Book review: ‘Tikki Tikki Tembo’

What’s in a name? A great deal if you are trying to explain to someone that your brother has just fallen into the well and might drown.

“Tikki Tikki Tembo” by Arlene Mosel is a nearly 40-year-old favorite among those who read to children at home or in the classroom. The book is requested by children as a favorite because the name of the oldest son “Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo” is fun to say and to learn.

The story line is simple yet interesting because the illustrations by Blair Lent aid in its telling and create an emotional impression on readers. This is definitely a book to read to children while pointing to and talking about the pictures.

It seems that a single mother lives with her two boys in a small mountain village in China. The first and honored son is called Tikki Tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo, which, according to the storyteller means “the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world!” Her second son is simply called Chang, which according to the storyteller means “little or nothing”. So emerges both the fun of the story and the primary problem — saying the boys’ name.

“Both boys did not always mind their mother and one day they were playing beside the well, and on the well when Chang fell in!”

Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo runs for help first to his mother. Then she sends him to the unlikely hero of the story, the “Old Man With The Ladder.” The Old Man is found sleeping under a tree with his ladder leaning nearby, a great visual symbol for the role that old people play in our lives; they’re ready to rescue us when we’re in trouble if we know enough to ask.

Of course the inevitable trouble occurs when the older brother, Tikki Tikki, you know the rest, falls in the well and little Chang has to repeat the name several times to call the rescuers into action. He almost doesn’t manage it.

On the web, I was able to find a great amount of discussion in literary circles about the inaccuracies of this simple portrayal of Chinese cultural practices of naming children, not to mention the discussions about the obvious bias the mother in the story has for her oldest son.

What is most important to understand is that most Chinese have one or two characters for their given names, that one needs to know the meaning of a character when naming a child, and the name itself reflects the hope of his or her parents. In other words, length has no importance at all.

Many critics of this well-loved children’s book cite that in actuality, the folk-tale is Japanese not Chinese and that back when the book was written there was more propensity to lump Asian cultures together as one.

With an award winning book like “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” which has proven its popularity over the years, the question comes up:

Which reason is more important to read to my children, entertainment or cultural accuracy? Before you take it off of your child’s bookshelf, consider that each reason is a great reason to love reading to children.


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