Saludos, todos! We are concluding this month’s theme of books on Haiti with a historical treat from the late Haitian artist and writer, François Turenne des Près (1907-1990), who is considered one of Haiti’s greatest painters. After his death in 1990, his son, Josquin des Près, uncovered his father’s collection of Haitian folktales and decided to compile the materials into a collection of stories for children. He complemented the stories with paintings of everyday Haitian life which his father had produced throughout his lifetime. According to a review by Publisher’s Weekly, “The legacy of the late Haitian artist and writer Turenne Des Près (1907-1990) is vibrantly preserved in this beautifully produced collection of 12 folktales. The stories, originally published in Haiti in 1949 without illustrations, are paired here with paintings culled from the more than 300 works executed by Turenne Des Pres.”
Although this book is meant for children, adults will also enjoy its amazing historical import. As stated by Publisher’s Weekly, “The book has the sophisticated feel of a museum catalogue, yet it is zesty enough to maintain a child’s attention.” For younger readers, it would be best as a read-aloud; older children may want to read it independently.
Given its versatility, this wonderful collection could be used in classroom lessons that range from elementary activities on reading and storytelling concepts, to more advanced lessons on Haitian art, history, and literary tradition. Readers will be intrigued and impressed by the majestic storylines that range from talking fish gods and superstitious princesses to magically growing orange trees and talking animals.
Oral histories are important within Haitian culture, and this book resonates with that tradition. The folktales, though written in this publication, are drawn from Turenne des Près’ recollection of hearing stories from his nurse maid as a child. The introduction to the book explains the fascinating history of this collection and how it came about:
“The Tales of Ma Bonne” (nursemaid) proved to be different yet equally captivating and opened up another dimension of stories recounted in parts of Haiti by nursemaids entertaining their young charges. Young Francois was one of those children. In later years, Francois explained that his particular Ma Bonne had been a nursemaid to a well-traveled family and had no doubt gathered stories from Europe and retold them in her own Haitian style. She also created many of her stories, including in them historical anecdotes and local Haitian customs.”
This book, therefore, helps to capture a panorama of historical, geographical and personal journeys. As oral tales are passed down from generation to generation, often enduring for centuries and centuries, passed on from generation to generation, they become imprinted with the metaphorical footprints and impressions of those who’ve heard, cherished and re-told them.
The introduction also explains various customs within Haitian oral tradition. For example, story-tellers would often start their story by yelling “Cric?” as a call to the audience. The audience would respond “Crac!” to signify that they were listening and ready for the story. This ritual resonates with many African oral traditions of call and response. According to BBC’s page on Music of Africa, “In call-and-response form the leader sings a line (the call) and is answered by a chorus (the response). The chorus usually stays the same while the soloist improvises. There is often overlapping between the leader and the chorus.” This musical form has influenced other forms of cultural heritage as well, such as written literature, oral tradition, and art.
Turenne des Près’s collection uses this “Cric? Crac!” exchange to start each of the folktales. Instead of a large, ornate letter that heads the first sentence of most Anglo fairytales, this collection starts each tale with a little black box reading “Cric? Crac!” Some of you may also recognize this phrase from our educator’s guide on Haitian author Edwidge Danticat’s novel, Krik? Krak! Moreover, this collection provides a glossary at the back of the book to further explain some Haitian words that may appear throughout the text, or other cultural symbols. Finally, the last page of the book includes additional information about the author/artist, concluding that “This book is a tribute to his ability to vividly tell the story of Haitian life on paper and canvas.” Indeed, this collection is a historical and artistic treasure that will delight the imagination of an reader.
For those of you interested in using this book in the classroom, here are some additional resources:
- Casey Roehrich Multicultural Lesson Plan on teaching Haitian history and art, incorporates Children of Yayoute as a resource, as well as Running the Road to A B C, which we featured earlier.
- Drupal University Latin American Studies Center’s, lesson plan on Children of Yayoute
- University of Florida lesson plan for grades 7-12 on oral tradition and folklore
- The Power of Education Foundation, K-5 art-based lesson plan on teaching picture books written and illustrated by Haitian authors/artists. Featured books include Children of Yayoute and Running the Road to A B C.
For those of you interested in general lesson plans on teaching themes of Haiti or the Caribbean in the classroom, here are some additional materials:
- Teaching for Change: Teaching About Haiti, one of the best resources available on the topic
- University of Florida’s lesson plan (grades 3-12) on Mapping the Caribbean
- Digital Library of the Caribbean’s list of featured lesson plans on teaching about the Caribbean in the classroom. Lesson plans are for a variety of age groups and touch upon various Caribbean cultures, including several lesson plans on Haiti. Common themes include oral tradition and other forms of cultural heritage, to dictatorships, genocides and other themes of history, politics and social justice.
Stay tuned for an introduction to next month’s themes and some more awesome reads!
Images modified from Children of Yayoute, pages 16, 42, 43, 55, 91 and 94