I've written over 50 articles about children's literature for library, preschool, or home settings. I have a BA in English Lit from BYU.
What Is Tikki Tikki Tembo About?
Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel was first published in 1968. This well-loved children's book has a dramatic plot that lends itself well to reading aloud in a storytime setting. The story is about two brothers. Chang the younger brother, and Tikki Tikki Tembo, who is the honored first son. The older brother's name is so long that you will find yourself reciting it in a sing-song manner:
Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo
Tikki Tikki Tembo may be the central character of the story, with his show-stealing name and mother who dotes exclusively on him, but Chang is the true hero. Tikki Tikki Tembo has a tendency to get into trouble and almost drowns when he falls into the well. Chang tries to get help for him in vain, but his efforts are thwarted both by pronouncing Tikki Tikki Tembo's name, which his mother insists he pronounces in its entirety, and his mother's habitual inattention. Finally, after an unsuccessful attempt at communicating Tikki Tikki Tembo's predicament, Chang quietly saves the day by fetching the Old Man with the Ladder. This story will find many admirers in misunderstood and seemingly forgotten middle children.
Blair Lent's illustrations, in dark blue and brown watercolor, provide a fitting background to the dour tone of this story. His illustrations of pagodas, kites, birds and the quaint village evoke Asia.
In Tikki Tikki Tembo, Arlene Mosel builds her plot with several folktale elements, including events that happen in threes, and a plucky younger sibling who saves the day. The story is beautifully paced and with its dramatic and dangerous plot, children will be at the edge of their seats until the very end, when Tikki Tikki Tembo is safely carried to his bed by the Old Man with the Ladder.
This book has loyal and ardent fans. It is featured in many professional texts and used as an aid to teaching reading. Tikki Tikki Tembo's frequent repetition of story elements lends it to easy memorization, making the story an appealing choice for teaching children to read. This book is featured on the Teacher's Top 100 Books for Children list on the National Education Association Website.
Cultural Stereotyping Controversy
Most elementary education majors are now required to take classes about cultural diversity as part of their preparation for teaching school in the United States. Usually, as part of the class, student teachers read a large selection of children's stories that represent diverse cultures and cultural themes. Tikki Tikki Tembo loosely falls into the cultural diversity category, because it claims to be the author's version of a Chinese folktale.
Critics of the book claim that it is merely pseudo-oriental and that it perpetuates banal stereotypes about Chinese culture rather than representing Chinese culture with any level of accuracy. These criticisms are leveled by individuals with a Chinese heritage, so their views should be taken seriously.
Presenters of this book in a public setting should avoid representing the book's content as being an accurate representation of Chinese culture, and if in a public or teaching position, be mindful that it is perceived by some people to be offensive.
Is Tikki Tikki Tembo an Example of Cultural Stereotyping?
Tikki Tikki Tembo is an entertaining children's story that remains popular after being in print for over 50 years. However, it should not be used as a resource to represent Chinese culture. The book is written in a folktale style to explain why people in China have such short names. The absurd explanation is similar to other folktales I can think of, including Why the Sea Is Salty.
Folktales originally were a means for the uneducated masses to share information and folk wisdom, that, excuse my pun, people tended to take with a grain of salt.
The troubling thing about Mosely's story is that it was written in an era when Asians were almost universally distrusted. The communist Chinese were considered an enemy of the United States, and the U.S. was in the middle of the Vietnam War, following the Korean conflict. Forty years ago when the book was written, it was completely socially acceptable to make fun of Asians in movies and on TV. I believe the book was written at a time when Chinese culture seemed distantly foreign and inaccessible.
In our modern and culturally diverse world, a book like this gives pause. Whatever the writer's intent when the book was written 60 years ago, in today's classroom where Chinese American kids are reading the story, I think it is inappropriate. While some elements of the story are fun (like the long name of the main character, the clever hero, and the sibling rivalry), if it perpetuates offensive stereotypes, it does not then belong in a classroom where young children may "catch" the message that it is fun to make fun of other cultures.
But I think it still belongs in classrooms, where older children can use it to discuss respect, race, and self-identity.
I think that instead of banning this book, teachers could use it to have critical discussions about the core values of cultural diversity. Where this book is introduced to far younger children and this type of critical discussion isn't realistic, one should avoid using this book as a depiction of Chinese culture. Children in early elementary grades have a black and white point of view, but their ability to think critically about these topics becomes more sophisticated as they grow older.
Ideas for Discussion
- Is Tikki Tikki Tembo an example of cultural stereotyping? Why or why not?
- Use this book with other children's stories such as Brundibar by Maurice Sendak and The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to discuss tolerance and social equality in a late elementary or middle school setting.
- Does Tikki Tikki Tembo promote positive or negative views of Chinese culture? Why or why not?
- Is it ever acceptable to represent another culture, as Moseley did, when one does not originate from that culture's point of view? Why or why not?
Alternate Children's Books About Asian Names
Supplement your reading of Tikki Tikki Tembo with the following books about children's names. Names are deeply and personally tied to children's identities. Here are some books, some from the multicultural category, and one that is not, that I think will help.
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. This children's picture book is a fictional story that describes a young Korean immigrant's experience when kids tease her about her different-sounding name.
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvitz and Gabi Swiatkowska. This book is also about a young Korean girl who struggles to feel accepted in her new environment with an unusual-sounding name. This book is geared toward the Kindergarten through second grade age group and won the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award in 2004.
Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings and illustrated by Lin Wang. This is the touching story of a girl's adoption from China and talks about her American and Chinese names. Due to its content, it is recommended for second grade and up.
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. The little mouse in this story is teased about her very long name when she goes to school. Chrysanthemum goes through a considerable amount of angst, despite the reassurances of her parents (who have very well-endowed vocabularies). But a new choir teacher, whom all the kids thinks is fabulous, helps Chrysanthemum find acceptance at last.
More on Diversity in Children's Literature
- Everyday Diversity for Children: A List of Kids' Boo...
For teachers, parents, and librarians, a thorough list of books for children ages 3-8 which exemplify everyday diversity. These books feature diverse characters in everyday contemporary life.
Andersonhayley88 on April 07, 2020:
Thank you so much for the perspective. I own this book and loved it as a kid but today when my daughter bright it to me to read to her, I paused afterward, feeling like this book really wasn’t appropriate for her age or my young son’s age (3 and 6) and that it was stereotyping. I had to look up the origin of the story to see if it really was a Chinese folktale, and came across your analysis which I agree with. I talked to my kids about the story but I’m going to avoid this one.