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!

Henny Penny and Friends Reimagined: “What’s Fair is Fowl, What’s Fowl is Fare”

Stories don’t get much sillier than Henny Penny.  The plot is set in motion when a chicken gets beaned on the head by an acorn.  The nitwit jumps to the conclusion that the world is ending and the king must be told.   On her way, she meets a series of birds, each of whom asks permission to accompany her on the mission.  That question—and its response–is always posed to the group, not its leader Henny Penny, which requires the repetition of all the characters’ silly rhyming names in the order in which they joined.  Galloping through the list in the correct order without mistakes takes concentration and a straight face.  The number of feathered delegates to the king would have increased until the castle gate was in sight, had not a fox helpfully offered to show them the short cut via his den.

The pictures of the birds in Paul Galdone’s classic picture book version plays it straight, putting all the pressure on the reader to keep things moving along to the inevitable conclusion. To Leonard B. Lubin, an artist who liked to imagine animals in elaborate historical costumes,  the cast of barnyard fowl posed an irresistible challenge. Where Beatrix Potter hesitated to dress up birds in her illustrations, he plunged in and designed exquisite eighteenth-century robes with appropriate headgear for a chicken, rooster, duck, goose, and turkey.  The only concession made to reality was to give them human feet that would look daintier than webbed ploppers in high-heeled slippers and pointed buckled shoes.When our flock of beribboned, furbelowed, and flounced birdbrains come barreling down the road, who should they meet but the fox, gentlemanly and helpful as can be, dressed for a day’s shooting in the countryside.  How they were picked off and plucked for the platter is left entirely to the reader’s imagination, but not a whisper of hope is offered that any escaped the fate of being eaten in one greasy sitting.

Jane Wattenberg’s retelling lovingly blows up the old story with wild photocompositions full of sly verbal jokes and a text stuffed with jaunty puns, vivid verbs, cool apostrophes, and emotive type setting. It’s unapologetically and deliciously over the top from the copy on the front flap “Come flock along with Henny Penny and her feathered friends flap around the world in search of…  King Kong?  King Tut?  Or is it Elvis…  But when they meet up with that mean ball of fur Foxy-Loxy, their plans suddenly go a-fowl” to the back cover illustration of Henny Penny  captioned “Was it REALLY all my fault?”

Wattenberg’s poultry wear nothing but their feathers and combs, but they talk like no other birds in picture books—“Shake, rattle, and roll!  The sky is falling!  It’s coming on down! Henny-Penny saw it and heard it and it smacked her on her fine red comb. We’re full tilt to tell the king.”

In a picture narrative where the pace never lets up, it is seems just right that the ending doesn’t mince words or dial back the jokes about the mayhem  in Foxy Loxy’s cave.

Leaping gizzards!  What a skanky prank!  For with a Gobble-Gobble-Gobble! That sly Foxy-Loxy wolfed down poor Turkey-Lurkey.  With a Squonk-Hiss-s-s-s-Honk! That fleazy Foxy-Loxy gobbled up Goosey-Loosey and Gander-Lander.  With a Quack@  Don’t Look Back! That cunning cad Foxy-Loxy wolfed down Ducky-Lucky and Drake-Cake.  With a Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!  What I Do to You?  That greedy grunge of a Foxy-Loxy gobbled up poor Cocky-Locky.

The darkness is softened by the way the fox’s treachery is underscored with each gulp and allowing Henny Penny, the unwitting perpetrator of the carnage, to escape.  The last one waiting outside the killing room, she figures out what is going on and runs away as fast as her little three-toed feet can carry her, squawking that she’s got to get home and lay the daily egg.There’s nothing like justice in the tale of Henny Penny and her unfortunate friends, but it isn’t the way of the world to look out for the gullible, whether the sky is falling or not…  Perhaps that’s why the story continues to be retold and we cry with laughter with every one.