Re-Releases from Diane Wolkstein

BOURKI DANCES THE KOKIOKO: A COMIC TALE FROM HAITI by Diane Wolkstein, illustrated by Jesse Sweetwater. Gulliver Books,
Harcourt Brace and Co.: San Diego, 1997 (from 1978 original).
ISBN 0-15-200034-8. Paperback. $15.00.

Collected by Diane Wolkstein. Drawings by Elsa Henriquez.
Schocken Books: New York, 1997 (from 1978 original).
ISBN 0-1-8052-1077-6. Paperback. $14.00.

Reviewed by Bob Corbett
May, 1998

Ti Malice is the bad boy of Haitian folk literature -- a trickster, crook, hustler, wheedler. Bouki is his favorite mark -- older, simple and a bit dumb, he falls for Malice's tricks over and over again, always knowing better. Bouki and Ti Malice grow out of the hardships and hard knocks of human experience, but are presented in Haitian folklore so that we can laugh at their antics, perhaps the better to accept that we ourselves may often be dumb victims or clever manipulators.

Diane Wolkstein's present tale (Bouki Dances the Kokioko) concerns a cheap king who creates a dance, the kokioko, then offers a prize to whomever can dance it. In the process he gets lots of free dancing from failed contestants. Malice sees the dance, but gets Bouki to dance it, winning the large prize, which Malice promptly steals.

The story is billed as for 4-8 year olds. I'm sure most 6-8 year olds would get the tale, but I'm not convinced that even my exceptionally bright grandkids (of course) would get into this tale at ages 4-5. However, Jesse Sweetwater has enriched this presentation with wonderful full-page colorful drawings, which often reflect famous Haitian primitivist painters. All ages can be drawn in by the illustrations.

Folktales are an important part of life in Haiti, and unlike our culture, are as much for adults as children. I recall a vacation in 1985 when I wandered by-roads (more often foot trails) in the Hinche area with a pack of stories in Creole. Often I would sit in a strange lakou under a mango tree and begin to read aloud. (My weak Creole would not allow me just to tell tales.) Usually the children gathered quickly, but soon I'd have an audience of adults, commenting, laughing, calling for more, while the children slipped into the background.

Krik! Calls a would be storyteller. Krak! Is the universal reply -- yes, please. And so a storytelling session begins. Like most folk traditions, Haitian tales have their rituals and are often moral and socialization tales, even warnings.

The recent reissue of Diane Wolkstein's larger 1978 volume brings us 27 tales, most of which can be read aloud in less than 10 minutes. However, any practiced storyteller might stick to the text, yet weave in actions adding drama and doubling the presentation time (as well as the delight of listeners).

The title tale is sort of Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel woven into one. A magic orange pit, a gift from the little girl's dead mother, saves her from a cruel stepmother. In another tale a young boy sneaks into the home of the devil himself, gathering all sorts of useful information which assures his happily-ever-aftering. One of my favorite tales is of Tayzanne, a fish spirit who befriends a little girl whose parents betray her and kill the fish with disastrous results.

This wonderful collection of tales would be appropriate for the young and young of heart from 5 or 6 to 96 -- perhaps especially for many of us adults who might gain a lot by putting aside our busy and sophisticated lives to dwell a bit in worlds of magic, spirits, clean cut good and evil, tragedy and great lasting joy.

THE MAGIC ORANGE TREE doesn't provide the color or exciting illustrations of BOUKI DANCES THE KOKIOKO. The editors chose to stick with the original few black and white drawings of Elsa Henriquez, and a few poor quality photographs. The volume would have been greatly enriched by something like the brilliant illustrations of Sweetwater in the BOUKI volume.

Bouki Dances the Kokioko, in it's own volume is splendid because of the wonderful illustrations. The story is repeated in the larger collection, but looks a bit drab with no illustrations at all. I'd recommend both books. The first for the color and flair, the second as an excellent collection. But having these is one thing; using them is another. Without the added effort to share these as aloud reading performances, much of their value is lost.

Diane Wolkstein is a well-known story teller, having performed on five continents and is especially known for her annual storytelling performance in New York's Central Park each of the past 30 years. She teaches mythology at New York University and is the author of 20 books. The Magic Orange Tree is regarded as a storytelling classic and Bouki Dances the Kokioko received the Aseop's Award from the American Folklore Society.


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