Friday, April 16, 2010

Trickster Fiction

I have tricksters on the brain right now, probably because A Conspiracy of Kings just came out and Megan Whalen Turner's trickster Gen is one of my favorite characters of all time. I know why I like Gen, but what, really, is the appeal of the trickster? I suspect that readers delight in being surprised, if only on the page. In real life, a trickster makes us uneasy or even angry. But watching someone else get bamboozled—now, that's entertainment! We feel like we're in on the con, a sort of "Ocean's Two" of trickster and reader, especially when we find ourselves pitted against a ruthless and powerful foe—say, a Mede and his entire army. (Art above left is from Fred Marcellino's award-winning Puss in Boots.)

Tricksters often seem to read as minor gods, or at least, not as major ones—perhaps because they play the additional role of court jester to more dignified mythological figures like Zeus on his great throne or Apollo in his golden chariot. In contrast, there's something kind of tacky about a trickster, more than a slight resemblance to a two-bit grifter or a pool shark. Tricksters are shady, slinking down alleys and flashing bright, untrustworthy grins. They're the kind of characters you expect to get their throats cut early on in Sam Spade stories.

Although the most famous tricksters come from world mythology, Lewis Hyde and others state that the archetype represents eccentric real-life geniuses, e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, and Picasso. Such figures think outside the box, thoroughly upsetting the status quo. They walk into the meeting late, tell jokes while everyone else is completely focused, and then, just as a sensible, well-organized plan has been decided, point out a flaw nobody else noticed, but which suddenly seems glaringly obvious and problematic. You occasionally love having these people around, but are just as likely to hate them.

Loki from Norse mythology, Coyote and Raven of the Southwest and Northwest Native American traditions, Hermes and Pan from the Greek myths, British Jack and Puck, Irish leprechauns, Brer Rabbit from the American South, Reynart the Fox from France, Nasreddin of Islamic tradition, the Chinese Monkey King and the West African Anansi, Jewish Hershel of Ostropol and the Nordic Till Eulenspiegel—the list goes on and on. (Check out this discussion of tricksters and a longer list on Wikipedia.) That's not counting modern incarnations like Bugs Bunny, Bart Simpson, and Captain Jack Sparrow.

And what about tricksters in children's literature? Some of them are found in big-name classics like Peter Pan, Tom Sawyer, and Robin Hood, but here are more books you might want to look for in the trickster tradition, whether the characters are freshly invented or are derived from marvelous folktales and legends.


The Anansi stories are among my favorite trickster tales, so here are a number of retellings starring the funny, lazy, and clever West African spider.

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, Anansi Goes Fishing, Anansi and the Magic Stick, and Anansi and the Talking Melon, retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Janet Stevens—all very funny. My favorite is Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock: just imagine what the trickster does when he discovers a rock that knocks people off their feet when a certain phrase is said! (I will mention that I didn't like Anansi's Party Time as well as the others, which are really terrific.)

Ananse's Feast: An Ashanti Tale, retold by Tololwa M. Mollel and illustrated by Andrew Glass—Ananse is a poor host to the dinner guest he has invited, eating all of the food himself. But the turtle invites him over in turn and gives Ananse some payback. (Aesop's fable, "The Fox and the Stork," has a similar plot.)

Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti, adapted and illustrated by Gerald McDermott; a Caldecott Honor book in 1973—Anansi goes on a journey and gets into trouble, but his six sons help him out. How should he reward them?

A Story, A Story, retold and illlustrated by Gail E. Hailey, won the Caldecott in 1971—the tale of how Anansi wins the stories from the Sky God, who has been hoarding them.

Anansi Does the Impossible! An Ashanti Tale, retold by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Lisa Desimini—another retelling of how Anansi claims the stories from the Sky God so that the people on earth can enjoy them.

Ananse and the Lizard: A West African Tale, adapted and illustrated by Pat Cummings—Ananse learns the secret of the name of a chief's daughter and thinks he will get to marry her, but he is tricked by a lizard and loses out.

Aunt Nancy and the Bothersome Visitors by Phyllis Root, illustrated by David Parkins—I first came across a satisfying single book called Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble, in which our heroine uses reverse psychology to get rid of bad luck personified, but this volume includes three other stories. The illustrations are especially good. Note that "Aunt Nancy" is a Southern American folk character derived from the West African spider trickster, Anansi.

—For a collection of these tales, try The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories, retold by Adwoa Badoe and illustrated by Baba Waque Diakite.


The Greek Titan Prometheus is far too dignified to be considered a trickster, but in other cultures, it is the trickster who steals fire or the sun for mortals.

