Small, wily, and with a knack for mischief: sound like any of the first graders you know? Tricksters, like our youngest students, are often agents of confusion, sometimes of chaos, but, more often than not, their misdeeds go unpunished. The affinity children feel for these delightful rascals, found across time and cultures, contributes to their popularity.
Tricksters travel under many names: Coyote in the Southwest, Raven in the Northwest, Brer Rabbit and Molly Cottontail in the South, while Anansi comes from Ghana, Little Bush Deer from southern Asia, and Pedro Urdemales, from the “dusty roads of Latin America.” He or she is often an animal, sometimes a person, and occasionally a shape-shifter.
Stories about these cunning creatures don’t offer any morals, though they do have something to say about human nature. A unit on the ubiquitous trickster can last months or stretch into a full school year without exhausting the genre. What early elementary students will enjoy in picture-book format, older children can pursue in lavishly illustrated anthologies that focus on a particular animal, figure, or cultural group, or present a selection of stories from around the world. In addition to introducing youngsters to some of the beloved figures in folk literature, these lively and entertaining tales are perfect for lessons in genre, character, and cross-cultural studies, and offer unlimited opportunities for drama, art, and writing activities.
The sheer number of books on these crafty characters who use their wits to disengage themselves from difficult situations—situations often of their own making—attests to their celebrated status. And who can resist these tales? As one of Robert San Souci’s narrators notes, “if their doings didn’t make the world a finer place, at least they kept it livelier and filled with laughter.”
A Plethora of Picture Books
AARDEMA, Verna, retel. Anansi Does the Impossible! An Ashanti Tale. illus. by Lisa Desimini. S & S/Aladdin. 2000. pap $7.99. ISBN 978-0-689-83933-7.
K-Gr 3–With the help of his clever wife, Aso, Anansi manages to bring a python, a fairy, and 47 stinging hornets to the Sky God in exchange for all the stories in the world. Mixed-media collage art depicts the long-limbed couple as they scurry about fixed on their tasks.
AARDEMA, Verna. Borreguita and the Coyote: A Tale from Ayutla, Mexico. illus. by Petra Mathers. Knopf. 1991. Tr $17. ISBN 0-679-80921-0; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-679-88936-6.
K-Gr 3–Stealthy Coyote is stalking meek, little Borreguita, but each confrontation ends with the frisky lamb hopping off and the scalawag howling in frustration. A sprinkling of Spanish words and a landscape of verdant rolling hills establish the Central American setting.
AYLESWORTH, Jim, retel. The Tale of Tricky Fox: A New England Trickster Tale. illus. by Barbara McClintock. Scholastic. 2001. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-439-09543-3.
K-Gr 2–In this story within a story, a fox, on a bet, sets out to fool a human into putting a fat pig into his sack. He nearly succeeds–until he encounters a teacher, who can spot a teller of tall tales wherever she meets one. This irresistible read-aloud contains chantable refrains and finely detailed, old-timey illustrations.
BANG, Molly. Wiley and the Hairy Man. illus. by author. S & S. 2009. pap. $10.99. ISBN 978-1-4169-9843-3.
Gr 1-4–Off to cut some bamboo, a young boy encounters a rapacious creature that haunts the swamp by the Tombigbee River. But true to his name, and with the help of his mother and his dogs, Wiley is able to chase the frightening shape-shifter away. Monochromatic wash illustrations heighten the drama. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.
CUMMINGS, Pat. Ananse and the Lizard: A West African Tale. illus. by author. Holt. 2002. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-6476-6.
Gr 1-4–When the Chief promises to give his daughter in marriage to the person who can guess her name, Ananse plots to eavesdrop on her conversation. But Lizard foils his plan and marries the young woman in his stead. Watercolor and gouache pictures of a Ghanaian village filled with characters dressed in vibrant, kente-cloth garments illustrate this colorful adventure.
GALDONE, Paul. The Monkey and the Crocodile: A Jataka Tale from India. illus. by author. Clarion. 1987. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-89919-524-7.
