Tikki Tikki Tembo
retold by Arlene Mosel
illustrated by Blair Lent

Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo
illustrated by Blair Lent

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

At its center, a children's book about favoritism

Arlene Mosel retold this ancient Chinese folktale in book form some 40 years ago. It came to my attention when I noticed it still hovering near the top of Amazon's bestseller list among children's books.

It has sold over a million copies. It's premise is this...

Chinese parents used to give their precious oldest sons long, glorified names. Tikki tikki tembo is really named

Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo

Translation (per Mosel): "The most wonderful thing in the whole wide world."

His younger brother is simply named Chang.

Translation: "little" or "nothing."


And while Mom reveres Tikki Tikki etc., she's been known to call Chang "troublesome" and "unfortunate."

The story centers around two main events, as first Chang and then Tikki fall into a well. In each case, the brother who didn't fall reports the accident to their mother.

cropped image from Tikki Tikki Tembo

Chang is quickly rescued by The Old Man With The Ladder. But when Chang reports Tikki's fall, she insists,

Speak your brother's name with reverence.

In other words, say the whole thing and don't miss any syllables. Needless to say, Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo is not rescued quite as quickly and takes longer to recover from his near drowning.

Difference between Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo and the Folktale

As I read the book, something struck me as a little "off." I had a suspicion that Tikki Tikki actually died in the folkloric telling, and I was right. After all, there isn't much message if both boys survive! But apparently American publishers didn't want a book featuring a dead child.

Also, Mosel tells us that the message is not to give your kid a long name. To my mind, the message is, "Parents, don't play favorites!" And I suspect that your child will pick up on the favoritism that lies rather obviously (though unmentioned) at the heart of this story.

That makes Tikki Tikki Tembo, to my mind, a flawed book, but I love flawed books! I always feel they provide an opportunity for discussion about a family's values that a straightforward and unobjectionable book doesn't.

This book provides an excellent opportunity to discuss favoritism and imperfect parenting.

See if you agree.

More children's folklore from other places.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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