On Tricksters: Ananse and Kanchil

A trickster is just what a storymaker needs: a character who makes things happen.

– “Author’s Note”, Ananse’s Feast: An Ashanti Tale, retold by Tololwa M. Mollel and illustrated by Andrew Glass.

The line separating folklore and fairytales is blurry at best, with most people understanding fairytales as a kind of “subgenre” of folktales– an assumption that I too make for the sake of this month’s theme. Additionally, this allows me to set into motion my most devious and not-so-secret plan of looking at trickster figures!

To that end, these are the picturebooks I have chosen to review:

I have to say I feel rather proud of myself for the books I have chosen. (Is one allowed to be proud of accidental choices? Because when I picked the first, I did not really intend for it to work so well with the second.) Ananse’s Feast: An Ashanti Tale compliments and contrasts with Mangoes & Bananas so wonderfully that I would actually suggest reading them together should you ever go on a trickster-centric reading binge

Ananse’s Feast was retold by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by Andrew Glass, and published in 1997. It is a delightful story about the clever spider Ananse who has toiled to have food on his table during a famine. However, Ananse does not wish to share this feast of his. So when Akye the turtle comes knocking, Ananse finds a way to trick his friend in order to devour the food by himself. But what happens when the tables are turned, and Ananse is the guest? Well, I’ll just let you read the rest. If you live in Vancouver, the book is available through the Vancouver Public Library. The copy I have with me belongs to the Neville Scarfe / Education Library at UBC.

Mangoes & Bananas, written by Nathan Kumar Scott and illustrated by T. Balaji, is quite a similar tale- only this time the protagonist earns his title as the trickster and holds on to it. Kanchil the mouse deer and Monyet the monkey decide to grow their own garden of mangoes and bananas. But once the fruit is ripe and ready, Kanchil realizes that he must depend on Monyet to climb the trees and gather the food. Once up on the trees, Monyet has to make a decision: eat the ripe, juicy fruit on his own, or share them with his friend. (Spoiler: he’s a cheeky little monkey and does not want to share. And no, Kanchil won’t stand for such betrayal!) This copy was gifted to me from a friend who shares my love of mouse deer. I believe she bought it at Mixed Media, a charming art store in Hamilton, Ontario. The book was published in 2007 by Tara, an Indian publishing house, so if you’re not in Hamilton, I think the best way to acquire a copy is to order it through your local art/comic shop. Maybe you could ask around at Kidsbooks. Another alternative is to make friends with people who will buy it for you!

So, as I mentioned in the beginning, these two books have a lot in common. According to Hynes and Doty, “trickster myths can be a powerful teaching device utilizing deeply humorous negative examples that reveal and reinforce the societal values that are being broken (Gluckman 1965: 109)”1. And with these two books you can clearly see how the humour is used to teach, with the trickster figure being on both sides of the schooling experience. Apart from the masterful use of folklore and trickster figures to re/tell a couple of memorable tales, both books have two more common threads- food and friends. Basically, not-so-long stories short, if you don’t share food you miss out on some awesome friends.

But in all seriousness, the most interesting commonality is that both picturebooks have a kind of mixed authorship. Ananse is traditionally a West African tale while Mollel is East African (and settled in Canada), but his writing is honest and playful, which exactly what a story such as this demands. Mollel also brings a slight East African flavour to this story, and you must appreciate that he mentions this in his note, because how else would a foreign audience know about the subtleties in the details? Also, plus points for the useful pronunciation guide at the end. Text aside, it is worth mentioning that Glass, the illustrator, is from Pittsburgh. But trust me when I say, that doesn’t mean anything. The bright, sketchy layers of colours not only breathe new life into an old tale, but add to the comic element of the story. And so, as good picturebooks ought to, the images complete the story in a seamless fashion. Very nicely done, in my opinion.

No such pronunciation guide in Mangoes and Bananas but we do get a nice, brief history for Kanchil from Scott’s note. Kanchil is a prominent figure in Indonesian and Malaysian folklore, but this picturebook is not (to my knowledge), based on a story from either country’s oral traditions. And yet, there is something oddly familiar to the tale. (Not a complaint, just an observation.) The art, on the other hand, is as South Indian as it gets and it’s quite beautiful if I may say so myself! I really liked that there is another brief, history section on Kalamkari art from Balaji and the book even has a “Create Your Own Kalamkari Art” section at the end. Anyway, you can see how the story’s origins and the artwork may clash. Personally, I quite liked the blending of styles. Scott himself is not really Indian, but he was born and raised (and I think he actually works?) in India. (He even speaks fluent Hindi, which is more than I can say for myself!) At first I was suspicious of this mashing up of Asian storytelling traditions, but India, Indonesia, and Malaysia have shared folkloric and religious influences for centuries now and it really helps that the picturebook was so well done that it wasn’t a jarring reading experience at all. Although, I am pretty curious to see what readers from Malaysia and/or Indonesia thought of this one.

Why You May Like Ananse’s Feast: It is a bright, beautiful story in terms of text as well as visuals. And it has an author’s note that tells you what’s what!

Why You May Not Like It: The artwork may not be something your personally enjoy. Or maybe your kid hates spiders. Or you hate spiders. You are not allowed to dislike turtles.

Why you may like Mangoes & Bananas: A clever, respectful presentation of an old folk figure through a new story, accompanied by gorgeous artwork. Plus, the book actually tells you how to make art and provides you with a helpful backstory for Kanchil.

Why You May Not Like It: The blending of various art/story traditions may not work for you. Or maybe the art style is not enjoyable. Admittedly, this isn’t the most alluring colour palette for kids. Apart from that, I don’t know why you would dislike this one. I mean, it has mangoes in the title and a mouse deer on the cover. Have you even seen a mouse deer?! *breathes in* Okay, no judgment. None. *breathes out* Okay.

That’s it from me. Have a great weekend, my invisible readers!

1Hynes, William J., William G. Doty, and Project Muse University Press Archival eBooks. 1997. Mythical trickster figures. Chicago: University of Alabama Press.