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Big Sixteen by Mary Calhoun

Big Sixteen (edition 1983)

by Mary Calhoun, Trina Schart Hyman (Illustrator)

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124768,668 (2.8)None
Title:Big Sixteen
Authors:Mary Calhoun
Other authors:Trina Schart Hyman (Illustrator)
Info:Morrow (1983), Edition: First, Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Tags:Folklore, Picture books, African American

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Big Sixteen by Mary Calhoun



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When this picture-book retelling of an old African-American folktale - in which the super-sized Big Sixteen slays the devil himself, only to find that his great strength makes him as unwelcome in heaven, as he is in hell - was first published in the early 1980s, the review in the prestigious Horn Book Magazine was slightly less than complimentary:

"The picture book version is an unbelievable combination of stereotyping, violence, and blasphemy: The black-and-white illustrations are unfunny, crude, ugly and offensive. Big Sixteen is powerfully built but of very little brain, obsequious in manner and speech. Yassuh! The devil's wife seems to be the prototype of the prostitute; the Devil's children, with their horns, tails, and bulging eyes, are the most grotesque little varmints in picture books. Aside from its gross depiction of black people, the book is also reprehensible for the violence shown when witless Big Sixteen viciously killed the Devil."

Needless to say, when I read the above, in Betsy Hearne's article "Nobody Knows...", published in the September/October 2009 issue of the Horn Book Magazine (devoted to the theme of "Trouble"), and realized that the "gross" illustrations were done by none other than Trina Schart Hyman, whose artwork I generally adore, I had to track down a copy for myself, to see what I thought. The dearth of online reviews of Big Sixteen, and the scarcity of copies in a county library system that stocks multiple copies of many of Hyman's other titles, seemed to indicate the silencing power of a review like the one quoted above, and made me all the more determined to read the book, and decide for myself.

So... what to make of it? Is it full of stereotypes, violence and blasphemy? Are the illustrations racist? It's an odd thing, but I found myself so conscious of the negative review while reading, that I had a hard time making up my mind. It's certainly true that Big Sixteen, although strong, is not terribly assertive. He does everything his white owner demands, and answers "Yessuh," so there may be some justice to the claim that he is an "obsequious" stereotype. On the other hand, this tale comes out of the African-American folk tradition (I believe another retelling can be found in Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural), so unless Calhoun's version differs significantly from others, I have to wonder whether the reviewers' argument is with the telling or the tale. After all, that other great African-American strong-man, John Henry, wasn't exactly a figure of rebellion. Is he too a stereotype? He may be...

I don't think the story is any more violent than other folk and fairy-tales I have read. Yes, Big Sixteen kills the devil, but compared to some of the doings in the Brother Grimm, or Hans Christian Andersen, that doesn't seem so terribly extreme. As for blasphemy, I'm not sure I even know what to make of the charge. Is it blasphemy that Big Sixteen kills the Devil? That the Devil and his family are depicted as black? That Saint Peter and the angels are depicted as black? That Big Sixteen is turned away from both heaven and hell? Or that the story addresses these themes in the first place? Which, again, makes me wonder: is the "blasphemy" a function of the telling or the tale?

And finally: the illustrations. Is the depiction of the Devil's wife and children racist? To be perfectly frank, I thought it was rather tasteless, like one of those horribly oversexed Boris Vallejo fantasy paintings, in which scantily clad women are objectified. But the problematic nature of the image, for me, rests in its references (intentional or not) to misogyny, rather than racism, particularly in light of the idea - with its long and troubling history in our culture - that fully sexual women are "of the devil." Of course, misogyny and racism aren't mutually exclusive, but consider the fairly tasteful depiction of a black Saint Peter and his angels. The Horn Book reviewer quoted above (whose name I do not have, alas!) makes no mention of this image. Could it be because its inclusion would undermine the argument that black people in general - rather than the Devil and his brood, specifically - are depicted "grossly" here? Which raises the question: is his or her objection really to stereotypes? Or to the simple fact that the Devil and his family are (like every other character save the white owner) black?

In the end, my judgment of Big Sixteen is as follows: the story is intriguing, and I hope to track down other tellings. The illustrations are a little weak, given that this is Trina Schart Hyman we're talking about. The depiction of the Devil's wife is troubling, in its reference to a style I find misogynistic. I wouldn't really recommend this one. But by the same token, I don't know that I agree with everything in the Horn Book review, either. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 26, 2013 |
This book is about and African American slave, who is very tall and has lots of power. I have never heard about the tale before I read to book. In my opinion, it is good that an African-American is the main character, but i did not like the tale very much. The illustrations are rather scary than nice and maybe facilitate a frightening aspect of the man. ( )
  bhellmay | Mar 18, 2013 |
Big Sixteen wore size 16 shoe. He was so big he could pick up mules and even went to get the Devil from Hell. He was not allowed in Heaven or Hell so he walks the woods with a light of fire looking for somewhere to go.

*I did not really like this book. I do not think it's kid appropriate either. ( )
  ArielDean | Jan 29, 2013 |
This book was very interesting tale about how big sixteen goes to hell and brings back the devil to slay him. But I don't think this book would be appropriate to share with elementary age children.
  Tryante | Nov 23, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mary Calhounprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hyman, Trina SchartIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Big Sixteen's extra size and strength get him into trouble when The Old Man asks him to fetch the devil.
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Big Sixteen's extra size and strength get him into trouble when The Old Man asks him to fetch the devil.

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