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Verna Aardema (1911–2000)

Author of Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears

36+ Works 11,767 Members 453 Reviews 1 Favorited

About the Author

Verna Aardema was born on June 6, 1911 in New Era Michigan. She received her B.A. degree from Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences in 1934. She was a grade school teacher from 1934 to 1973 and staff correspondent for the Muskegon Chronicle from 1951 to 1972. Aardema started show more writing children's stories in the 1950's, and in 1960 she published her first books, Tales from the Story Hat and The Sky God Stories. She specializes in the modernization and adaptation of traditional African folktales. In the 1970s, Aardema joined illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon and produced three picture books. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears received the Caldecott Medal in 1976 and the Brooklyn Art Books for Children Award in 1977. Who's in Rabbit's House? was the 1977 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award winner in 1978. Aardema received the Children's Reading Round Table Award in 1981, and several of her books have been selected as Notable Books by the American Library Association. Oh Kojo! How Could You! won the 1984 Parents' Choice Award for Literature. Verna Aardema died in 2000. show less
Image credit: Verna Aardema Vugteveen

Works by Verna Aardema

Associated Works


Common Knowledge

Canonical name
Aardema, Verna
Legal name
Aardema Vugteveen, Verna Norberg
Date of death
Burial location
Norton Cemetery, Norton Shores, Muskegon, Michigan, USA
Country (for map)
New Era, Michigan, USA
Place of death
Fort Myers, Florida, USA
Places of residence
Michigan, USA
Michigan State University
children's book author
Short biography
A prolific American children's author and teacher, Verna Norberg Aardema Vugteveen - more commonly known as Verna Aardema - was born in 1911 in New Era, Michigan. She was educated at Michigan State University, and taught grade school from 1934-1973. She also worked as a journalist for the Muskegon Chronicle from 1951-1972. In 1960 she published her first book, the collection of stories, Tales from the Story Hat. She went on to write over thirty more books, most of them folkloric retellings. Her picture-book, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, won co-illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon a Caldecott Medal. Aardema was married twice, and died in 2000 in Fort Myers, Florida. (source: Wikipedia)



Prolific children's folklorist Verna Aardema, who produced more than thirty folktale retellings over the course of her career—both collections and picture books, including the Caldecott Medal-winning Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon—made her debut in this collection from 1960, which presents nine stories from Africa. The selections include:

Tricksy Rabbit, a tale from the Waganda/Baganda people of Uganda concerning that leporine trickster, who outwits his friend Elephant when both seek to trade cloth for cattle. It is taken from Henry M. Stanley's My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories (1893).

Wikki, the Weaver, an original story relating the tale of a West African hunter who discovers how to weave, thanks to the encouragement of his wife, and the tutelage of a spider. Aardema's retelling is based upon one found in Mary H. Kingsley's Travels in West Africa (1897).

The Sloogeh Dog and the Stolen Aroma, a story collected in the Belgian Congo, but believed to come from Sudan, concerning a starving dog who is brought to court for enjoying the smell of a rich man's food. This tale type, in which payment is sought for the enjoyment of a smell, is widespread globally, with many variants. In some tellings, the payment exacted is the sound of money, but here the punishment meted out to the ostensible thief—the whipping of his shadow—is actually a punishment of the wealthy man. It's interesting to note that "Sloogeh" is believed to be a corruption of "Saluki," the greyhound-like breed of dog found in the Middle East and northern Africa. This version of the tale comes from the 1954 novel Beyond the Hungry Country by Louise Stinetorf.

Madame Giraffe, ostensibly a story from the Egbe (Yoruba) people of Nigeria, adapted from the 1930 An African Savage's Own Story by Bata Kindai Amgoza Ibn Lobagola. In the story, Elephant ends up protecting Madame Giraffe from the depredations of Lion. Aardema used another story from this author in her 1969 collection, Tales for the Third Ear, from Equatorial Africa. As it happens, it turns out that Bata Kindai Amgoza Ibn Lobagola was really an imposter, an African American named Joseph Howard Lee, who masqueraded as an African "savage" and entertainer, and who published his "autobiography" (LoBagola; An African Savage's Own Story) in 1930. Given this fact, I am unsure as to whether the story included here, or those in his folktale collection (The Folk Tales of a Savage), actually represent traditional tales from Africa, or whether they were Lee's own creations.

