CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 14 . . . . March 2, 2007
Mee-An and the Magic Serpent: A Folktale From Mali.
Baba Wagué Diakité.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi, 2007.
32 pp., cloth, $16.95.
Grades 1-3 / Ages 6-8.
Review by Renée Englot.
Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.
One day two young shepherds who lived quite far from the village sat down in the shade of a giant termite hill. They started to talk about their favorite subject - Mee-An and how no man was good enough for her. Little did they know that a powerful serpent had made his home in this exact same termite hill.
When the magic serpent overheard their conversation, he became very excited. He decided to turn himself into a perfect young man in order to win this beautiful girl.
Disguised as a handsome young man, the magic serpent arrived in the village to discover a big celebration in progress. People were drumming and dancing in the marketplace.
As usual, Assa was busily buzzing around inspecting the strangers who had come for the party. She quickly noticed the new face of a very handsome young man.
"Ah," she said to herself, "maybe he is the one, at last."
Baba Wagué Diakité is known both for his painting and his storytelling. In his picture book retellings of African folktales, he combines these two talents. Diakité's latest effort is the story of Mee-An, a girl who considers herself so beautiful that she will only marry a man as perfect as she - no scratches, scars, or blemishes. Mee-An's younger sister, Assa, turns herself into a fly in order to check out the men of the village. One day, a stranger appears and seems to be perfect, but Assa worries because he does not smell like a human and strange things happen when he visits. Mee-An marries him anyway, and she and Assa move to his home, far from their parents. From the beginning, the reader knows that the groom is a magic serpent. However, the reader, like the two young women, is ignorant of the serpent's reasons for marrying Mee-An. At the tale's climax, Mee-An, Assa, and the reader discover that the false groom is fattening the two in order to eat them. With the help of a heron, Mee-An and Assa narrowly escape. Because Diakité keeps the reader in the dark about the serpent's intentions, he creates a tension and a successful climax.
The tale illustrates that seeing someone is not the same as knowing him or her. The story also has pourquoi elements. Readers learn why serpents live in the water, why heron is white, and why heron often rides on the backs of animals such as cattle or donkeys. While the tale will appeal primarily to early elementary, it could be useful for the study of folktales in upper grades.
Diakité's illustrations are painted on glazed ceramic tiles. The detailed illustrations bring village life and the flora and fauna of Mali to life for readers. The pictures over the magic serpent as a man are quite delightful; he retains some snake-like features. A page of text is balanced by a full page illustration. On the text side, Diakité has painted a small animal or object which can be found in the facing illustration, providing a visual game for readers (or listeners).
Although the tale will read aloud well, Diakité has not quite recaptured the oral rhythm of a folktale. The greatest flaw of the book, however, is the lack of notes. Although the subtitle is A Folktale from Mali, this information is not even found on the cover. There are no other source notes. Below the dedication is a note which explains that the songs and the proverb which opens the tale are written "in Bambara, which is spoken by six million people in Mali." Within the text, there are side by side translations of the songs, but readers would be hard pressed to sing them as there are no pronunciation guides and no musical notation. Some of the cultural traditions should also have been clarified with a note. For example, when Mee-An and the serpent are married, Assa is sent along "to act as the konyo-wuluni, 'the little barking dog of the wedding,' as tradition required" (unpaginated, italics in original). No further information about her role or the reason for the tradition is given. Young readers may also wonder why suitors offered Mee-An's parents cola nuts. For that matter, they may wonder what cola nuts are. A little more cultural information would have helped teachers and librarians to make the sharing of this book a culturally rich experience.
Renée Englot is a former junior high school teacher now working as a professional storyteller in school settings. She holds a Master of Arts in Children's Literature.
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