Our celebration of Black History Month continues here in GatheringBooks with John Steptoe’s adaptation of An African Tale entitled Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.

Fascination with Folktales. I have an unabashed fascination with folklore and mythology. In fact, the lecture that I gave during the Asian Festival of Children’s Content May of last year had something to do with Asian folktales (Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia) as well as the talk that I shared in India for the Creating Content(ment) for Children International Seminar November of last year (same four countries, only this time around, I added India to the list). This particular book is right along those lines, as could be seen in the Author’s Introductory Note:

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters was inspired by a folktale collected by G. M. Theal and published in 1895 in his book, Kaffir Folktales. Details of the illustrations were inspired by the ruins of an ancient city found in Zimbabwe, and the flora and fauna of that region.

Like all folk tales, it is a cautionary tale that essentially demonstrates how evil would always get its comeuppance in the end. In this particular tale we are introduced to two sisters Manyara and Nyasha, celebrated for their beauty in a small village in Africa. While Nyasha was kind-hearted, quiet, and long-suffering – her sister Manyara was the exact opposite being ill-tempered, vain, and arrogant.

Original illustration by John Steptoe - book photo taken by me.

This reminded me of Sukhu and Dukhu, also a tale of two sisters found in Indian folktales, as well as the sibling rivalry among the two brothers in Singapore’s The Luminous Pearl and in Malaysia’s Princess Santubong. It is truly curious to see how these themes seem to be overarching and universal regardless of our geographical boundaries.

And as most folktales (and fairy tales) go, the Great King is looking for a wife, hence: “The Most Worthy and Beautiful Daughters in the Land are invited to appear before the King, and he will choose one to be come Queen!” announced the Messenger. Manyara, thinking only of herself, determined that she would be the first one to appear before the King, stole out in the middle of the night to make the journey on her own. While on the way to the King’s Palace, she encounters ‘tests of character’ in the form of a hungry boy, an old woman who has given her a cryptic advice (which she pointedly ignored), and a grove of trees who seemed to have a life of their own.

Mufaro and his lovely daughters

Again, these challenges are not unusual in folktales, I can also recall quite a few of these in the Asian folktales that I have studied: The Magic Lake from the Philippines comes to mind and The Luminous Pearl in the Singapore folktale. I am sure that you can hazard a guess as to what the ending would most likely be, and you would probably be right. Yet despite the age-old character of the narrative, there is always always something that rings true and honest and noble in these tales. And needless to say, the illustrations are simply gorgeous.

Another favorite illustration from the book. Beautiful.

On Good and Evil (and tolerance for ambiguity). I believe that one of the greatest strengths of folk tales is its seemingly-simplistic yet crystal-clear delineation of what is right and wrong. The actions speak for themselves and belie people’s innermost motivations and drives. As people grow older (and supposedly-wiser), we learn that there are no true absolutes, no pre-existing and all-encompassing bastion of morality that stands tall, firm, and in plain sight – against which we can gauge and measure our own behaviors and intentions. As we develop a tolerance for ambiguity, the lines are blurred, the boundaries not as clearly defined, our moral compass pointing here, there and everywhere. In our so-called wisdom, we have made things more complicated for ourselves – and these folk tales are a reminder that sometimes – a flower is just that – a flower. A rose by any other name, as they say, remains a rose. And evil actions, regardless of how it is justified, and sugar-coated, remains the way they are.

Teacher Resources. I was also able to find a few resources for teachers who may wish to use this Caldecott Honor book in their classrooms. Here is a downloadable pdf link prepared by highland.hitcho.com.au which includes vocabulary/comprehension tests. Here is another supplemental unit created by the San Diego County Office of Education and includes a number of suggested student activities. This is a Lesson Plan prepared by TeacherLink that might also prove to be helpful to teachers and another Lesson Plan especially created by Scholastic. Enjoy!

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale as adapted by John Steptoe. Lothrop, Lee & Shepart Books, New York, 1987. Book borrowed from the NIE Library. Book photos taken by me.

1988 Caldecott Honor Winner. AWB Reading Challenge Update: 16 of 35

PictureBook Challenge Update: 27 of 120

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 5 of 25

Caldecott Challenge Update: 4 of 24

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

5 comments on “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale by John Steptoe

  1. What a gorgeous book, Myra. I loved hearing your thoughts about good and evil (& ambiguity). It makes me wish I was in the classroom again so I could use your words & the book as a springboard for a great discussion. Thanks again!

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    • Hi Linda! While the story line appears simple and very similar to folktales we’ve read and enjoyed, the illustrations render a fresh perspective to the narrative. It also made me realize how simple things can be, if we will them to be such – and how we can find a quiet beauty in that.

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  2. I love the pictures.

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  3. This is a story and illustrations that I find truly beautiful, but I could never find any enthusiasts amongst the kids in our library. 😦

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  4. Pingback: Carnival of Children’s Literature: A February Round-Up and More «

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