Monkeys In the Sausage Tree, an ostensible Sudanese tale (relocated by Aardema to southern Africa) in which a group of monkeys ask a man for help, but then double-cross him, as they are at war with humans. This story is also taken from An African Savage's Own Story by Bata Kindai Amgoza Ibn Lobagola.

Nansii and the Eagle, a tale from the Kpelli tribe of Liberia, in which the trickster spider Nansii (AKA: Anansi) attempts to outwit Hare and enjoy some eagle stew all on his own, only to be outwitted himself. The story is taken from a 1954 Liberian pamphlet, Liberian Fables Book I.

How Dog Outwitted Leopard, another Ugandan tale, in which lazy Dog at first outwits Leopard, with whom he has been partners and roommates. As a result of his actions, Dog becomes the companion of man. Like Tricksy Rabbit, this tale is adapted from one found in Henry M. Stanley's My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories (1893).

Koi and the Kola Nuts, a Liberian tale about a young chief's son who makes good use of his inheritance of a sack of kola nuts, helping a variety of creatures in need and aided by them in turn. This story is adapted from Koi and His Heritage, a tale to be found in the booklet, Nemo and Other Stories, published in 1954 by the National Fundamental Education Centre in Klay, Liberia. Aardema would go on to publish this story again in the 1999 picture book, Koi and the Kola Nuts: A Tale from Liberia.

The Prince Who Wanted the Moon, a tale from the Congo River, in which a spoiled prince's desire for the moon brings destruction to himself, his father and his people. This story explains how gorillas, baboons and long-tailed monkeys came to be. It was also taken from Henry M. Stanley's My Dark Companions and Their Strange Stories (1893).

As someone who has read almost everything Verna Aardema has published, I was curious to see where she began, and Tales from The Story Hat did not disappoint. One can see the beginning of the author's lifelong preoccupation with retelling African folklore here, and the origin of one of her later works. 1960 was a productive year for Aardema, who published this collection, as well as three picture books: The Sky-God Stories, The Na of Wa and Otwe. Like this collection, all of those books were illustrated by African America artist Elton C. Fax, who also worked on Aardema 1966 follow-up to this collection, More Tales from The Story Hat. I was quite interested to see that the introduction here was written Augusta Baker, the ground-breaking librarian who became the first African American to hold an administrative position at the New York Public Library, where she was the head of storytelling for many years, and the Coordinator of Children's Services. Ironically, although Baker herself was known for her work promoting positive images of African Americans in children's literature, her own folklore collections—The Talking Tree and Other Stories: Fairy Tales from 15 Lands (1955) and The Golden Lynx and Other Tales (1960)—did not contain any African tales. In any case, this is one I would recommend to young folklore enthusiasts, although I do not think it is as widely available as many of the author's subsequent books.
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AbigailAdams26 | May 19, 2024 |
Independent Reading Level: Grades 2-3
Awards: Caldecott Medal
anbaum | 285 other reviews | Apr 24, 2024 |
Noted children's folklorist Verna Aardema presents nine African folktales in this lovely collection from 1969, taken primarily from various West African traditions, and from the Masai of Kenya. Engaging, entertaining, sometimes amusing, these stories are well worth reading! Selections include:

Ananse and the King's Cow, a Temne tale from Sierra Leone, in which Frog shows Ananse the spider how he harvests fat from the king's friendly cow, hopping into its stomach, harvesting strips, and leaving without touching the heart. Greedy Ananse returns on his own, taking all of the fat and killing the cow. Even this misfortune he turns to his advantage however, managing to gain three lives cows, in exchange for killing one.

