I was eager to listen to Fuse 8 n’ Kate’s podcast of this week featuring a book I know well, John Steptoes’ Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters. This is a book that, I find, is often tossed in a Cinderella unit without much thought, I have often challenged some of the teaching that happens because of that. While it isn’t a book that should be pigeonholed into any one category — e.g. Cinderella tale, folktale, about Zimbabwe, etc — that is what I have seen happen. In my teaching I’ve used to use it as a textbook example of how not to rely on a work of fiction to teach actual history and geography.
Here’s a repost of something I wrote over ten years ago when I was teaching a course on fairy tales at Rutgers.
In the Rutgers University grad course on fairy tales I’m currently co- teaching we just finished a lively discussion on multiculturalism. One of the books we considered was John Steptoe‘s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, a beautiful Caldecott honor book that is often used in lessons about Africa because it is mistakenly thought to be an authentic folktale from Zimbabwe. In fact, it is not. Steptoe himself is honest by writing that the book, “was inspired by a folktale collected by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.” Unfortunately, few seem to have investigated to see if it really is an appropriate choice to help American children learn about a place that is very far away and unfamiliar to them.
One who has is Eliot A. Singer who writes in his article, “Fakelore and the Ethics of Children’s Literature“:
In The Horn Book Magazine (July/August 1987, p. 478), a reviewer notes of Steptoe’s (1987) celebrated and award winning Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters that the story is a “polished retelling of one from G. M. Theal’s Kaffir Folktales.” The actual title is Kaffir Folklore(Theal 1886), and there is no tale in that collection that remotely resembles the one in the picture book. Maybe getting a title right is a scholarly hang-up, but it does seem reasonable to expect a reviewer who claims something is a “polished retelling” at least to look in the card catalog. To his credit, Steptoe (1988) points out that he was simply inspired by Theal’s book to explore Zimbabwe tradition and come up with his own story, that he “did not write and illustrate a special interest picture book,” one “said to be based on an African tale.” Yet, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters is reviewed, sold, classified, and, awarded, I presume, as an “African” tale.
One of our students, Jenny Schwartzberg of the Newberry Library, tracked down an on-line copy of Kaffir Folk-lore and after reading through all the tales, I feel the one that probably inspired Steptoe was “The Story of Five Heads.” However, the commonalities are minor; Steptoe’s story is really an original, his alone. Additionally, information about Great Zimbabwe (found here and here) indicates a far more tangled history than can possibly be deduced from Steptoe’s story and illustrations.
Our students agreed by the end of our discussions that this book was better used within a language arts unit than in a social studies unit. I agree wholeheartedly!
My conversation with Betsy in the comments of her post went like this (and I hope is okay to copy them over here):
Me: I was puzzled you said that no place in Africa was identified in Mufaro. In Steptoe’s note in the front he writes that it was “…inspired by a folktale collected by G.M. Theal and published in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.The names of the characters are from the Shona language….” He also thanks some from the Zimbabwe Mission their help. So It is very much set in old Zimbabwe among the Shona people. This is a book I’ve done a lot of research on and used in various courses. (My concern is that it not be seen as an authentic Shona folktale, but appreciated as an original work. Not sure if it is the case, but too often in the past it was so identified.) Here’s an old post of mine about it: https://medinger.wordpress.com/2007/08/06/learning-about-africa-sixth-in-a-series/
Betsy: Excellent point, but the subtitle doesn’t say “A Shona folktale” or “Zimbabwe folktale”. I might be splitting hairs, though. Thank you for the link!
Me: But it isn’t an original Shona or Zimbabwean folktale, but an original tale inspired by them. In fact, you can you read the likely one that inspired Steptoe here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/xft/xft06.htm (from the book he mentions in his note) and see how different it is from his. And so I think subtitles like: A Shona Folktale or a Zimbabwe Folktale would be incorrect. I find a good model for this sort of book to be Marilyn Nelson’s Ostrich and Lark, an Africana Book Award winner. (http://africaaccessreview.org/2014/02/ostrich-and-lark/)
Betsy: You’re beginning to inspire me to do a post on African folktales, a genre that flourished prior to me getting my library degree. You’re making excellent points about the fact that since this is an original folktale it would be incorrect to say it was specific since it doesn’t belong to that tradition. My question then is whether or not you find the subtitle problematic at all. Would it have just been better not to have a subtitle at all, like Ostrich and Lark, or do you have less of an issue with “An African Folktale” if it places it in context and has an Author’s Note to clear up confusion?
Me: The subtitle is “An African Tale” not “An African Folktale” so that leaves it up to being original. That said, I think the use of “African” in the subtitle is problematic as it reinforces stereotypes of the continent. So I think better to get rid of the subtitle completely and go the Ostrich and Lark route and provide a solid author note (as he did actually)