- Virginia Johnson
"Long, long ago, when the earth was set down and the sky was lifted up, all folktales were owned by the Sky God."
So begins an Ashanti tale, Anansi Does the Impossible!, retold by Verna Aardema. Anansi the Spider and his clever wife, Aso, use their wits to buy the folk tales for the Ashanti people. Verna Aardema spent much of her life retelling these folktales.
Verna loved to read when she was a little girl in Michigan. She had eight brothers and sisters, and there was lots of work to do, but whenever she could Verna would sneak off to read a book, avoiding her chores whenever possible! Sometimes she went to her dark secret room, a cavelike place inside a clump of trees, surrounded by wild flowers and squawberries in the cedar swamp near their house.
When Verna was older, she went to the secret room and imagined many kinds of stories which she later wrote down. In college, she took all the writing courses she could and worked as a staff correspondent for the local newspaper. She married Albert Aardema after college, became a schoolteacher, and started a family. Her little daughter, Paula, was a fussy eater and demanded stories with every meal. Verna told her stories based on African folk tales. She sent off one of her "feeding stories" to a book publisher. He liked it very much, and Verna went on to write an entire collection of African stories, Tales from a Story Hat.
She told her stories to her elementary school classes and wrote more than 25 books through the years. She based her stories on African folk tales but retold them in her own way for new audiences. Four of her books were featured on Reading Rainbow: Borreguita and the Coyote, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, and Who's in Rabbit's House? These individual folk tales are wonderful to read out loud for they capture the storyteller's rhythm and are beautifully illustrated. Leo and Diane Dillon's drawings for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears won the Caldecott Medal as the most distinguished American children's picture book in 1976.
Verna Aardema died in August of 2000. Her legacy is not only the sum of the many wonderfully entertaining books she wrote for children, but also the kindness and mentoring she gave to young people who attended her storytelling sessions and were inspired to become writers themselves. Click here for a complete list of her books at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
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