Follow This Blog: RSS feed
A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Top 100 Picture Books #89: Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, illustrated by Blair Lent

#89 Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, ill. by Blair Lent (1968)
22 points

Silly and repetitive with lots of action. A fun book to read aloud. – Barbara Thompson

Down from #35!  Last time we had the poll Tikki was flying high.  Now it has sunk more than 50 places on the list.  Could this have anything to do with the controversy that surrounds it?  I consider old Tikki to be one of the lesser controversial picture books (it ain’t got nuthin’ on The Five Chinese Brothers), but it’s still there and it still rages, albeit at a low ebb.

The Amazon summary of the plot reads, “Arlene Mosel retells an old Chinese folktale about how the people of China came to give their children short names after traditionally giving their ‘first and honored’ sons grand, long names. Tikki tikki tembo (which means ‘the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world’) and his brother Chang (which means ‘little or nothing’) get into trouble with a well, are saved by the Old Man with the Ladder, and change history while they’re at it.”

So what’s the controversy?  Well, first things first.  The book is essentially an answer to that age old question, “Why do Chinese people have short names?”  The answer: Because a boy with a long name almost drowned.  Yet while the story takes place in China, the people in the book appear to be Japanese.  At a recent Literary Salon in my library I was told by a folklorist that there is indeed a folktale out there about a boy with a very long, very catchy name.  However, the story originated in Japan, not China.  Think how easy it would have been for Mosel to simply say that in the first place!  For a fascinating look at this book (not to mention additional thoughts on cultural accuracy in fairy and folktales in general) fairrosa posted a child_lit discussion that concentrated on this book from back in 1998.  It’s a great thread.

It remains beloved in spite of all this.  I noted with some interest that when I tried to find background information on the book, Tikki Tikki Tembo wasn’t listed in Cullinan and Galda’s Literature and the Child (5th edition), 100 Best Books for Children, or Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush even once!  For titles that discuss popular picture books, this is a bit of a noticeable lack.

For my part, I’ve always had a hard time keeping the name “Tikki Tikki Tembo” separate in my brain from “Rikki Tikki Tavi”.  I can, however, say Tikki Tikki Tembo’s name by heart.  I suspect there are many kids out there that can too.

Read the book here if you like to see it yourself.  Or you could just watch the Weston Woods adaptation of it, if you prefer:

Publishers Weekly said of it (hoo boy), “Beautifully expressive drawings enhance the book’s Oriental feel.”

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. A favorite of mine when I was a kid and one of my kids’ too. It has such great “story” qualities–it’s too bad it’s controversial because it really shows what language and cool illustrations can do.

  2. JMyersbook says:

    [Dating myself here]: I first became familiar with this story when a telling of it was recorded by Shari Lewis (of Lamb Chop and Charlie Horse fame). That version (with Tikki Tikki Tembo’s entire name sung as the recurring refrain) still resounds in my brain, all these years later! 🙂

  3. You know, I was just scanning through all these posts to see if any additional comments have been left. And just having the picture of Tikki Tikki Tembo go by is enough to start the full name chanting in my brain in a way that won’t stop.