Author! Author!

Folktale Tradition Lives On: Verna Aardema

by Carolyn S. Brodie

Carolyn S. Brodie, Ph.D., is a Professor at Kent State University, School of Library and Information Science, Kent, OH 44242-0001. Phone: 330-672-2782; Fax: 330-672-7965; E-mail:

Born on June 6, 1911, in New Era, Michigan, Verna Norber Aardema Vugteveen knew from age eleven that she wanted to be a writer and became a well-known figure in children's literature.

Aardema is noted in particular for her retellings of African and Mexican folktales and contributed thirty-three children's books to the field. Encouraged from a young age by her mother, Aardema was also a well-known storyteller and someone who mentored and inspired young people throughout her career. She was a school teacher in Michigan from 1934 to 1973.

Aardema received her B.A. degree from Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences in 1934. She began writing children's stories in the 1950s and published her first book in 1960 and the last in 1999. Her work concentrated on modernizing and adapting traditional, well-known folktales. The stories particularly focus on relationships and explaining nature's mysteries with many tales of heroism.

Four of her books were featured on Reading Rainbow: Borreguita and the Coyote, Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, and Who's in Rabbit's House?. In 1976, Leo and Diane Dillon's drawings for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears won the Caldecott Medal as the most distinguished American children's picture book.

Verna Aardema passed away in 2000, but her legacy of retold tales will live on for generations to come.


Learn more about Aardema and her work byreading her children's autobiography A Book-worm Who Hatched (Photographs by Dede Smith. R. C. Owen, 1992).


Koi and the Kola Nuts: A Tale from Liberia. Illus. by Joe Cepeda. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1999. A sack full of kola nuts is the only thing that the son of a chief carries as he travels around the world. He encounters creatures along the way who help him because he has been so kind to them.

Anansi Does the Impossible!: An Ashanti Tale. Illus. by Lisa Desimini. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1997. To win back the folktales of their people, Anansi and his wife must outsmart the Sky God.

This for That: A Tonga Tale. Illus. by Victoria Chess. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1997. In this African folktale, Rabbit outsmarts the other animals into giving up their food and treats.

The Lonely Lioness and the Ostrich Chicks: A Masai Tale. Illus. by Yumi Heo. Knopf, 1996. An ostrich struggles to get her chicks back from a lioness with help from a mongoose.

How the Ostrich Got Its Long Neck; A Tale from the Akamba of Kenya. Illus. by Marcia Brown. Scholastic, 1995. A Kenyan tale about why the ostrich has a very long neck.

Jackal's Flying Lesson: A Khoikhoi Tale. Illus. by Dale Gottlieb. Knopf, 1995. A mother dove is able to rescue her little ones from a Jackal when she is helped by a blue crane.

Misoso: Once Upon a Time Tales from Africa. Illus. by Reynold Ruffins. Knopf; 1994. A folktale collection from different parts of Africa.

Sebgugugu the Glutton: A Bantu Tale from Rwanda. Illus. by Nancy L. Clouse. W.B. Eerdmans/Africa World Press, 1993. Imana, Lord of Rwanda, has his patience tested by a greedy poor man and then ultimately loses all his possessions.

Anansi Finds a Fool: An Ashanti Tale. Illus. by Bryna Waldman. Dial Books, 1992. Anansi is fooled into laying his own fish traps, although he was trying to trick someone else into doing it for him. Borreguita and the Coyote: A Tale from Ayutla. Mexico. Illus. by Petra Mathers. Knopf, 1991. A lamb is spared from being eaten by a coyote because she is clever and outsmarts him.

Pedro & the Padre: A Tale from Jalisco, Mexico. Illus. by Friso Henstra. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991. A lazy boy learns a lesson about lying.

Traveling to Tondo: A Tale of the Nkundo of Zaire. Illus. by Will Hillenbradn. Knopf, 1991. A civet cat has numerous setbacks on his way to his own wedding.

Rabbit Makes a Monkey of Lion: A Swahili Tale. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1989. A smart Rabbit has help from friends as he makes a fool of the king of the forest.

Princess Gorilla and a New Kind of Water: A Mpongwe Tale. Illus. by Victoria Chess. Dial, 1988. The King Gorilla sets conditions on someone being allowed to marry his daughter.

Bimwili & the Zimwi: A Tale from Zanzibar. Illus. by Susan Meddaugh. Dial Books for Young Readers, 1985. A Swahili girl has to be the voice inside a singing drum after being abducted by a Zimwi.

Oh, Kojo! How Could You!: An Ashanti Tale. Illus. by Marc Brown. Dial, 1984. Kojo outsmarts the tricky Anansi.

The Vingananee and the Tree Toad: A Liberian Tale. Illus. by Ellen Weiss. F. Warne, 1983. Vingananee is a strange animal who is mean to other animals and eats their food until he encounters a little tree toad.

What's So Funny, Ketu?: A Nuer Tale Adapted from Otwe. Illus. by Marc Brown. Dial Press, 1982. Ketu saves the life of a snake and is rewarded by being able to hear animals think.

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plan: A Nandi Tale. Illus. by Beatriz Vidal. Dial Press, 1981. Rain comes to the Kapiti Plain in this retelling shared as a cumulative rhyme.

Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki: An Ashanti Tale Retold. Illus. by Diane Stanley Zuromskis. F. Warne, 1979. The story of how Leopard receives his spotted coat.

The Riddle of the Drum: A Tale from Tizapan, Mexico. Illus. by Tony Chen. Four Winds Press, 1979. A king sets the condition to marry his daughter of the suitor who is able to guess the kind of leather used to make a drum.

Ji-nongo-nongo Means Riddles. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Four Winds Press, 1978. A collection of riddles from Africa.

Who's in Rabbit's House?: A Masai Tale. Illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon. Dial Press, 1977. Someone is in Rabbit's house and won't let her in.

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale. Illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon. Dial Press, 1975. A West African tale that reveals how the mosquito came to buzz so much.

Behind the Back of the Mountain; Black Folktales from Southern Africa. Illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon. Dial Press, 1973. Ten folk legends from southern Africa include Hottentot, Zulu, and Bantu tales.

Tales from the Third Ear, from Equatorial Africa. Illus. by Ib Ohlsson. Dutton, 1969. Nine African folktales recount the adventures of a lonely lioness, a cunning spider, a lying hyena, and others.


Check the library to find versions of Aardema's most popular tales on audio.


A Bookworm Who Hatched. Photographs by Dede Smith. R. C. Owen, 1992.Verna Aardema shares her life and work in this slim autobiography that includes many pictures.


Something about the Author. Facts and Pictures about Authors and Illustrator of Books for Young People. Vol. 68. Gale Research, 1992.

Holtze, Sally Homes. Fifth Book of Junior Authors. H. W. Wilson, 1983.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers. 5th ed. St. James Press, 1999.