How the Leopard Got His Spots Tangling with a Strong Female: An Ashanti Folk Tale Retold by Verna Aardema

Years ago I found this picture book of a West African folk tale at the going-out-of-business sale of a children’s book store.   Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki (Frederick Warne, 1979) may not be as popular as Verna Aardema’s other retellings of African stories such as  Who’s in Rabbit’s House, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, or Bringing the Rain to Kaputi Plain, but it’s impossible not to laugh at a story about a leopard, a fly the girls can’t get enough of, a dainty peanut, a cautious banana, and the righter of wrongs, a ball of cornmeal mush.  Half a ball, to be precise.

“I do not really mean that this story is true, “ the Ashanti storyteller begins, as if to prepare the audience for the absurd plot culminating in an epic battle.  Leopard invites Fly to go look for girls to marry, ignoring his friend’s warning that they will like him better.  He oils up his fur, puts on gold ornaments, and gives his dirty old sleeping blanket to Fly to carry, figuring no one will pay him any attention.  But Fly is greeted warmly when entering a village, while Leopard is driven out.   The mat must drive the girls crazy for Fly, Leopard supposes, so he shoulders the bundle and gives Fly his jewelry.  His luck does not improve in the third village, where he hears the girls whisper that Fly is so handsome they’d run away with him in a minute if their fathers wouldn’t beat them.

The spurned Leopard takes back his ornaments, then grabs Fly and ties him to a tree.  He guards his prisoner concealed in the bushes close by.   Nkatee the peanut comes down the path pip pip pip and calls out to the fly, who replies, “It’s I, the Fly, tied / By Leopard to this tree, / Because the girls hated him, / But they loved me.  / Oooo! Please come and set me free.”  Nkatee has no intention of letting Leopard making her into peanut soup and runs off. Tuk-pik, tuk-pik, Kwadu the banana passes by  and won’t help for fear of Leopard mashing her to a smooth paste.  (In the version Aardema retold from Akan-Ashanti Folktales (1930) collected by the early Africanist Captain R. S. Rattray, every vegetable in the garden passes by and ignores Fly’s plea for help, making the prospects for release nearly hopeless.)

Then Donkonfa, the half-a-ball of kenki comes rolling down the path singing her song.  She doesn’t waste any time setting Fly free, and the infuriated Leopard bursts out of his hiding place and challenges her to a fight.  She accepts and they build a big fire in the middle of the path so they will be able to see if the struggle goes on after dark.  When Leopard fails to get the better of his shapeshifting opponent after two rounds of wrestling, she gets serious and uses all her strength to pick him up and throw him in the fire.  He concedes and emerges from the fire a changed beast.  His once beautiful yellow coat has been transformed by black scorch marks where the burning wood touched it and white where the ashes settled.  To thank Donkonfa for saving their ancestor, flies never sit on balls of kenki, only the leaves in which they are wrapped.   The Ashanti storyteller closes with “This is my story.  If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some and let the rest come back to me.”  Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki would not be half as sweet or nearly as funny without Dianne Stanley’s vibrant illustrations  in which she took on the challenge of bringing to life a highly unlikely heroine—amorphous, powerful, and deliciously absurd at the same time.  And that’s that!

Bulgy Bears Hibernating in Picture Books

Few of us have encountered bears in the wild, but we know that they hibernate during cold winters when food is scarce.  To survive prolonged periods of inactivity, they must lay on stores of fat.   If the child’s work is playing, then the bear’s is stuffing.  The Katmai National Park and Preserve frame it more scientifically to nature lovers in the promotion of 2022 Fat Bear Week:

Fat Bear Week is a celebration of success and survival. It is a way to celebrate the resilience, adaptability and strength of Katmai’s brown bears. Bears are matched against each other in a “march madness” style competition and online visitors can vote who is ultimately crowned the Fat Bear Week 2022 Champion. Over the course of the week, virtual visitors learn more about the lives and histories of individual bears while also gaining a greater understanding of Katmai’s ecosystem through a series of live events hosted on

