song, but I would be tempted to say something - hopefully constructively and kindly, but ...something...

Demps66 said...

Wow, count me among the ignorant who thought "Tikki Tikki Tembo" was just a great little story. I always try to be sensitive to things of this nature and I appreciate the heads up. I will still tell the story to the kids, but I will not share the book itself.

Helene Kahn said...

I re-read the book (which is now on the No Read list as racist in one Child Development Center and i cannot see your pov. The clog shoes you speak of as being Japanese are available outside shops all over Chinatown here in San Francisco and the old man's dream is just beautifully illustrated, as is the whole book. How could it be an opium dream? This old old man carries his ladder a long way and goes step over step step over step down into the well and brings children step over step step over step out of the well and then gives them artificial respiration. Opium addicts don't do this. On the back cover of the book it says it is a folktale--it doesn't say "authentic." Almost all my students are Asian and the story delights them. I always appreciate critical thinking but I don't agree with you and I live in the land of Political Correctness. Today, my class will be mostly Hispanic and Tiki will be the Book of the Day. The Hispanic children love the story and it makes the Asian children very proud. Here in San Francisco, the largest Aisian population outside China, you have stunned us all.

TheWhiteElephant said...

I keep hearing the term "racist" to describe a book I loved as a child. What exactly is racist about one explains. I have a book here in my house called Tales of the North American Indians annotated by Stith Thompson. Many of the motifs cross thru the tribes and are obviously the same story...but some are more intertaining. This is because the story was passed by word of mouth and different tribes adopted sometimes the same story and embellished or made the story different. I guess perhaps in one tribe there was one who said "they stole our story and it is not accurate" On second thought they probably had more important things to dwell on like where the next meal was coming from!

la maestra said...

Thank you for this post. Like you, I was always bothered by something not-quite-right with this book.

Merry Contrarian said...

Thank you for this. I bought this book for my son today because I had fond memories of it, but upon reading it to him, I started to feel uncomfortable with the whole thing. I immediately typed, "Tikki Tikki Tembo critique" into google, and started reading. I'll be taking your suggestion to tell this story as one from "a far away land", and to call the younger son "pip". I've also shared your post with my friends and family. Thanks again!