There are so many overt moral lessons in stories for kids that it’s always refreshing when there’s a character who is a little less than perfect. And in Storytime Issue 19, we have just that character: Brer Rabbit (hiding out in the mud, bottom right. Art by Maria Karapidou). He’s a master trickster in a long line of trickster tales.
What are Trickster Tales?
Trickster tales are as old as the hills and have survived thanks to oral storytellers. They’re usually funny and feature an animal playing pranks on other animals – often friends – or breaking the rules to nab a free meal, accommodation or a prized possession. But occasionally, the trickster plays pranks just for the fun of it. Sometimes he gets his come-uppance, but often, he gets away with it, like in our Brer Rabbit story.
Tricksters as Teachers
Is that a good moral lesson for kids? How can reading about a character getting up to mischief without any consequences be of educational value? Actually, trickster tales provide a brilliant opportunity to talk about right and wrong without being force-fed morals. They allow you to make up your own mind. For instance, after reading our Brer Rabbit tale you can ask:
- Did Brer Rabbit have good or bad reasons for taking Brer Fox’s peas?
- What could he have done instead?
- Did Brer Bear deserve to take Brer Rabbit’s place?
- What should have happened to Brer Rabbit after he got caught in the trap?
- Should Brer Bear have caught Brer Rabbit at the end?
- What would have happened if he did?
Working out the moral lessons in trickster tales can be so much more valuable than being preached at – and the lessons you learn together are far more likely to stick with your child because they were involved in the process of working them out with you.
5 Famous Tricksters
Almost every culture has its own trickster characters. We’ve featured a few in Storytime, and there are many more to come. Here are five of our favourites:
1. Anansi the Spider is a trickster from West African and Caribbean stories, and is full of wit and cunning. He can sometimes change into a man and, in one tale, he becomes the god of all stories. However, in Storytime Issue 4, Anansi the Spider gets what he deserves when he tries to trick his friend! He also appears in Anansi’s Pot of Wisdom in Storytime Issue 51.
2. Brer Rabbit was made famous in Uncle Remus stories from the southern states of America, but these were inspired by African and Native American stories about trickster rabbits and hares. We featured one of these, How Rabbit Got Long Ears, in Storytime Issue 3. In this story, rabbit faces the consequences of his actions, but what’s great about Brer Rabbit, in particular, is that he’s sometimes silly, often downright naughty, but always quick-witted enough to escape punishment. In Storytime Issue 52, Brer Rabbit gets the better of Brer Fox again – but this time, Brer Fox deserves it.
3. Coyote trickster tales are also popular in America, and there are similar tales about jackals from Africa and India. Sometimes the coyote or jackal is smart enough to outwit his enemies and sometimes he is helpful to humans, like the famous tale about how the coyote discovered fire. In Storytime Issue 18, How the Jackal Fooled the Lion is a true trickster tale and fun to read.
4. Tricksters aren’t always animals. The Norse god Loki is another notorious trickster, who gets up to no good in Storytime Issue 3, when he persuades Thor to dress up as a woman; in Issue 10, when he steals Freya’s Golden Necklace; in Storytime Issue 23, when he cuts off Sif’s Golden Hair for no reason other than his own pleasure; and in Storytime Issue 39, when his trickiness benefits the whole of Asgard.
5. Finally, Kitsune the fox from Japanese tales is often shown as a magical shape-shifting trickster, who enjoys making travellers get lost, punishing greedy show-offs or stealing food. Kitsune is similar to Reynard the fox, a star of European trickster tales from the middle ages onwards. Kitsune is awesome and we’ll feature a foxy trickster tale soon!
You can learn a lot from trickster tales, but in a world of “do this and don’t do that”‚ there’s another benefit to this kind of story – kids really enjoy reading about characters who make mischief. Does that mean they’ll be influenced by the characters and copy them? With the right discussion, no. Plus, we think kids are smarter than that!
Long live tricksters and see you again soon,