Sorry Pooh, but bears are more closely associated with food than song in children’s books.  As foragers, they have better manners than their real-life counterparts in the woods and streams, that is to say, they can be persuaded (not effortlessly) to share food they have found. In author/illustrator Joerg Muehle’s Two for Me, One for You (English translation 2019, c. 2012), the bear gives mushrooms to his friend the weasel to cook, but they quickly start a quarrel over how three can be divided fairly between two.  Whose work is more important: bear’s in the woods or weasel’s in the kitchen?  Who likes mushrooms the most?  Who’s bigger?  Who’s grabbier? During the squabble, a fox comes along and snitches the  mushroom in contention, which causes the pair to set aside their differences and enjoy one each.  While this is a good fable for small children, the bear’s gracious capitulation to circumstances seems not quite ursine.  What bear could possibly be satisfied with such a small meal?  To eat so sparingly is surely against its best interest, at least in the run-up to winter..

Alice Bach imagines in The Smartest Bear and His Brother Oliver (1975) a  bear family’s fall feasting, i.e. the consumption of massive amounts of calories in a succession of meals, many on the scale of Thanksgiving dinners.  Mother cheerfully makes the epic shopping trips, wheeling home two carts at a time.  One of her twins, Ronald, hates fall feasting because it takes time away from his project of reading through the encyclopedia.  Were he to accomplish his goal, he would be smartest bear in the world, which would demonstrate to everyone that he’s not the same as his brother Oliver, who has an appetite for everything and anything in the fall, emptying pots of stew and bowls of pudding and plates of flapjacks and syrup and muffins and applesauce.  He is such an eager eater than he sleeps on a blanket next to the kitchen stove so he won’t miss a spoonful.

At every meal, Ronald resists.  The arrival of Aunt Bear at dinner time, loaded down with five enormous baskets of her famous  tooth-achingly sweet winter tarts, interrupts his progress through volume 5.  He says he’s really not hungry, prompting her to scold, “If you don’t eat enough, you might not sleep through the whole winter.  Your stomach will wake up.  There you’ll be, wide awake, while the rest of the bear world is cozy and plump sleeping through the cold time.”  He whispers under his breath, “You all feast without me” and plots to stay awake all winter so he can read through the last volume of the encyclopedia,, a thought that cheers him up enough to eat creamed squash, multiple slices of wheat bread and honey, and some of his aunt’s tarts loaded with nuts and dried fruits, just to be sociable.

Before the dishes can be piled in the sink, Ronald races back to his encyclopedia, thinking he can get to the Rs before the first snowfall, no matter how often his no-neck brother with the clogged-up brain tells him to give his eyes a break.  After an outburst of unbrotherly love, Ma and Pa give them their birthday presents early—a bakery truck for Oliver and a typewriter for Ronald.  Confirmed in his identity as the smart bear of the future, Ronald rebonds with his “identical” twin over an enormous casserole of baked sweet potatoes and marshmallows just before collapsing into the snug family bed until spring.   Stephen Kellogg’s illustrations celebrate the glorious excess, which humans fancy is a bear’s birth rite, although just as likely a projection of our desire to overindulge in rich foods  without consequence when the weather turns nippy.

Victoria Miles’ Old Mother Bear (2007) is more likely to satisfy readers with a taste for “truth and realities” for having poetically documented the last three years in a twenty-four -year-old female grizzly’s life, in which she raises her last litter of cubs. Several of Molly Bang’s inset illustrations show the bear family feeding quietly in the alpine meadows and hills.  The climax of this factual account, based on a real bear in the Flathead River valley of southern British Columbia, is  a series of three double-page spreads in which the mother bear fights off a male half her age and twice her size.  The culmination of the cubs’ education is symbolized by the return with their own young to the huckleberry patches their mother led them to those three summers.   The description of the old bear’s death is somber but ultimately not sad.  Toothless, deaf, and blind, she crawls into an old den on a mountainside.  The den’s roof collapses on the body in the spring and the slope is eventually covered with a lush carpet of anemone flowers.