Thursday, March 08, 2007

Top Trickster: Adventures of Anansi

Folklore is full of tricksters, those engaging characters who win out with brains rather than brawn, and Anansi (or Ananse), the mischievous hero of West African tales, is one of the best in kids' literature.

One good entry point for the tales of Anansi is Gerald McDermott's Caldecott Honor Book Anansi the Spider, actually an origin story in which Anansi's quarrelsome sons force the Sky God to park the moon in the sky until they settle its ownership. Much closer to Anansi's typical role is Gail Haley's Caldecott book A Story, A Story, another origin story in which Ananse (in human form) performs three tricks to win the Sky God's stories for the people of the earth. His third trick, in which Ananse uses a gum baby to ensnare the fairy Mmoatia, is the basis of the Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby story. Continental and Caribbean America have many Anansi tales which appear often as Br'er Rabbit or "Aunt Nancy" stories, as in Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble by Phyllis Root.

Some of the most entertaining of the Anansi retellings are the result of collaboration between author Eric A. Kimmel and illustrator Janet Stevens. My very favorite to read aloud is their Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. In this wonderfully illustrated version, Anansi happens upon an unusual rock and learns the hard way that whoever says, "Isn't this a strange, moss-covered rock!" falls into an hour-long faint with a resounding "KPOM." Ever open to a gainful opportunity, Anansi leads elephant and the rest of his friends to the spot, points out the rock, and takes advantage of their ensuing unconsciousness to steal their goodies and stash them at his house. Almost hidden in each illustration is Little Bush Deer, who watches the trick over and over, decides it is time to trick the trickster, and cons Anansi into trying the same trick on her.

Little Bush Deer's pretended inability to see the moss-covered rock provokes Anansi into an rage in which he stomps all eight feet and says, "You SEE it! You just don't want to SAY it!" "Say what, Anansi?" Little Bush Deer says innocently. Well, you can see where this one is going, and so can the kids who are listening! With a satisfying "KPOM," Anansi goes down, and Little Bush Deer has plenty of time to return all the purloined foodstuffs to their rightful owners before Anansi awakens, chastened but, as always, unchanged.

Other Anansi stories by Kimmel and Stevens include Anansi and the Talking Melon, Anansi and the Magic Stick, and Anansi Goes Fishing.

With different but equally effective illustrations, a great introduction to the Anansi cycle is Verna Aardema's Anansi Does the Impossible. A wonderfully funny video introduction to the trickster is Denzel Washington's Caribbean-flavored Anansi. Yeah, mon!

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