Fire Race: A Karuk Coyote Tale, retold by Jonathan London and illustrated by Sylvia Long—Old Man Coyote steals fire from the fearsome Yellow Jacket Sisters.

Grandmother Spider Steals the Sun: A Cherokee Story, retold by Geri Keams and illustrated by James Bernardin—when the animals agree to steal the sun from the Sun Guards, tiny Grandmother Spider succeeds where larger creatures fail.

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest, retold and illustrated by Gerald McDermott; a Caldecott Honor book in 1994—how Raven connives his way into the Sky Chief's household and steals the sun for the people of the earth, who suffer in darkness.


Beware of Boys by Tony Blundell—a wolf thinks he's pretty clever to have caught a boy in the forest, but pretty soon the kid has the wolf running himself ragged fetching ingredients for various boy-based recipes. A funny, off-the-wall book and one of my personal favorites.

Clever Beatrice, retold by Margaret Willey and illustrated by Heather Solomon—described as "a tall tale from Michigan's upper peninsula," this story has roots in European folklore, e.g., "The Valiant Tailor." Clever Beatrice repeatedly worries and tricks a rich giant to win gold for her mother.

Duffy and the Devil, retold by Harve Zemach and illustrated by Margot Zemach; won the Caldecott medal in 1974—in this Irish folktale, lazy Duffy sells her soul to the devil in return for a gift of work without any effort, but she soon finds a way to win it back and keep all that she's gained, besides. (Sounds bad, but it's really very funny!)

The Emperor's New Clothes, by Hans Christian Anderson and illustrated by Angela Barrett—there are a lot of nice versions of this story about a clothes horse of a ruler who falls prey to an unscrupulous (and creative) duo, but this is my favorite, with its 1920's-era illustrations. I love the final shot of the emperor's naked bum going away down the street.

The Flim-Flam Fairies by Alan Katz—one by one, an obnoxious parade of fairies comes on-page to work their patter, which is, that you should stop saving teeth for the tooth fairy and save various other bodily substances instead. Meet the Snot Fairy, the Clipped Toenail Fairy, and of course, the Bellybutton Lint Fairy, among other hopefuls. What will the Tooth Fairy do when she finds out?

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, retold by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz; the Caldecott winner in 1969—wise fool Ivan knows about kindness, loyalty, and friendship, so he gains a flying ship and defeats a duplicitous king to win the hand of a princess.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, retold by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; a Caldecott Honor book in 1990—when Jewish folk hero Hershel comes across a village held hostage by a pack of goblins, he uses his wits to defeat them.

Jack and the Beanstalk, retold and illustrated by John Howe—Jack ascends to the sky realm on a magical legume and steals from a hungry giant three times without getting eaten. There are a lot of other versions, including one by Steven Kellogg, but the art in this one appeals to me.

Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book by Yuyi Morales—draws on the Mexican folklore tradition (and Day of the Dead festivities) to show us an old woman who tricks Death into leaving without her.

Puss in Boots, text by Charles Perrault, translated by Malcolm Arthur, illustrated by Fred Marcellino; a Caldecott Honor book in 1991—the classic story of a cat so smart he wins land, a castle, and the hand of a princess for his young master.

Stone Soup, retold and illustrated by Marcia Brown; a Caldecott Honor book in 1948—the timeless tale of a peddler who teaches a selfish woman to make soup from a stone.

Three Sacks of Truth, retold by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Robert Rayevsky—when a king doesn't honor his promise to let the man who brings him a perfect peach marry the princess, Petit Jean uses a magic whistle and wins a battle of wits with the royal family. (Note: Very funny blackmail scenarios involving non-ribald kissing in the meadow where our hero has been assigned to herd rabbits, a task which is supposed to be impossible!)

Tops and Bottoms, retold and illustrated by Janet Stevens; won a Caldecott Honor book in 1996—a tale derived from Europe and the American South, in which clever Hare tricks lazy Bear not once, but twice, each time splitting the crops they have planted and harvested together (with Hare and his family doing all of the work).

Wiley and the Hairy Man, retold by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Brian Pinkney—it takes the smarts of both a swamp-dwelling boy and his mother to win out over the terrible Hairy Man in this tale from the Southern African-American tradition. There are other versions, including one illustrated by Molly Bang.


Here are a few of my favorites from the numerous trickster tales in world literature anthologies, along with some story collections.

—"The Barber's Wife"—an Indian woman tricks a band of robbers, who try to get revenge but cannot win against her wits (from The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women, collected by Katrin Tchana and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman).

