Behind the Back of the Mountain: Black Folktales from Southern Africa

by Verna Aardema

Hardcover, 1973



Local notes

398.2 Aa



E P Dutton (1973), Hardcover


Physical description

9 inches


9990429898 / 9789990429893



User reviews

LibraryThing member AbigailAdams26
Two years before the publication of her classic picture book, the Caldecott Medal-winning Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, Verna Aardema came out with Behind the Back of the Mountain, a collection of ten folktales from southern Africa. Readers familiar with her work will undoubtedly recognize some of the stories here, as Aardema has recycled a number of them in recent years, adapting them as picture books. But whether the tales are familiar or unknown, young folklore enthusiasts will be glad to read them. Included are:

Little Hen Eagle, a Zulu tale in which a chief's daughter is sent to stay with her married older sister, after she kills her brother's leopard. The plot in which Little Hen Eagle's maidservant steals her clothing and takes her place, is a widespread one in world folklore, although the punishment meted out to the wrongdoer is refreshingly benign.

The Trick on the Trek, a "Bushman" (AKA San?) tale in which crocodile negotiates a short-lived peace treaty between the animals of the water and the animals of the land, in order to assure her people safe passage to another river.

Tshinyama's Heavenly Maidens, a Tshindao tale in which a young man with unsightly sores wins two unlikely wives for himself, when he observes two beautiful winged maidens descending to the watering hole from heaven.

How Blue Crane Taught Jackal to Fly, a "Hottentot" tale in which Blue Crane tricks Jackal into thinking he can learn to fly, in retaliation for the trick he has played on Mother Dove. Aardema retold this tale in her 1995 picture book, Jackal's Flying Lesson, where she describes it as a "Khoikhoi" tale.

The Winning of Kwelanga, a Zulu tale in which a poor young man named Zamo sets out to win the beautiful Kwelanga, daughter of a powerful chief. With its three "impossible" tasks, each overcome by the hero with outside assistance, this is another tale with many variants worldwide.

Sebgugugu the Glutton, a Bantu tale in which a poor man loses every blessing given to him by Imana the Creator, through his heedless ingratitude. Aardema retold this tale in a 1993 picture book of the same name, illustrated by Nancy L. Clouse.

This for That, a Thonga tale in which a trickster Rabbit makes a series of exchanges, hoping eventually to obtain some water. This is another story adapted by Aardema elsewhere, in a 1997 picture book of the same name.

Tusi and the Great Beast, a Zulu tale in which a beautiful chief's daughter is abducted by the giant beast Mapundu, encounters the half-people known as the Lungulebe, and eventually marries another chief.

Saso and Gogwana the Witch, a Tshindao tale in which a young boy and his faithful dog outwit the terrible witch intent on killing them, and free an entire village from her evil.

And finally, The House in the Middle of the Road, a Zulu tale in which a widow named Unanana must rescue her children from the elephant who has devoured them.

I enjoyed Behind the Back of the Mountain, and was fascinated to see the ways in which Aardema has adapted the same tales in different contexts. The evolution of the names used for African peoples, in the post-colonial context, was also very interesting. How Blue Crane Taught Jackal to Fly is described as a "Hottentot" tale in this 1973 book, but by the 1995 publication of Jackal's Flying Lesson, "Khoikhoi" was being used. Parents and educators will want to be aware of this, so children don't come away with the wrong terminology.

On a final note, the black and white illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, who went on to collaborate with Aardema on Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears and Who's In Rabbit's House?, are simply gorgeous! This is well worth seeking out, for the artwork alone!
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