Wednesday, May 3, 2017

the problem with celebrating Tikki Tikki Tembo

So,  Bookselling this Week, a newsletter for the American Booksellers Association includes a letter from author Jacqueline Davies regarding the inclusion of Tikki Tikki Tembo as a nominee for their "Picture Book Hall of Fame" and also linked to a post of my own from 2012

While no one asked me to share my concerns with the members of the ABA, I wish they had. If they had, I would have said this:

Dear ABA Booksellers,

Hello! There’s a good chance you are sick of the topic that I am about to broach, that you are rolling your eyeballs and you are secretly thinking, “Who cares?”  And in many ways, I don’t blame you.

But the truth is, I care. I care a lot.*

Because, I know you have heard from friends, colleagues and other authors and have gotten all the links. I know they have all given you calm, rational reasons in an unbiased manner. But I thought it might be good to hear from me, an Asian-American who truly cares about this from the core of her identity.

I was thrilled when I learned that my book When the Sea Turned to Silver was nominated this year for an E.B. White Read-Aloud award. However, when I saw that Tikki Tikki Tembo was a nominee for the Hall of Fame, I was dismayed for all the reasons you probably already know: the book is not an authentic folktale as it claims and, by using an untrue tradition and made-up/incorrect words, it creates false Chinese culture.**

Am I being too sensitive? Possibly. The refrain I hear often is, “My friend is Chinese, and she loved the book! It’s not offensive!”  We all know that what one person finds heartbreaking, another can find hilarious. I would never expect anyone's reading experience to mirror my own.

So, I do not believe the book should banned. I do not believe people should stop selling it. But, I also do not believe the book should be celebrated. By voting Tikki Tikki Tembo into the Hall of Fame, it sends a message that this book is one to revere and emulate. 

We are all in this business because we love books. At every conference I go to, someone somewhere will say, “These books save lives!”  However, if we allow ourselves the satisfaction that the books we share can help, we must also realize that books can also harm.  And the harm that a book like this can create is not only individual. It’s not just the Asian girl cringing because all her classmates are chanting fake Chinese at her or the boy with the last name of Chang teased for being “nothing.” No, the bigger harm in celebrating a book such as this is that it reinforces the idea that another person’s culture, my culture, is valued so little that we don’t even need to bother to get it right. 

And that is why I care. I hope you do, too.

Thank you so much for your consideration.


Grace Lin

*For those of you interested, I invite you to watch my TEDx talk:

**Those of you who know my books might say, “Hey, Grace Lin, aren’t you being a bit of hypocrite? Aren’t your books a mishmash of Chinese folktales, as well?”  While there is some validity to that, I would say that it is because of the books I do that I have such an emotional reaction to Tikki Tikki Tembo's flaws. My books are Asian-inspired fantasies. I’ve heavily researched them so that, to my knowledge, they are all based in Chinese folklore. And with them, I try to create something new--like growing from a seed. I try to grow the myths to fit with our culture--to create something I see as Asian-American. 

Tikki Tikki Tembo, to me, does the opposite. It took a non-Chinese story and pretended that it was old and authentic, added bogus traditions and words; and, in doing so, misrepresents Chinese culture.

To me, there is difference.


Leslie McGraw said...

I have not read Tikki Tikki Tembo but I'm glad you pointed this out as I am constantly looking for books for my 1 year old daughter to be exposed to books that feature people of color and culture. I wouldn't want to focus on a book that misrepresents or diminishes another race or culture. I see it happen enough with African and African-American culture (our cultures). Thank you for the info!

booktoss said...

It matters so much! Thank you for reposting this!
Turns out a graphic novel adaptation has made the nomination list for the Eisner awards ... so this is a story that will not die.

booktoss said...

EDIT - this is ALSO a story that will not die.

John Shelley said...

This is so, so true. Any author or illustrator representing another culture today has a responsibility to get the details right - older books that mis-represent other countries can still be appreciated in a historical context, but not in contemporary recommended lists.

I remember a few years ago introducing a conference workshop in the US where a very well-known author/illustrator talked about a picture book she had set in Japan. Every detail was wrong - the kimono, the names of the characters, the settings, all half-baked Madame Butterfly type estimates from someone who hadn't bothered to research the country properly. Hokusai's "Great Wave Off Kanagawa" was awkwardly slapped in, when an attendee asked if that caused copyright issues the question was dismissed with "there is no copyright, it's an anonymous old painting from a 1,000 years ago".

After the workshop as I helped the author tidy up, I pointed out that Hokusai authored the print (not painting) in 1814, hardly a thousand years ago, and also her inaccuracies of dress and naming.... as I'd lived in Japan over 20 years I was trying to help her out in case she planned any follow-ups, but of course she didn't want to hear any of it. The arrogance appauled me.

Hazel Mitchell said...

Thank you for standing up and saying this.Sensitivity is key.

Keila Dawson said...

And often when books receive awards, accolades, or make lists they are read more often and used by others as mentor texts for story telling and even writing. So many reasons to 'get it right' when a book holds a mirror to reflect an entire culture. Thanks for your honest review.

Marjorie (MWD) said...

It's very worrying that this kind of error is still being made - noone can plead ignorance here, which means people are choosing to ignore what should be major criteria when making these kinds of selections - authenticity and respect should be a given. Anyone can be forgiven for making a mistake but not for deliberately ignoring the facts.

Chiska said...

I know this is an old post, but I wanted to thank you for sharing it. I loved Tikki Tikki Tembo as a child and have loved sharing it with my children. It is fun to read out loud. I really appreciate knowing that it is not authentic. I think when you understand the truth of the book then you can put it in it's proper place--a story with fun to say made up rhymes and include other books so that it doesn't become the defining view point in a child. I also loved listening to your Ted talk. Thanks!