By Helen Bannerman
Illustrated by Fred Marcellino
Helen Bannerman (1862-1946), the author and illustrator of The Story of Little Black Sambo (published in 1899), lived in India for several years; the basis for the story came from illustrated letters she wrote to her children during her time there. Though “sambo” was a term used throughout the 1800s it seems to have risen to its now well-known racist usage in the first half of the 1900s, perhaps in part owed to this story.
The Story of Little Black Sambo has been a point of controversy for nearly as long as it’s been in print. The story itself obviously took place in India, featuring tigers and ghee, or clarified butter, but Bannerman’s art featured an offensively caricatured black child.
Despite being married to some highly objectionable art, the story itself features a wonderfully clever and brave boy who outwits four hungry tigers to escape the jungle without being eaten. I did not understand the connotations of the word “sambo” as a child, and I loved the story. It was included in Volume 2 of the My Book House series and featured illustrations of distinctly Indian characters.
I loved all the fancy clothes and their vivid colors. I was fascinated by the idea of the tigers turning into butter, and then being used on pancakes, and eaten! And the number of pancakes the family consumed, two hundred and fifty-one, astounded me.
The Story of Little Black Sambo has been retold many times. The Story of Little Babaji, illustrated by Fred Marcellino (1939-2001), was published the same year as another retelling, Sam and the Tigers, by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. In Lester and Pinkney’s version, a whole new story is fashioned and takes place in the fictional village of Sam-sam-sa-mara, where everyone is named Sam.
In general, I object to publishers altering or removing what is, now, deemed to be offensive material from books. In addition to the fundamental danger of hiding a rightfully shameful past, these books provide an opportunity to see how attitudes have evolved. Historically speaking, I think it’s important to be aware of the original book, with all its faults.
Marcellino’s version adheres to the original tale; he simply changed the names of the characters and created art to reflect the story’s Indian setting. He also chose a trim size (6.5 in x 6.5 in), close to that of the original book (4 in x 6 in). This decidedly improved edition is a beautifully designed book and a wonderful story worth sharing.
Fred Marcelino illustrated several children’s books; in 1991 his lavishly illustrated version of Charles Perrault’s Puss in Boots received a Caldecott Honor. Its striking cover bore no title and featured a gorgeous illustration of a finely dressed cat.
Marcelino’s stylish watercolor art in the Story of Little Babaji is lighter and airier. Each exquisitely delicate and lively illustration is rendered in a wide-ranging, joyful palette. The highly detailed art alternates between being elegantly simple, with no background, and lusciously full, showing the surrounding environs.
“Once upon a time there was a little boy, and his name was Little Babaji. And his mother was called Mamaji. And his father was called Papaji.”
Mamaji made Babaji a fine red coat and a pair of lovely blue trousers. Papaji bought him an ample green umbrella and a lovely pair of purple shoes.
“And then wasn’t Little Babaji grand?”
After donning all his new items, Babaji went for a walk. Before long he encountered a tiger who threatened to eat him! Babaji pleaded with the tiger and offered his fine red coat in exchange for his life. The vain tiger accepted the deal and walked away declaring, “Now I’m the grandest tiger in the jungle.”
Babaji escaped unharmed but in no time at all his path crossed with another tiger who also threatened to eat him. This time Babaji surrendered his blue trousers to remain uneaten. Now a second tiger was claiming to be the grandest in the jungle.
Babaji continued on his way and soon came face to face with another hungry tiger. When Babaji offered to trade his lovely purple shoes for freedom the tiger responded that he had no use for two shoes when he has four feet. But Babaji convinced the foolish tiger to wear the shoes on his ears. Another vain beast marched off announcing his grand status.
When Babaji met the fourth (and final) tiger, he had only his umbrella left to offer and since tigers have no hands to carry umbrellas, Babaji tied it to the tiger’s tail.
“And poor Little Babaji went away crying, because the cruel tigers had taken all his fine clothes.”
Before Little Babaji could reach safety he heard the tigers growling nearby; the growling grew louder. Babaji hid behind a palm tree and spied the tigers—all in their fine new items—arguing over which of them was the grandest in the jungle. The tigers removed their adornments in a fury and began clawing and biting each other; forming a circle around the tree, each tiger grabbed hold of another by the tail.
While the vicious creatures were otherwise occupied, Babaji retrieved his things and rushed off to a safe distance, where he magnanimously provided the opportunity for the giant cats to reclaim their items! But the tigers were too angry and refused to let go of each other’s tails and Little Babaji re-dressed in all his resplendent finery and walked off unscathed.
Meanwhile the tigers, still bound in a circle by tails and teeth, began chasing each other faster and faster until they were a blur of orange and black; then the tigers ran so fast that they melted away into a pool of ghee (though this is the common spelling, in the book it’s spelled ghi).
As it happened, Papaji was on his way home from work and came upon the beautiful buttery pool and scooped it all into the brass pot he was carrying. He brought it home for Mamaji who used the ghee to make a pancake feast for the whole family. The pancakes “were just as yellow and brown as little tigers” and “Little Babaji ate a hundred and sixty-nine, because he was so hungry.”