Children’s literature is a powerful genre. Everybody has a favourite childhood book that has influenced them. My favourite was Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. Often we want our own children or the children that we teach to enjoy the same book. No other category of literature is so loaded with social, cultural, historical, ideological, educational and commercial power. This makes it an interesting subject for literary criticism and I think it is important for teachers to critically appraise the books that are used in the classroom.
A significant aspect of children’s literature is that it is written by adults. Children are characters in the book but whose childhood does the book represent? Is it a real childhood or a theoretical one? When one group constructs another, then power becomes an issue. For much of children’s literature, the actual child is voiceless. Adults tell the stories and adults profit financially from book sales. Cyber spaces are becoming areas where children can have a voice in their own storytelling and I will be exploring this notion further in subsequent posts.
In diverse plural societies in a globalized world, the need for multicultural literature and the examination of cross-cultural responses has become more important. Cultural authenticity is key. As children’s literature is so full of direct and indirect meaning, it’s essential that teachers critically analyze the books that we introduce into our classrooms.
A critical analysis of a children’s classic
Below is a full critical analysis that I made of the children’s book Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel. It is a favourite in school libraries and often categorized as multicultural literature. In this interpretative essay, I uncovered the truth about this book, discovering that it is far from an authentic multicultural piece of children’s literature…
An analysis of the text Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel reveals a depth of meaning to the picture book. Tikki Tikki Tembo has been a durable text in English speaking educational environments for 40 years. It is a populist book and a text used by primary school teachers alike. Different readings and interpretations occur in light of significant theories, which focus on different aspects of the text- race, gender and class. The Foucauldian idea that power is available everywhere but depends on the discourse can be used when analyzing children’s literature. No interpretation is more meaningful yet the exploration of the postcolonial viewpoint, encompassing critical race theory and notions of a western constructed orient are particularly suited to Tikki Tikki Tembo. Ultimately how the text is read influences how children are placed in society.
It is from a formalist and structural perspective that most educators would support a use of the text in classrooms. The picture book has conventional, effective patterns in the narrative and illustrations that children find enjoyable. That is not to say that the meaning is not worth studying as in a traditional formalist view (Ryan 2007) but the meaning has been diminished by criticisms of authenticity over time. The use of rhythmic alliteration “Tikki Tikki Tembo” and repetition, for example “step, step over step” and “pumped the water out of him and pushed the air into him and pumped the water out of him and pushed the air into him”, encourages students to join in with the reading. In fact, given the effective structure and audible literary features, the text is best read aloud making it useful in the ESL primary classroom. The uses of illustrations in the picture book, from a formalist perspective reflect the text congruently (Sipe 1998) and aesthetically defining characters and the setting. The signs in the illustrations follow a structural framework, with recognizable symbols of everyday life- house, water, man, mother, children.
When viewing Tikki Tikki Tembo through the lens of historical knowledge, it is important to critically examine the constructed nature of the past (Jenkins 1991). Children’s literature and history are interconnected, both informing each other (Watkins 2005). History is a discourse that interprets the past, influenced by theory and power (Jenkins 1991). The historical context of a text is not a static fact, as history is not “closed” (Giroux 1991 p508). Therefore, when viewing a literary text historically, the context of the book is fluid. The purpose for the text and its values ( Sarland 1999) can be seen in different historical light depending on the view of past truth- for example as a push for multicultural awareness in a 1968 counter culture or a continuum of western obsession for controlling China.
Tikki Tikki Tembo was published in 1968 in New York. From a liberal socio-historical perspective, it is part of a post World War Two American cultural interest in China and Asia in general, as United States foreign policy increasingly saw Asia as strategically important in the Cold War (Klein 2003). China was a closed Communist nation in the throws of The Cultural Revolution and the cult of Mao (Meisner 1999). Tikki Tikki Tembo satisfies the western curiosity and symbolic consumption of Asia (Klein 2003), whilst presenting a simpler and more understandable vision of China than the confusing political reality.
The text, Tikki Tikki Tembo, published in the twentieth century postcolonial period harks back to a pre-colonial time. The British and French Empires from the 19th Century had fought over China for colonial rights. Bradford (2001) argues that all books written in the twentieth century were produced in the “pattern of imperial culture” (p 196). This text is therefore receptive to a postcolonial reading. Arlene Mosel wrote the book within the context of a postcolonial China, (excepting the continued colonial annex of Hong Kong in 1968) and evokes a simpler, peaceful time as evident in the illustrations. The restricted palette of the graphics to basic earthy hues of brown, blue and green emphasize simplicity. There is not just an element of “historical amnesia” (Gandhi 1998 p 7) in reminiscing of early pre-colonial times but a lack of historical accuracy from a postcolonial perspective in the text as a whole.
