A Storyteller Who Woke the World

Diane Wolkstein, children’s author and storyteller extraordinaire, lived by the power of stories to touch the heart. The author of two dozen books, she reached audiences large and small with her deft timing, honed words, and her far-reaching taste for multicultural folktales. An obituary by Paul Vitello in today’s New York Times announced she died at age 70 while in Taiwan researching a book of Chinese folk literature.

I discovered Wolkstein’s work when I took a storytelling course at Syracuse in the late ’90s with the remarkable storyteller/librarian/teacher Kaye Lindauer. Throughout my decade as a school librarian I shared Wolkstein’s retellings of folktales, which never failed to elicit both laughter and lively discussions. Banza by Diane Wolkstein

A favorite for ages 5 to 7 was undoubtedly The Banza: A Haitian Story, brightly illustrated by Marc Brown, of Arthur fame. Part of the fun of the tale is the premise that Teegra, a tiger, and a goat named Cabree become dear friends after the night they both happen to take shelter in the same cave during a storm. In time, Teegra finds his family and gives his friend the special gift of a banza — a banjo, as most would say. The banza, according to Teegra’s aunt, “belongs to the heart, and there is no stronger protection than the heart.”

Then, by the river, Cabree confronts not one but TEN fat tigers. How can a kid with just a banza survive? Well, Cabree begins to make up a fierce little song to those “ten fat tigers ten fat tigers. Cabree eats tigers raw.” Listeners reap their share of fun by singing along with the simple lyrics. What child doesn’t love a story where the small one triumphs over big, ferocious enemies?

It’s a terrific tribute to the power of music, the power of words, the strength residing inside each of us.

Also see these folktales retold by Wolkstein:

Day Ocean Came to VisitSun Mother Wakes the WorldMagic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales

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