K-Gr 3–Relentlessly pursued by a hungry crocodile, a crafty monkey with a penchant for mangoes makes his way down the riverbank to what he (and readers) think is a safe haven. This top-notch heart-thumper features large watercolors infused with jungle greens and sunset oranges.
HAMILTON, Virginia. Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl. illus. by James E. Ransome. Scholastic/Blue Sky. 2003. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-590-47376-7.
K-Gr 4–“Oh! Oh! Split my sides!” Tired of finding his garden pilfered night after night, Bruh Wolf sets a trap. But when the “scarey-crow” fails to do the job, Wolf comes up with a stickier solution. Hamilton’s evocative language breathes new life into this American classic, and Ransome’s scenes, in rich, saturated colors, radiate heat.
HASTINGS, Selina, retel. Reynard the Fox. illus. by Graham Percy. HarperCollins. 1991. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-0-688-09949-7.
Gr 3-5–No one can escape Reynard’s shadow, a shadow that moves “fast and dangerously” throughout the countryside. Angry and frightened, his countrymen go to the king. But instead of a hanging, they witness the rogue’s knighthood. Pencil and colored pencil artwork renders a medieval pastoral setting filled with picturesque details. A masterful retelling.
KIMMEL, Eric A., retel. Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. illus. by Janet Stevens. Holiday House. 1988. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-0689-0; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-0798-9.
K-Gr 3–In this story, the fruit-stealing opportunist’s comeuppance is delivered by unassuming Little Bush Deer, but “if you think Anansi learned his lesson, you’re mistaken.” Repetitive phrases and sound effects and large, comical illustrations make this book a real crowd-pleaser. DVD and audio versions available from Live Oak Media.
KIMMEL, Eric A., retel. Anansi and the Talking Melon. illus. by Janet Stevens. Holiday House. 1994. RTE $17.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-1104-7; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-1167-2.
K-Gr 3–A talking melon? Elephant can’t believe his ears, and insists on taking his extraordinary find to the king. But unbeknownst to Elephant, his entourage, and the ruler, the duplicitous spider is inside the fruit, ready and eager to make fools of his friends. Exuberant spreads filled with comically expressive details portray a gullible group. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.
KNUTSON, Barbara. Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale from the Andes Mountains. illus. by author. Carolrhoda. 2004. PLB $16.95. ISBN 978-1-57505-657-9.
K-Gr 4–Fans of the genre will recognize elements from the Tar Baby story and one or two other tales in this delightful story that features a few uniquely Andean details. Stunning woodcut and watercolor artwork in vivid colors depicts a pesky, alfalfa-loving guinea pig that always ends up on top.
KNUTSON, Barbara. Sungura and Leopard: A Swahili Trickster Tale. illus. by author. Lerner. 2007. pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-8225-6801-8.
K-Gr 2–Unaware that the other has chosen the same grassy clearing to settle down, a rabbit and a leopard gather sticks and mud to build a house. When they discover that they are sharing a home, Leopard starts planning his dinner, and Rabbit, a way to get rid of his housemate. Distinctive watercolors and ink on scratchboard illustrate this story from Tanzania.
MCDERMOTT, Gerald. Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti. illus. by author. Holt. 1972. Tr $17.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-0310-9; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-8050-0311-6.
K-Gr 4–The spider’s six sons use their extraordinary abilities to rescue father when he falls into trouble. McDermott’s stunning illustrations in bold, vibrant colors incorporate traditional African geometric motifs. Audio version available from Live Oak Media.
MCDERMOTT, Gerald. Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest. illus. by author. Houghton. 1994. RTE $16. ISBN 978-0-15-220724-3; pap. $7. ISBN 978-0-15-201958-7.
K-Gr 3–Envious Coyote wants to fly like a bird, so he approaches Old Man Crow for assistance. Eager to teach the boastful and demanding creature a lesson, the elder agrees. Paintings depicting exaggerated expressions, dancing animals wearing headbands, and a plummeting troublemaker adorned with feathers, add to the humor.