—"The Brave Little Tailor"—he starts out killing flies, then sets out to look for bigger foes. When he finds a giant, he must use his wits to win a series of contests. Next he defeats three mythical beasts to win the hand of a princess from a reluctant king. (Grimms' Fairy Tales)

Brer Rabbit and Friends, adapted by Karina Amin, compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, and illustrated by Eric Copeland—I haven't read this collection myself, but the Amazon customer reviews expressed relief that it leaves out the racism of earlier versions while retaining the fun of these stories and joy in the African-American storytelling heritage. (Standalone books of "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby," the most famous of the tales, are also available.)

—"Molly Whuppie"—another defier of giants from the British tradition, Molly saves her sisters' lives, then comes back over the terrifying Bridge of One Hair three times to rob a giant and win husbands for herself and the other two girls. Gruesome, since the giant kills his own daughters when he means to kill Molly and her sisters, yet lively and empowering. (from Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, collected and retold by Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Susan Guevara)

Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters, by Patricia McKissack, with illustrations by Andre Carrilho—original trickster stories inspired by African-American folklore and other bits of Americana.

A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa, retold by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Barry Moser—a collection of 11 well-told tales from the African diaspora, many of them funny.

Trickster Tales from Around the World, by Josepha Sherman—40 trickster stories from a broad selection of cultures. These retellings are brief, 2-3 pages each, but the book covers a lot of territory.


Eight Days of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones—when the modern incarnation of Loki comes to stay (on the run from the other gods, as usual), his new friend David has to deal with ancient challenges to save the volatile "Luke."

A Long Way from Chicago (Newbery Honor Book in 1999), A Year Down Yonder (Newbery Medal Winner in 2001), and A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck—it took me a while to figure out that Peck's Grandma Dowdel is a trickster, but trust me on this; or at least, read these beautifully crafted, hilarious books set in the 1930's to find out why. When her grandchildren come to visit for the summer, they are in for some crazy adventures as Grandma Dowdel takes on pretty much the entire town.

Runemarks by Joanna Harris—Loki features prominently in this book by the author of Chocolat about a girl whose runemarked hand draws the attention of murderous religious leaders as well as quarrelsome gods. Worth reading for the opening sentence alone!

The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, and A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner—Turner is a superb stylist and plotter, not to mention an astute observer of human nature. Her trickster Gen is brilliant, vain, lazy, determined, and all kinds of other adjectives that don't seem like they should meet up in one person.


Trickster's Choice and Trickster's Queen by Tamora Pierce—After Alanna's daughter Ally slips away on her boat because she is annoyed by her strong-willed family, she is captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Pretty soon she is making deals with the trickster god Kyprioth and having the adventure of a lifetime.

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy—17-year-old Harry (Ariadne) deals with the arrival of three young men who seem ordinary to others, but ominous and supernatural to her. Are they ghosts? Fictional characters? Or just catalysts? A mature coming-of-age tale with supernatural elements by a very talented writer.

I should point out that I've noticed tricksters are more often secondary characters than main characters, especially in middle grade and Young Adult fiction. This is probably because tricksters tend to be extraordinary, and we like to read about ordinary main characters, although they may be thrust into extraordinary situations. Tricksters aren't always easy to relate to, of course; when you're around them, you might just find yourself muttering, "Smartass," and heading for the door.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Why would I want to give a kid a book about a liar and a cheat?" I know I've caught discussions about Jack of beanstalk fame being a poor role model, a plain old thief. So does reading these books encourage kids to embrace deceit and laziness? My own response is no, and not just because tricksters often fail to foresee the consequences of their devious plans and are shocked when they find that the tables have been turned on them.

I am reminded, rather, of the power of fairy tales as pointed out by Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment. So many times, a weak character triumphs over a powerful foe by using his wits, e.g., in "Hansel and Gretel," a story of truly ghastly peril. The lesson young readers should take away from these tales is that they can solve some pretty tough problems by using their heads. Also, that they'd better not get too full of themselves, because even the most clever tricksters tend to get their comeuppance. Better still, children might just observe that a trickster's talents can be used for good, carrying out such minor projects as stealing the sun for humankind.

Really, tricksters are a lot like kids: they think in unique ways, not yet locked in by society's assertions; they delight in pranks; they are selfish, yet unexpectedly kind. A child is the ultimate trickster.

Please suggest other trickster books for kids in the comments! I'll list them here:

Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale from the Andes by Barbara Knutson
The Tale of Tricky Fox: A New England Trickster Tale by Jim Aylesworth, with illustrations by Barbara McClintock
My Lucky Day by Keiko Kasza


NatalieSap said...