The Long One, a Masai story in which Tricksy Rabbit's home is commandeered by a very intimidating creature called the Long One, who won't show himself, and won't leave. A series of animals attempt to help Tricksy, but it is only Frog who is clever enough to beat the Long One at his own game. Aardema retold this story in her 1977 picture book, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, Who's In Rabbit's House?: A Masai Tale Retold.

Gizo's Counting Trick, a Hausa tale from Nigeria, in which the clever spider Gizo gains some figs after outwitting a murder of crows, and manages to fool a congregation of alligators long enough to eat most of their eggs. Although I tend to associate the spider trickster hero of West African lore with the name Anansi, this is actually the Akan name for this character, whom the Hausa call Gizo (a word meaning male spider).

Hyena and the Oil With the Flies in It, a Masai tale in which Engojine the hyena gains access to a lion's den, thanks to Gitojo the hare, but becomes trapped inside when he fails to pay attention to the incantation he must use to exit. Made a servant of the lion, Engojine is horrified when he accidentally kills her cub, and invents a series of lies which eventually get him into trouble.

Ikpoom, an Akan-Ashanti tale from Ghana in which the titular hero disgusts his both his fellow men and all the wild creatures with his constant tall tales, until Ananse decides to teach him a lesson.

Ol-Ambu and He-of-the-Long-Sleeping-Place, a Masai tale from the Kapiti Plains, in which Ol-Ambu the boaster enlists the help of his friend Pambito to hunt the great giraffe, He-of-the-Long-Sleeping-Place. When the hunt does not go as expected and Ol-Ambu denies his friend his share of the meat, Pambito takes his revenge by tricking Ol-Ambu's wife Enoti, and taking most of the meat after all.

The Lonely Lioness and the Ostrich Chicks, another Masai tale, in which Engatuny the lioness kidnaps the children of E-sidai the ostrich, and declares them her own children. E-sidai seeks help from the other animals, but only the mongoose is clever and brave enough to find a way to get them back. This story was subsequently retold by Aardema in picture book form, in The Lonely Lioness and the Ostrich Chicks: A Masai Tale (1996), illustrated by Yumi Heo.

Kindai and the Ape, a story purported to be from the Ondo kingdom in Nigeria, in which a hunter named Kindai helps a great ape with a thorn stuck in his foot, despite the fact that his people and the apes are enemies. Some time later, when the apes attack his village, and one makes off with his son, Kindai is able to save him, because the kidnapping ape is none other than the one he once aided. According to the notes here, this story comes from the 1930 The Folk Tales of a Savage, by Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola.

In trying to learn more about this author, I discovered that he was really an imposter, an African American named Joseph Howard Lee, who masqueraded as an African "savage" and entertainer, and who published an autobiography entitled LoBagola; an African Savage's Own Story. Given that this is so, I am doubtful as to whether the stories presented in the folktale collection actually represent traditional tales from Africa, or whether they were Lee's own creations. Given that the hero is named Kindai, which is also part of the stage name taken by the author, it seems likely that this was an original creation, or a loose retelling of a story of unknown origin.

Little Sister and the Zimwi, a Swahili tale from Zanzibar, in which a little girl is kidnapped by the ogreish Zimwi, placed in his drum, and made to sing on his command. It falls to the girl's mother, who recognizes her voice, to rescue the girl. Aardema would retell this story again, in her 1985 picture book Bimwili and the Zimwi: A Tale from Zanzibar, illustrated by Susan Meddaugh.

As a great fan of Verna Aardema's work, as well a folklore enthusiast, I enjoyed this collection immensely, appreciating both the story and the accompanying artwork from illustrator Ib Ohlsson. At this point I've read almost everything this author has published, so it was interesting to see that I was already familiar with a number of the tales, from subsequent retellings. Recommended to young folktale lovers, particularly those with an interest in African lore.
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AbigailAdams26 | Apr 13, 2024 |
Independent Reading Level: Ages 5-8
Awards: Caldecott Medal (1976)
LelandWarnack | 285 other reviews | Apr 3, 2024 |



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