Tikki Tikki Tembo


Written by Arlene Mosel, Illustrated by Blair Lent

Henry Holt and Company, 1968

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, it was the custom of all the fathers and mothers in China to give their first and honored sons great long names. But second sons were given hardly any names at all.

The plot in a nutshell: A boy’s long name causes him some trouble.

The family in this story has two sons. The first is named Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo and the second is named Chang. Every day the two boys play near the well while their mother is washing clothes. One day, Chang falls into the well and the oldest son runs to tell his mother that Chang has fallen in. His mother tells him to go get the Old Man With the Ladder and he does so. The old man comes and rescues him and for a long while, the boys avoid the well. But then one day, they play near it and Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo falls in. Chang runs to tell his mother, but has to repeat the name a few times, which makes him short of breath. His mother has him go to get the old man, but he has difficulty saying his brother’s name and by the time the old man gets there to rescue him, the older boy has been in the well a long time and needs a longer recovery. Ever since this, Chinese families have given their children short and easily pronounced names.

Chang in the Well

That frog looks happy to have some company.

This classic story from author Arlene Mosel has been around since I was a little girl and in a brief poll around my office, I was not surprised to learn that many of my co-workers still remember the full version of the main character’s name. The story being retold by Ms. Mosel here actually has its roots in Japan, where it was a traditional rakugo (spoken entertainment) story. The Japanese version of the name is more than three times as long as the full name in this story. (Google ‘Jugemu’ to check it out.)  Despite its popularity and critical acclaim, the book has come under fire for supporting Asian stereotypes.

Blair Lent’s artwork seems to be a bit of an homage to the story’s Japanese heritage, as there are definitely some Japanese elements apparent in the illustrations, such as the boys’ mother wearing what appears to be a kimono. The illustrations are pretty exclusively done in shades of blue, yellow, green and gray. As a child, I loved the artwork, particularly the swirly wisps of the old man’s dream. As a parent, I always loved reading this book aloud to my kids (especially as Chang, out of breath and trying to say his brother’s name) and I’m glad to know more of its history now.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that moderation is almost always preferable to excess.


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