I love trickster tales. What’s there not to love? They are always so entertaining with that wily trickster using his wits to triumph over more powerful creatures. It is impossible not to root for the crafty underdog, even if his morality can be a little questionable at times. He is, after all, rarely above using pranks, deceit, lies and every manner of mischief to achieve his goal. Still, he does not always prevail for he is sometimes the victim of another’s trickery or his own hubris. Because of this, the stories often impart subtle lessons about morality that are not lost on children. Just think of Anansi in Ananasi and the Moss Covered Rock (Eric Kimmel) who, after stealing all the food from every animal in the jungle finally is outwitted by a small bush deer.
The trickster character often shows up as an animal with human characteristics such as Coyote or Raven in Native American stories, Brer Rabbit in African American tales, or Anansi in African stories. However, many other animals appear as tricksters as well such as fox in Europe, jackal in India, and monkey in Asia. A good number of humans are tricksters as well such as Beatrice in Clever Beatrice by Margaret Willey, a French Canadian story about a girl who outwits a giant.
Brer Rabbit has special significance for African Americans. While being oppressed, slaves continued to nurture their storytelling traditions and told stories about Brer Rabbit (or Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, or Brer Bear). To the casual observer the tales seemed nothing more than simple entertainment, but to the storytellers and their listeners they were stories abut the triumph of the weak but clever trickster over the oppressor. Brer Rabbit became a metaphor for the slave who was tricking his so-called master. These stories were first collected by Joel Chandler Harris in 1881. Today, you can read them in a four-volume collection retold by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
Trickster stories delight children of all ages, but first and second graders respond most of all. One fun activity is to tell or read several stories such as the hilarious Ananasi stories by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Janet Stevens: Anansi and the Magic Stick, Anansi and the Talking Melon, Anansi Goes Fishing. When you begin reading another Anansi story, stop partway and have the children predict what they think will happen next. You’ll be amazed at all the clever tricks they will suggest. They can even make up their own original stories. One terrific collection of additional Anansi stories is The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories by Adwoa Baldoe.
Gerald MacDermott has retold and illustrated a number of individual trickster stories such as Raven, Coyote, and Jabuti the Tortoise, a Trickster Tale from the Amazon. Because his illustrations as so bold, colorful and stylized, they are fun to copy, cut out and glue on popsicle sticks to create stick puppets. When the puppets are done, have the children lay them out in the right sequence and then pick up each one at the appropriate point while telling the story in order to help them develop their storytelling ability.
A great story for teaching fractions is in Sharon Doucet’s Cajun stories in Lapin Plays Possum where Lapin, a clever rabbit, agrees to help poor dim-witted Bouki, a hyena, to harvest his crops. Bouki is worried that Lapin might trick him and counters with “smaller” numbers: one-fourth, one-third, one-half. This one pairs well with Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens, which is a funny story about dividing the crops.
Most tricksters found in children’s books have been male, but several newer books feature female tricksters as well. Robert San Souci has written Callie Ann and Mistah Bear and most recently Sister Tricksters: Rollicking Tales of Clever Females. Other great collections to start with are Pleasant DeSpain’s Tales of Tricksters, A Twist in the Tail by Mary Hoffman and A Trick of the Tail by John Matthews. All include trickster stories from every corner of the world. A brand new graphic book that is just amazing is Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection compiled and edited by Matt Dembicki. More than 20 Native American tales have been adapted by the likes of James and Joseph Bruchac and numerous other Native American writers and storytellers and illustrated by a variety of graphic artists. It should make the genre very popular with older children as well as teens.
Whatever you choose to do, make space for trickster tales. They are a true delight.
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