A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Tikki Tikki Tembo is a folktale-type story about an older brother with a long, important name and his younger brother with a shorter, less significant name who saves the day. There's mild suspense when two boys fall down a well and await rescue, but it there's also a positive message about honoring tradition while embracing change. And kids enjoy the chantable repetition. That said, the book, originally published in 1968, is framed as the retelling of an old Chinese folktale, but it's not. In fact, it appears to be based on a Japanese story called "Jugemu." Many have criticized the book as a stereotypical, unflattering depiction of allegedly Chinese culture.
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What's the story?
TIKKI TIKKI TEMBO is a first son, and, as such, he has an important -- and very long -- name: Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo, which, the book says, means "The Most Wonderful Thing in the Whole Wide World." His brother, Chang, not only has a shorter name but one that means much less: It means "little" or "nothing." (This explanation is part of the story, but there are no actual Chinese words in Tikki Tikki Tembo's name, and, while Chang is a Chinese name, the definition given isn't accurate.) When Tikki Tikki Tembo falls down a well and Chang must rescue him, Chang and others in the community soon learn that a big long, important name can get in the way.
Is it any good?
This visually appealing, folktale-like story demonstrates positive sibling and positive community relationships, but its portrayal of Chinese people, culture, and language is problematic. Kids enjoy the repetition of Tikki Tikki Tembo's full name, but it isn't real Chinese. The story does show the value of honoring traditions while being open to newer, better ways, should they prove useful.
Parents can use this story as a teachable moment about bias and stereotypes and may want to seek out genuine Chinese folktales and books that accurately portray Chinese culture, language, and perspective. To find some good choices, check out our list of Asian and Asian American Books.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the inaccurate portrayal of Chinese people and culture in Tikki Tikki Tembo. How does it demonstrate stereotyping? Why are stereotypes harmful?
Does your name have a special meaning? If so, what is it?
How did you get your name? Are you named after anyone in your family? Do you have a shorter nickname?
- Author: Arlene Mosel
- Illustrator: Blair Lent
- Genre: Picture Book
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Henry Holt & Company, Inc.
- Publication date: January 1, 1968
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 4 - 8
- Number of pages: 48
- Available on: Paperback, Nook, Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: June 25, 2020
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