MCDERMOTT, Gerald. Papagayo: The Mischief Maker. illus. by author. Houghton. 1992. Tr $18. ISBN 978-0-15-259465-7; pap. $8. ISBN 978-0-15-259464-0.
K-Gr 3–Sporting brilliant plumage, a raucous parrot bursts forth onto these pages and into the jungle as he greets each new day–and wakes all his nocturnal friends. But Papagaygo’s loud (and thieving) ways are quickly forgiven when he finds a way to chase hungry moon-dog away.
MCDERMOTT, Gerald. Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest. illus. by author. Houghton. 1993. Tr $16. ISBN 978-0-15-265661-4; pap. $7. ISBN 978-0-15-202449-9.
K-Gr 5–“All the world was in darkness,” when Raven came, so he set out to find light. To get close to it, the tenacious bird is reborn into the Sky Chief’s household, where it’s hidden away. Scenes both shadowy and luminous and a brooding cadence add a mysterious quality to a story that never fails to mesmerize young listeners.
MCDERMOTT, Gerald. Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from Africa. illus. by author. Houghton. 1992. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-15-299967-4; pap. $7. ISBN 978-0-15-201010-2.
K-Gr 4–“Zomo!…He is not big. He is not strong. But he is very clever.” So begins this story of a confident (as well as speedy and mischievous) rabbit who must complete three “impossible” tasks before he can earn wisdom. Bright yellow pages set the stage for the action-filled scenes.
MCKISSACK, Patricia C. Flossie & the Fox. illus. by Rachel Isadora. Dial. 1986. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8037-0250-9.
K-Gr 3–A fox has been circling the McCutchin place and their hens won’t lay eggs, so sassy Flossie Finley is dispatched to deliver a basketful to them. On her way, she meets a bushy-tailed, yellow-eyed, sharp-clawed critter that can’t seem to shake the child’s confidence. Soft pastels depict sun-dappled wooded paths traveled by these formidable foes. DVD and audio versions available from Weston Woods.
MCKISSACK, Patricia C. Monkey-Monkey’s Trick. illus. by Paul Meisel. Random. 1989. pap. $3.99. ISBN 978-0-394-89173-6.
K-Gr 3–Long before Monkey-Monkey knows the true identity of the beautiful creature who offers to help him build a house and the ugly monster that jumps out of the bushes each night and steals his stew, readers will recognize hyena’s telltale “He he ho!” and “Chomp! Chomp! Chomp!” A deliciously satisfying tale just right for beginning readers and group sharing.
MORALES, Yuyi. Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. illus. by author. Chronicle. 2003. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-8118-3758-3.
Gr 1-4–When the grim reaper (depicted here as Señor Calavera) comes for Grandmother Beetle, she keeps him waiting–and ultimately thwarts him–as she completes the preparations for her birthday party. Follow this story with the DVD version (Nutmeg Media) or Morales’s Just in Case (Roaring Brook, 2008), another tale steeped in the colorful Day of the Dead traditions.
SCOTT, Nathan Kumar. The Sacred Banana Leaf: An Indonesian Trickster Tale. illus. by Radhashyam Raut. Tara (India). 2008. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-81-86211-28-1.
K-Gr 4–One minute he’s walking along eating a sweet rice cake and in the next, Kanchil finds himself at the bottom of a deep pit. But not for long: the sly mouse deer convinces the other forest animals that the pit is the place to be and when they join him, he gets himself ejected. The eastern Indian Patachitra-style artwork features delicate patterns in warm colors.
STEVENS, Janet, retel. Coyote Steals the Blanket: A Ute Tale. illus. by reteller. Holiday House. 1993. RTE $17.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-0996-9; pap. $6.95. ISBN 978-0-8234-1129-0.
K-Gr 3–Warned by a hummingbird not to touch the beautiful blankets draped over the desert rocks, Coyote takes one and finds himself pursued by a huge, angry boulder that’s home to an ancient spirit. Illustrations in blue and brown hues mirror the energy of the frenetic chase.
