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Aardema, Verna

Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature
Author(s):

David L. Russell

Aardema, Verna 

(1911–2000), American children's author, born in New Era, Michigan, best known for her retellings of African folk tales. She received a degree from Michigan State College (later University) and longed to become a writer, but the income from teaching was more secure, and she taught elementary school for many years. Her ambition of becoming a professional writer was kept alive while she did some journalistic writing for the local newspaper in Muskegon, Michigan. Aardema combined an early interest in storytelling with her long-held fascination with things African and created a series of stories based on African folk tales—a revolutionary concept in 1960—beginning with Tales from the Story Hat, published by Coward-McCann, and followed by many more collections. Aardema was particularly praised for identifying the cultural sources of the tales, a feature not all that common at the time. In Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears (1975), a retelling of a West African tale, Aardema shifted from the folk tale collection to the single story in picture book format. The lively retelling of this pourquoi tale was well received, and its stunning illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon won the Caldecott Medal. Her fame as a storyteller was now secure, and her adaptations were illustrated by some of the finest picture book artists of the day, including, in addition to the Dillons, Marc Brown (Oh, Kojo! How Could You!, 1984), Marcia Brown (How the Ostrich Got Its Long Neck, 1995), Jerry Pinkney (Rabbit Makes a Monkey of Lion, 1989), and Beatriz Vidal (Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, 1981). She specialized in trickster and pourquoi tales and drew them from all over the African continent, from the Ashanti in West Africa to the Masai in Kenya and Tanzania. She also adapted Mexican tales, most notably The Riddle of the Drum (1979).

See also African American Literature and Trickster Tales.

David L. Russell