What a wonderful post on tricksters! Third grade is when we really focus on trickster tales - you've mentioned some of my favorites; Brer Rabbit, Anansi, and Jack & the Beanstalk. Some others that students have enjoyed include Love and Roast Chicken: A Trickster Tale from the Andes Mountains by Barbara Knutson and The Tale of Tricky Fox: A New England Trickster Tale by Jim Aylesworth. I think you're absolutely right about the appeal of tricksters to children - they see themselves in the characters, even if they don't realize it.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Natalie, and thanks for the suggestions!

Laurie said...

So glad to see "Tops and Bottoms" on here! It's one of our favorites. We also like "My Lucky Day" by Keiko Kasza. :o)

Kate Coombs said...

Laurie--Isn't Janet Stevens great? I also like her Three Billy Goats Gruff, with the largest goat wearing dark glasses and a black leather motorcycle jacket. Thanks for the book suggestion; I'll add it to the list!

Solsticia Quartermanus and Dianarama Ottorius said...

What an interesting post! And what a comprehensive list. I'm exhausted just thinking about the effort you put into writing this. I hope you treated yourself to chocolate chip cookies or a massage when you were finished!

Until you pointed out that Eugenides is a trickster, I honestly hadn't thought of him that way. I usually think of tricksters as big fat liars and really annoying to boot. I've never liked them. Gen definitely fits the bill for being a trickster, but I do like him. He's one of my favorite characters of all time.

So I'm thinking about this whole trickster thing differently now and I'm putting some of your recs on my TBR list. Good job, Kate, your work here is done. -SQ

Chachic said...

Here via Sounis. Great post about tricksters! I don't have any recommendations but I am noting down the books that you mentioned above, I should definitely check them out.

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, SQ! I actually had Brazilian BBQ with my sister and watched TIVOed episodes of Castle. I do a mega-post every so often, then take a few months to recover before doing another one. (My goal is to post reviews and miscellaneous items every weekend. I keep reminding myself to resist the urge to post more often because if I did escalate, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't get my own books written!)

Gen definitely has mitigating qualities--he's one of my favorites, too. I can't think of a character I like better, actually. :)

You know, I see Solsticia and want to call you Sol, which reminds me of Dogsbody--will the book madness never end? I hope not!

Kate Coombs said...

Chachic--Yay, Sounis! And thanks! Don't know which books you're thinking about reading from the post, but if you haven't read anything by Margaret Mahy, her very best book is Changeover.

Chachic said...

Yes, Changeover has been recommended several times, I just have to find a way to get it. I'm interested in Eight Days of Luke because it's a Diana Wynne Jones book and I don't think you can ever go wrong with that. :) I actually have a copy of Runemarks but I haven't gotten around to reading it. I will probably move it up my TBR list because of this post!

Kate Coombs said...

Runemarks isn't as good as the other two, but there were a lot of things I liked about it. Happy reading, Chachic!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful list. I think I feel a themed storytime coming on!

Kate Coombs said...

Biblauragraphy--Thanks! A themed storytime sounds great! I should take some of these picture books to my third grade student, speaking of which.

Margaret Willey said...

Hey, thanks for mentioning CLEVER BEATRICE, illustrated by a certain fabulous illustrator, one I'm sure we both admire. "Trickster tales" have been on my mind lately because I did many school visits this spring with CLEVER BEATRICE and more and more often children are asking me with real confusion why it is okay for Beatrice's to "lie to the giant." Then I have to explain the whole concept of a trickster tale--explain that it is an ancient type of story that appears in all cultures. I always feel like I need an extra hour to fully explain the concept and supply examples and explain that in our real lives, it is never a good idea to lie your way out of things (or into things). Very challenging and (I think) confusing to children who are not familiar with this type of story. For some, even the concept of a folktale is unfamiliar.

Kate Coombs said...

Margaret, so nice of you to stop by! Yay, Heather Solomon! And yay, Beatrice!

It doesn't surprise me that you've met kids who don't get the idea of a trickster tale--of course, it's not like you want them to go home and say, "Guess what I learned in school today, Mom? That it's okay to lie!"

As you said, even folktales and their tropes are less well known these days--I added an author's note to my latest MG, which is based on fairy tale motifs, after I realized that even my editors were wondering what the heck I was alluding to in spots. E.g., why the girl in the tower with the super-long hair is named Spinach. :)

Tina said...

If you like Molly Whuppie, read about her even spunkier Appalachian cousin Mutsmag at I have lots of information about tricksters, including Clever Beatrice, in my web site AppLit. You can read an archive version called "Munsmeg" or an adaptation illustrated by school children in the web site.