Rikki-Tikki-Tembo: A Beloved Children's Book Controversy and Cultural Sensitivity
Rikki-Tikki-Tembo is a picture book written and illustrated by Arlene Mosel and published in 1965. The story is based on a Chinese folktale about a young boy with a very long name who falls into a well. It highlights themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy, and overcoming adversity. However, in recent decades, it has become controversial due to allegations of promoting negative Asian stereotypes. Understanding the nuances around this beloved children's book requires delving into its origins, reception, and ongoing debate.
The main character, Rikki-Tikki-Tembo, is inspired by the protagonist of the folktale his name derives from. In the Chinese fable, the boy's excessively long name, "Rikki-tikki-tikki-tembo-no-sa-rembo-chari-bari-ruchi-pip-peri-pembo", leads to a tragic accident when no one can say it fast enough to save him from falling into a well. Mosel adapted this into a lighthearted story of a young boy whose jealous little brother, Chang, must save him from the same fate.
When it was first published, Rikki-Tikki-Tembo received widespread praise. Reviewers commended its vibrant illustrations, singsong rhythms, and universal childhood themes. It was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year. For decades, it has entertained generations of children. However, over time, some began to criticize perceived Asian stereotypes in the book. Specific concerns include the exaggerated names, confusion of Chinese and Japanese cultures, and unflattering depictions of characters.
Allegations of Racism and Ongoing Controversy
In the 1990s, critics like essayist William Cole accused Rikki-Tikki-Tembo of promoting racist caricatures. One major issue is the problematic names. "Rikki-Tikki-Tembo" mimics Asian-sounding gibberish to English-speaking ears. Chang is a legitimate Chinese surname, but naming him "Chang" alone is simplistic at best. The other characters are similarly named “Foo-Foo”, “Fee-Fee”, and “Ling Louie”. Critics argue these create an impression of Chinese names as absurdly long or just plain strange.
The setting and characters also promote questionable stereotypes. The book ambiguously mixes Japanese and Chinese elements without distinguishing the cultures. The family depicted wears kimonos and eats with chopsticks but has mostly Chinese names. Additionally, the mother is subservient and excessively worried about her son falling into the well again. The father seems stern and emotionally distant. Critics believe these portrayals mock and typecast Asians.
Supporters counter that Rikki-Tikki-Tembo must be considered in its historical context. Others argue children relate to the story’s universal themes without noticing racial implications. While the debate continues, many schools and libraries have removed the book out of sensitivity concerns.
Rikki-Tikki-Tembo offers important lessons about jealousy, redemption, and not judging by appearances. However, its problematic elements reflect outdated stereotypes. Understanding the roots of this controversy allows thoughtful discussions about the book’s place in today’s world. Critical analysis and dialogue better serve children than censorship. With guidance, Rikki-Tikki-Tembo can become a tool for promoting cross-cultural respect.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below