The Great Race

Posted October 22nd, 2012

I was totally delighted with the newest addition to my public library’s folktale collection, the Indonesian folktale The Great Race by Nathan Kumar Scott. It is a classic trickster story, the trickster here being a little mouse deer named Kanchil. Usually Kanchil outwits his fellow animals but in this tale it is Kanchil who gets his comeuppance.

Like so many braggarts he thinks he’s the best and fastest of all the animals, and so he challenges them to a race. None take him up on it except Pelan the snail. Pelan outsmarts Kanchil and wins the race, not just once but twice, and none of the animals ever figure out how he did it. Only the reader, Pelan and his twin (oooops! I gave away the trick. Don’t tell the kids) are in the know.

This story is fun to read out loud, perfect for preschool, kindergarteners and first graders. But what really set the book apart are the striking illustrations by Jagdish Chitara. The pictures, which are done in the style of Indonesian sacred art, practically vibrate on the page even though the only colors used are red, black and white.  As the thoughtful endnote explains, this art form is traditionally done on textiles and has never been used in a children’s book before. I certainly hope it won’t be the last because as you can see from the images, it translates beautifully to the page.

Since this story is really the third in a series that Nathan Kumar Scott has written about Kanchil the trickster, it would be lovely to read those tales too: The Sacred Banana Leaf and Mangoes and Bananas. Another option is to pair the tale with other trickster tales on the same theme from every corner of the world for a look at how many ways this universal tale type can manifest.

There’s a long list of them on this website:

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