STEVENS, Janet, retel. Old Bag of Bones: A Coyote Tale. illus. by reteller. Holiday House. 1996. RTE $15.95. ISBN 0-8234-1215-6.
K-Gr 3–Hearing that strong young Buffalo has special powers, decrepit Old Coyote asks the youth to help him regain his strength. Buffalo performs his magic, but when the braggart refuses to heed his warnings, the stage is set for his undoing.
STEVENS, Janet, adapt. Tops & Bottoms. illus. by adapter. Harcourt. 1995. Tr $17. ISBN 978-0-15-292851-3.
K-Gr 3–Hare has a family to feed, Bear has land, so they forge a partnership. But how to split the crops? When Bear chooses tops, Hare plants carrots. When he chooses bottoms, it’s lettuce. When the lazy Bear demands both, what does Hare grow? Corn, of course, saving the “middles” for himself. Brightly painted spreads invigorate this rib-tickling tale. DVD and audio versions available from Spoken Arts Media.
Tales for the Telling
BADOE, Adwoa. The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories. illus. by Baba Wagué Diakité. Groundwood. 2008. pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-0-88899-869-9.
Gr 2-5–Badoe retells 10 stories he heard as a child growing up in Ghana in which the spider assumes the role of an evenhanded judge, a forgetful guest, a newlywed, and the owner of a singing cloak. A striking earthenware-tile image, framed by black-pen sketches of the smiling spider climbing, crawling, and cavorting, introduces each story.
BRUSCA, Maria Christina & Tona Wilson, retels. Pedro Fools the Gringo: And Other Tales of a Latin American Trickster. illus. by Maria Christina Brusca. Holt. 1995. pap. $14.95. ISBN 978-0-8050-3827-9.
Gr 3-6–Though it’s the wealthy and powerful who are often the butt of his escapades, priests and foreigners are just as likely to be hoodwinked by this centuries-old itinerant folk character who wends his way through South and Central America. Black-and-white caricatures illustrate the individual tales.
HAMILTON, Virginia. A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies and Africa. illus. by Barry Moser. Scholastic/Blue Sky. 1997. pap. $22.95. ISBN 978-0-590-47374-3.
K Up–Hamilton’s eloquent storytelling and Moser’s consummate artistry will captivate readers as they trace the path of these stories from East and West Africa to the Caribbean and America and back to Africa through Sierra Leone, the home of former slaves. Alongside stories of Anansi, Lizard, and Wren, they’ll meet Cunnie Rabbit, Old Man Turtle, and Chameleon.
LESTER, Julius. Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales. illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Dial. 1999. Tr $37. ISBN 978-0-8037-2451-8.
Gr 4 Up–Lester is well known for his contemporary retellings of the stories collected by folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, and all four of his Uncle Remus anthologies are presented in this omnibus edition, illustrated with masterful color and black-and-white art. Lester’s thoughtful introduction to his awarding-winning work is essential reading.
MCKISSACK, Patricia C. Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters. illus. by André Carrilho. Random/Schwartz & Wade. 2006. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-0-375-83619-0; PLB $22.99. ISBN 978-0-375-93619-7.
Gr 5 Up–Remembering the stories told to her on grandparents’ porch by friends, neighbors, and relatives, the author frames her tales with an introduction by the teller. Though the ne’er-do-wells, charming slicksters, and questionable characters that frequent these yarns are mostly locals, a few legendary figures also make an appearance.
MATTHEWS, John & Caitlín Matthews. Trick of the Tale: A Collection of Trickster Tales. illus. by Tomislav Tomic. Candlewick. 2008. RTE $18.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-3646-3.
Gr 3-5–This superb sampling of stories yields such gems as “Chauntecleer’s Dream” from France, “Partners” from Finland, “Frog and Crow” from Tibet, and “A Hill of Beans” from Japan. Exquisitely detailed ink-and-watercolor art creates a stunning package.