When viewed through the critical race theory with a post-colonial perspective, Tikki Tikki Tembo could be accused of implying western superiority. As young children make generalizations about cultures (Ramsey 2009), the text could imply that Chinese people are unhappy and cold. In the text, the Chinese mother is portrayed as emotionally hardened, neglecting her second son. She is inhuman and mysterious, fulfilling a stereotype of Asians as inscrutable (Cai 1994). The adults are generally unhappy and the children enjoy a carefree life in a natural Arcadian pre-industrial environment, portrayed in active scenes, flying kites and dancing. They look like generic primitive Asian stereotypes, though not specifically Chinese. This is expressed through the naïve folk illustrations. The naivety of the depictions, especially in the unrealistic illustrations of moving bodies reinforces the primitive, simple tone. The physical stereotype is seen most prominently in the depiction of the Old Man with his long beard.
Tikki Tikki Tembo is an example of cultural misrepresentation as the story is not Chinese (Kromann-Kelly & Changlu 1986). There was never a custom to give children long names and the name Tikki Tikki Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruche-pip peri pembo “does not sound Chinese, ancient or modern” (Cai 1994 p 185). Translated stories have often used different character names to suit the target language and culture (Lathey 2010) yet in Tikki Tikki Tembo there is a lack of linguistic authenticity. The costumes in the illustrations are more Japanese, for example the children wear clogs and the curved roofs of Japanese architecture present in pictures of the buildings (Cai 1994). The western ‘retelling’ of a traditional Chinese folktale is misleading.
The western author of Tikki Tikki Tembo, Mosel speaks for the Chinese ‘tradition’, because “According to Europeans, Europeans must describe and analyze the Orient because Orientals are not capable of describing or analyzing themselves” (Nodelman 1994 p 29). Gandhi (1998) states that sociolinguistic theory demonstrates how “discourses, or discursive formations” (p 77) are about power and by Mosel speaking for the Chinese immediately infers superiority. The authoritative tone of the narrator shows this; “ Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, it was the custom…” reinforcing that the author knows the truth. Mosel (1968) crosses a ‘fence’ (Naidoo 2010) between cultures but speaks for the other side and highlights the politics of children’s literature, “Who has the power to make the fence, alter the fence? Who is in, who is out? Who has the power of speech? Who is silenced out?” (p 76).
The craft of taking a (supposedly) old tale from one culture and adapting it for another leads to inevitable “Cultural filtering” (Mo & Shen 1997). As Lathey (2010) states, interpreting foreign stories inevitably changes the values and content of the text to appeal to the culture of the child reader. Hearne (1993) questions whether “only members of an ethnic group truly represent the lore of that group?” (p34). Child readers of Tikki Tikki Tembo without any teacher led critical multicultural interpretation will accept the story as truth and will in some way influence perceptions of Chinese people. The text requires engagement with Giroux’s ‘pedagogy of difference’ (1991) and a critical analysis from a multicultural viewpoint, encouraging students “to examine the social construction of difference” (Botelho & Rudman 2009 p 17).
Mosel’s text is an example of western obsession with the mystical east. It has been a trend in art and literature “a combination of admiration and appropriation” (Nikolajeva 2009 p 89) to feed western imaginations of a truly foreign place. Said further states that the creation of Orientalism was not purely a trend but a mindset that justified colonialism (Said 1979). The characters in Tikki Tikki Tembo are clearly in a far away place though not specifically anywhere, especially reinforced by the confused but generic Asian illustrations that are part Japanese, part Chinese. Indeed, the location for the book is “unmappable” (Spooner 2004). The geography of the mountainous landscape emphasizes their remoteness, “in a small mountain village” (Mosel 1968 p1). The remoteness of the geographical setting and the nondescript “long, long time ago” (Mosel 1968 p 1) intensifies the ‘othering’ of the Oriental characters, “detached in time as well as in space” (Nikolajeva 2009 p 91).
Nodelman (1994) connects the construction of ‘the child’ in children’s literature with the European construction of ‘orientals’. It is the creation of ‘the other’, a notion that there are “opposite” (p29) people, unlike those in control of narratives and ultimately “not quite human” (p29). The idea of the mystical east, present in the western creation of the orient is evident in the reference to “evil spirits”. In addition, the depiction of the Old Man’s dream expresses this notion with the swirling patterns, bleeding ink stains and pictures of imperial buildings. The femininity of the orient (Nodelman 1992) is seen in the vision of the young woman in the Old Man’s dream. Nodelman (1994) highlights this ‘feminization’ of the Orient, from a power relationship between east and west, “For Europeans for whom the orient is subject to the gaze, it is therefore, metaphorically, female- and that allows Europe to represent itself and its own authority as male” (p30).
Mosel chooses language which makes the Chinese characters caricatures. There is a repetition of the word “honored” or “honorable”, which does not demonstrate the Chinese contextual meaning but becomes a meaningless stereotype of how Chinese people speak. It is almost as if Mosel had written it to be read with a Chinese accent, for example avoiding the more fluent present continuous tense “The water roars”. Stereotypical Asian references are used in the oriental words “Blossom”, “fish”, “rice cakes”, “Precious Pearl”.
