As we all respond to the tragedy in Haiti, share these children’s books about the island for an inside look at the people, the place and the culture.
Diane Wolkstein visited Haiti to collect the traditional stories in her collection, “The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales.”
Communal storytelling, where the attentive audience comments on the stories and joins in the songs, is a feature of daily life in Haiti. “’Cric?’ the Haitian storyteller calls out when she or he has a story to tell. ‘Crac!’ the audience responds if they want that storyteller to begin,” Wollkstein explains.
The stories that follow are filled with humor, poetry and wisdom. One of my long-time favorites is “I’m Tipingee, She’s Tipingee, We’re Tipingee, Too!” In classic fairytale fashion, little Tipingee is promised to a mean old man, but she outwits him with the help of her classmates. Children love to join in on the chorus, while the subtle moral that we can conquer evil if we join together gives the story a deeper meaning.
Wolkstein includes the words and music to the songs that frequently enliven the stories, as well as notes on each of the storytellers. As she says, although Haiti may be economically impoverished, the country is “so rich in spirit and culture and love and dedication.”
Younger readers will enjoy Wolkstein’s picture book, “Bouki Dances the Kokioko, A Comical Tale from Haiti” with illustrations by Jesse Sweetwater. Clever Malice persuades foolish Bouki to dance for the king, but when Bouki wins the prize – 5,000 gourdes – Malice comes up with a scheme to get all the money for himself.
The gaily painted public bus is a feature of daily life that author-illustrator Karen Williams highlights in her picture book, “Tap-Tap.” Eight-year-old Sasafi goes with her mother to sell oranges in the market. Lack of money means they travel to the market on foot, but after they sell the oranges, Sasafi uses the coins she’s earned to treat her mother and herself to a ride.
The tap-tap, so called because passengers tap on the side of the bus when they’re ready to dismount, is filled to the brim, not just with passengers but with all their possessions. Sasafi and her mother find themselves crammed in among furniture, goats, chickens, and baskets of food as they rumble down the road. Catherine Stock’s watercolors illustrate the story in all the hues of the Caribbean.
Haitian children are prepared to rise before dawn and run for hours to get to school on time, as children will see in “Running the Road to ABC.” Author Denizé Lauture is a Haitian poet who describes how the children run to school six days a week, forty weeks a year. Reynold Ruffins’ gouache paintings reflect the speed and energy of the young scholars as they run uphill and downhill, on red clay, through the morning dew and the morning heat, until they reach their one-room school.
Walter Dean Myers’ “Toussaint L'Ouverture: The Fight For Haiti's Freedom” takes the striking tempera paintings done by Jacob Lawrence in the 1930s and adds a narrative that explains these pivotal events in Haiti’s history. Considered a combination of George Washington and Simon Bolivar, L’Ouverture is revered in Haiti for securing permanent freedom for his enslaved people. Readers ten and up will find his story inspiring.