ROSS, Gayle. How Rabbit Tricked Otter: And Other Cherokee Trickster Stories. illus. by Murv Jacob. Parabola Bks. 2003. pap. $12.95. ISBN 978-0-930407-60-5.
K-Gr 6–Step into Cherokee territory where animals hold council, play stickball, dance, and sometimes make mischief. Richly textured painted scenes incorporate patterned frames with geometric and natural motifs. A map of the southeast outlines the home of this Native American tribe and its neighbors.
SAN SOUCI, Robert D., retel. Sister Tricksters: Rollicking Tales of Clever Females. illus. by Daniel San Souci. August House/LittleFolk. 2006. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978-0-87483-791-9.
Gr 4-6–As Mistah Slickry Sly-fox, Mistah Bear, and Rooster will tell you, Miz Grasshopper, Miz Duck, and Molly Cottontail defy the notion that it’s only menfolks who possess a “trickish turn of mind.” Rustically framed artwork on glossy pages features groups of feisty creatures in all their Sunday finery.
SHEPARD, Aaron. The Adventures of Mouse Deer: Tales of Indonesia and Malaysia. illus. by Kim Gamble. Skyhook. 2008. pap. $8. ISBN 978-0-938497-32-5.
K-Gr 3–Mouse Deer’s small stature leaves him vulnerable in the jungle, but crocodile, tiger, and farmer are no match for this quick-witted, fearless creature. Give this book to children making their first forays into chapter books, and visit the author’s Web site to download readers theater scripts.
SHERMAN, Josepha. Trickster Tales: Forty Folk Stories from Around the World. illus. by David Boston. August House. 1997. pap. $18.95. ISBN 978-0-87483-450-5.
Gr 5 Up–This outstanding collection includes tales from Africa, Asia, and the Near East that are unavailable in other volumes. A section on Native American stories introduces children to tales of the Inuit, Apache, Kiowa, Blackfoot, Menomine, and Algonquin peoples. Each selection is introduced with commentary on its origin or the traditions it draws from, and common motifs are noted.
WALKER, Richard, retel. The Barefoot Book of Trickster Tales. illus. by Claudio Muñoz. Barefoot. 1998. Tr $18.95. ISBN 978-1-902283-08-1.
K-Gr 3–Readers encounter both familiar and lesser-known rascals and meddlers in this anthology featuring selections from the North American as well as Kampuchean, Turkish, Russian, English, Bengali, and Swiss traditions. Delightful full-page and spot art ink-and-watercolor illustrations add humor and cultural details.
Author Online! Aaron Shepard’s Home Page. http://aaronshep.com. Aaron Shepard. (Accessed 10/25/09).
Here teachers will find printable readers theater scripts for a variety of folktales, including three trickster tales, “The Adventures of Mouse Deer,” “How Frog Went to Heaven,” and “The Wicked Girl.”
Eric A. Kimmel: Author and Story Teller. http://ericakimmel.com. Eric A. Kimmel. (Accessed 10/25/09).
The author posts guides to several Anansi tales along with an interview in which he discusses his role as a storyteller and his adaptation of these stories.
EDSITEment: Fables and Trickster Tales Around the World. http://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?id=237. National Endowment for the Humanities. (Accessed 10/25/09).
A series of four lesson plans for Grades 3-5 “introduce children to folk tales through a literary approach that emphasizes genre categories and definitions.” Includes links to online archival materials, stories, and lesson plans for grades K-2 on “Aesop and Ananse.”
KRAUS, Anne Marie. Folktale Themes and Activities for Children: Trickster and Transformation Tales. Volume 2. Teacher Ideas Press. 1999. pap. $30. ISBN 978-156308603.
Kraus considers the trickster tale as a unit of literature study, presenting goals, suggestions for read alouds, and writing, art, drama and math activities. She provides a list of stories by theme and topic and an extensive annotated bibliography by continent and cultural group.