The text lends itself to a feminist reading. The narrative creates a frame to express the oppression of the only female character, the single mother trapped in a traditional patriarchal society. She is pictured constantly in the domestic sphere at the home, unhappily performing domestic duties and is seen washing in four pictures. She is not given the nurturing characteristics of a mother. Rather she is portrayed as emotionally distant especially from her second son.
As language constructs gender (Sunderland 2010), the female is represented through the language used to describe her and the words that she uses (Sunderland, J. 2012). An examination of the words used for the female character create Mosel’s notion of femininity. The mother does not possess essentialist female traits of soft nurturing motherhood. She called her child “Chang, which meant “little or nothing”. (Mosel 1968 ) demonstrating her detachment from her traditional female duty as mother. The negative words that the mother says to her sons further illustrate tension between the genders in the text e.g. “That Troublesome boy”, “Tiresome Child, what are you trying to say?”, “Unfortunate Son, surely the evil spirits have bewitched your tongue.”
The fantasy woman that occurs in the Old Man’s dream represents the male creation of traditional femininity. With a psychoanalytical approach, the Old Man through age, is given decreased masculinity by the author, resulting in his need to control the woman in his dream. The fantasy woman is one that the Old Man can concoct and dominate in his dreams. She embodies traditional notions of feminine beauty with her long flowing hair and silky gown. The Old Man resists leaving his fantasy woman, “Miserable child, you disturb my dream… If I close my eyes perhaps I will again return”.
The psychoanalytical perspective of the picture book focuses on the Old Man’s dream as according to Freud dreams contain the unconscious material that drives conscious thought (Ryan 2007). The Old Man regresses to his childhood in his dreams “I had floated into a purple mist and found my youth again”. The woman in the Old Man’s dreams is his mother. According to Freud and psychoanalytical theory, “full separation from the care-giver is made possible when the child acquires the ability to make mental images or representations of tits initial care-giving object” (Ryan 2007 p97) thus showing the man’s detachment and sense of self.
The Marxist perspective is influenced by the historical context of the text and it’s connection with the class struggle “literature is a product of the popular historical and social formations that prevail at the time of its production” (Sarland 1999 p41). In a Marxist interpretation, Tikki Tikki Tempo is set in an emerging capitalist period. According to Marx, an existing capitalist society is essential before a socialist revolution can occur (Gandhi 1998). The Mother represents the bourgeoisie in this economic system. She uses the old well, a symbol for the means of production that are owned by the ruling class.
The class struggle occurs between the Old Man, the exploited working class and the bourgeois Mother and her sons. The old man is expected to rescue the bourgeois children from the well, one that has the ostentatious name “Tikki Tikki Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruche-pip peri pembo, which meant “the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world!” (Mosel 1968). The bourgeois family forces the Old Man to be available with the life-saving ladder each time the children dangerously play near the well. The use of irony in “your mother’s ‘Precious Pearl’ has fallen into the well” is the climax of class tension. Whilst the woman lives in a house in a community of other similar houses, the Old Man is depicted apart from the mainstream community, alone on a hill, under a tree. He is surrounded by nature and portrayed as an extension of the natural world. When the mother and the son summon him, disrespectful language is used in comparison to the “Most Honorable” title given to the mother. This is especially significant for a culture so rooted in filial piety and respect for age ,“Run and get the Old Man With The ladder” and “Come right away”.
From a liberal humanist perspective, Tikki Tikki Tembo celebrates the feudal values of a pre-industrial rural life and the common human values of love for family and communal spirit. The idyllic landscape is an “escapist response” (Sarland 1999 p39) to the changing developed world in 1968. The Old Man helps the boys out of the well celebrating the communal spirit of a society before the evils of mechanization and urbanization. The old well represents modernity and danger. The kite, an image of a butterfly tied to earth, represents humanity and the children’s happiness. In the first picture the kite is flying in the sky, yet in the second and third pictures the kite is caught on the frame of the well and gradually falling to the ground- illustrating the affect the well is having on human happiness. The kite is seen triumphantly flying high in the sky on the last page.
Interpreting the book through different perspectives highlights the different theoretical perceptions and constructed notions of the child. Rudd (1999) considers the notion of the child as central to the purpose and meaning of a text. The child characters in the book are crucial to the action of the text. They both fall down the well, creating the main source of conflict in the Marxist and feminist interpretations. Yet the children, in their action, can be perceived as vulnerable beings and therefore lacking power reflecting social hierarchy. The fact that the Mother cannot hear her sons reinforces their voiceless state, “I can not hear you”, “what are you trying to say?”.
Tikki Tikki Tembo is a picture book that has received much criticism for it’s lack of cultural authenticity but endures as a text used by teachers. The various interpretations of the book through the lenses of history, structuralism, post colonialism, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalytical and liberal humanism show that the text has a wealth of ideological meaning that is imparted to children. The text does not occur in a socio-political vacuum and is infused with ideology depending on how it is read. Ultimately, literary criticism of children’s literature is an adult domain, excluding the intended readers from the discourse.
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