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Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel Children's Book Review with Story Summary

Updated on September 2, 2011
Tikki Tikki Tembo book cover
Tikki Tikki Tembo book cover

Story Summary

Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel (ISBN-10: 0805006621) was first published in 1968. This well-loved children's book has a dramatic plot that lends itself well to reading aloud in a storytime setting. The story is about two brothers. Chang the younger brother, and Tikki Tikki Tembo, who is the honored first son. The older brother's name is so long that you will find yourself reciting it in a sing-song manner:

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

Tikki Tikki Tembo may be the central character of the story, with his show-stealing name and mother who dotes exclusively on him, but Chang is the true hero. Tikki Tikki Tembo has a tendency to get into trouble and almost drowns when he falls into the well. Chang tries to get help for him in vain, but his efforts are thwarted both by pronouncing Tikki Tikki Tembo's name, which his mother insists he pronounce in its entirety, and his mother's habitual inattention. Finally, after an unsuccessful attempt at communicating Tikki Tikki Tembo's predicament, Chang quietly saves the day by fetching the Old Man with the Ladder. This story will find many admirers in misunderstood and seemingly forgotten middle children.

Blair Lent's illustrations, in dark blue and brown watercolor provide a fitting background to the dour tone of this story. His illustrations of pagodas, kites, birds and the quaint village evoke Asia.

In Tikki Tikki Tembo, Arlene Mosel builds her plot with several folktale elements, including events that happen in threes, and a plucky younger sibling who saves the day. The story is beautifully paced and with its dramatic and dangerous plot, children will be at the edge of their seats until the very end, when Tikki Tikki Tembo is safely carried to his bed by the Old Man with the Ladder.

This book has loyal and ardent fans. It is featured in many professional texts and used as an aid to teach reading. Tikki Tikki Tembo's frequent repetition of story elements lend it to easy memorization, making the story an appealing choice for teaching children to read.

What Do You Think?

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Cultural Stereotyping Controversy

Most Elementary Education majors are now required to take classes about cultural diversity as part of their preparation for teaching school in the United States. Usually as part of the class, student teachers read a large selection of children's stories that represent diverse cultures and cultural themes. Tikki Tikki Tembo loosely falls into the cultural diversity category, because it claims to be the author's version of a Chinese folktale.

Critics of the book claim that it is merely pseudo-oriental, and that it perpetuates banal stereotypes about Chinese culture rather than representing Chinese culture with any level of accuracy. These criticisms are leveled by individuals with a Chinese heritage, so their views should be taken seriously.

Presenters of this book in a public setting should avoid representing the book's content as being an accurate representation of Chinese culture, and if in a public or teaching position, be mindful that it is perceived by some people to be offensive.

My View

Tikki Tikki Tembo is an entertaining children's story that remains popular after being in print for 40 years. However, it should not be used as a resource to represent Chinese culture. One premise of the story is to explain why Chinese people have such short names. The story isn't factual. The story gets away with explaining why Chinese people have such short names because it is written in a folk tale format. The absurd explanation is similar to other folktales I can think of, including Why the Sea Is Salty, which is also an absurd explanation for a scientific question.

Folk tales originally were a means for the uneducated masses to share information and folk wisdom, that, excuse my pun, people tended to take with a grain of salt. These fun and fanciful explanation stories were not meant to represent deep truths.

The troubling thing about Mosely's story is that it was written in an era when Asians were almost universally distrusted. The communist Chinese were considered an enemy of the United States, and the U.S. was in the middle of the Vietnam War, following the Korean conflict. Forty years ago when the book was written, it was completely socially acceptable to make fun of Asians in movies and on TV. I believe the book was written at a time when Chinese culture seemed distantly foreign and inaccessible. Mosely's book is a flight of fancy.

I think that instead of banning this book, teachers could use it as a touchstone to have critical discussions about the core values behind cultural diversity. Where this book is introduced to far younger children and this type of critical discussion isn't realistic, one should avoid using this book as a depiction of Chinese culture. Children in early elementary grades have a black and white point of view, but their ability to think critically about these topics becomes more sophisticated as they grow older.

Ideas for Discussion

  • Use this book with other children's stories such as Brundibar by Maurice Sendak and The Lorax by Dr. Seuss to discuss tolerance and social equality in a late elementary or middle school setting.

  • Does Tikki Tikki Tembo promote positive or negative views of Chinese culture? Why or why not?

  • Is it ever acceptable to represent another culture, as Moseley did, when one does not originate from that culture's point of view? Why or why not?

Alternate Children's Books About Asian Names

Supplement your reading of Tikki Tikki Tembo with the following books about children's names. Names are deeply and personally tied to childrens' identities. Here are some books, some from the multicultural category, and one that is not, that I think will help.  

Three Names of Me by Mary Cummings and illustrated by Lin Wang. This is the touching story of a girl's adoption from China and talks about her American and Chinese names. Due to content, it is recommended for second grade and up.

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. This children's picture book is a fictional story that describes a young Korean immigrant's experience when kids tease her about her different-sounding name.

My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvitz and Gabi Swiatkowska. This book is also about a young Korean girl who struggles to feel accepted in her new environment with an unusual-sounding name. This book is geared toward the Kindergarten through second grade age group and won the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award in 2004. 

Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes. The little mouse in this story is teased about her very long name when she goes to school. Chrysanthemum goes through a considerable amount of angst, despite the reassurances of her parents (who have very well-endowed vocabularies). But a new choir teacher, whom all the kids thinks is fabulous, helps Chrysanthemum find acceptance at last.

More Children's Book Recommendations

Please feel to explore some of my favorite children's books listed here!

Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing by Judi Barrett · A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams · Babies by Gyo Fujikawa · Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See by Bill Martin and Eric Carle · Charley Harper's ABCs by Charlie Harper · Christmas Cookies: Bite-Size Holiday Lessons · Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes · Daughter of a King by Rachel Ann Nunes · Excuse Me! By Lisa Kopelke · Gregory the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat · Harry and The Terrible Whatzit by Dick Gackenbach · Hilda Must Be Dancing by Karma Wilson · I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll · I'd Choose You by John Trent · Joseph Had a Little Overcoat by Simms Taback · King of Kings by Susan Hill · Ladybug Girl by Jacky Davis and David Soman · Lily's Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes · Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney · Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney · Mister Seahorse by Eric Carle · No David! by David Shannon · Olivia by Ian Falconer · Out of the Ocean by Debra Frasier · Snowballs by Lois Ehlert · So Much by Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury · Souperchicken by Mary Jane and Herm Auch · The Gingerbread Boy by Paul Galdone · The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle · The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams · The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman · The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza by Philemon Sturges · The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell · The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy · The Red Shoes a Fairy Tale by Gloria Fowler and Sun Young Yoo · The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats · Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel · Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White · Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak · Yoon and the Christmas Mitten by Helen Recorvits


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