Monday, September 19, 2011

Isn't that a strange hmm-hmmmmm hmm?-a review of ANANSI AND THE MOSS-COVERED ROCK by Eric A. Kimmel

One day, while “walking, walking, walking” through the forest, Anansi the Spider discovers a moss-covered rock that has the power to knock the sense out of anyone—“KPOM!”—who repeats a certain phrase.  Upon spying Lion’s great pile of yams, Anansi weaves a plan.  One by one, he introduces all the animals of the forest to the moss-covered rock, and, true to his trickster nature, tricks them into saying the sleep-inducing phrase, “Isn’t this a strange moss-covered rock?”  This gives greedy Anansi just the time he needs to help himself to all of their food.  Unknown to Anansi, Little Bush Deer has been spying on him as he plays his tricks, and she hatches a plan of her own.  In the end, Little Bush Deer outwits the clever Anansi by goading him into repeating the magic words.  Will Anansi learn his lesson?  No way!  “He’s still playing tricks to this very day.”

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric Kimmel
Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock is a quick moving narrative that begs to be performed, and it is easy to imagine the different ways a storyteller might interpret this tale. Kimmel’s use of repetition, “walking, walking, walking,” enhances the action of the story, establishing a sense of place and movement within the forest (and on the stage) where the animals make their homes, which flows naturally for the performer. Repeated phrases such as the onomatopoeic “KPOM!” to the simple, yet magical, question, “Isn’t this a strange moss-covered rock?” establish a rhythm to the story and cause the listener to predict the action to come. The turning point in the story comes when we discover that Little Bush Deer has been watching all this action from “behind the leaves.” Her entry into the story and her subsequent plot to turn tables on Anansi are humorous, as she pretends to fall into the same trap as the other animals, only to beat him at his own game. What is the lesson of this tale? If listeners get it, they are wiser than Anansi, who may be disappointed for now, but is plotting more tricks for a later date.

While Stevens’ illustrations may not be considered by some to be up to par with other Caldicott-worthy Anasi tales, such as Haley’s A Story, A Story (Haley, Gail. 1970. A Story, A Story. New York: Alladin) or McDermott’s Anansi the Spider (McDermott, Gerald. 1972. Anansi the Spider: a Tale from the Ashanti. New York, Henry Holt), they are strong and add dimension to the narrative. The strengths of her watercolors lie in her ability to visually create jungle setting while endowing the characters in the tale with very human qualities, gestures and emotions. And this is something she does with skill, from Anansi’s comical facial expressions to the implicit humor of the greatest animals in the jungle knocked flat on their backs. Another fun element she contributes to the story is hiding Little Bush Deer in the background of each frame for the first half of the book, allowing her to become part of the visual story, long before she enters it in the actual written or spoken text. Children looking at the pictures will have fun trying to spot Little Bush Deer as she hides behind the bushes. Adults may have higher expectations when it comes to illustrations, but Stevens has managed to situate this story in the realm of a child’s imagination, which emphasizes the humor and simplicity this African tale should hold for everyone—child or adult.

Reviews and Best Lists

“The text is rhythmic, nicely building suspense to the inevitable conclusion. Stevens’ complementary, colorful illustrations add detail, humor, and movement to the text.”—Maria B. Salvadore, School Library Journal, November 1, 1988

“Kimmel’s retelling has a rhythmical lilt that makes it a fine choice as a read-aloud. Children will relish the humorous climax as the lovably incorrigible spider is bested—though, as the last line infers, never for long. Stevens’ watercolors capture the lush, vibrant colors of the jungle; her double-page spread of the animals prancing home with their goodies is sure to bring chuckles.”—Booklist, October 1, 1988

“Repetition and a well-paced narrative make this picture book a hit with the younger set. . . . the adroit placement of a little duiker adds a hint of mystery and intrigue. Educators teaching the concept of the African diaspora will find this book quite useful.”—Brenda Randolph, Africa Access Review

“A marvelously paced Anansi tale involves the West African spider trickster’s success in fooling Lion, Elephant, Giraffe and Zebra, but not Little Bush Deer! The bold, bright illustrations are especially effective in a group setting.”—Cooperative Children’s Book Center Choices, 1988

Books to Read Aloud to Children of All Ages, 2003—Bank Street College of Education

Recommended Literature, K-12, 2002—California Department of Education

Golden Sower Nominee, 1991—Nebraska

Lesson Extensions

As this story comes from an oral tradition, it might be helpful for children to view plays or retellings.  Several, of varying quality and levels of professionalism, are collected here.  Viewing these would be no substitute for watching a live performance, though.

A large variety of Anansi-related resources exist online. An entire 25-minute musical for elementary students is available from Bad Wolf Press. Read the first third of the script and listen to two songs here. Ties to national standards and important vocabulary are covered. (Fink, Ron, and Heath, John. 1995. Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock: a Musical for Elementary School Kids. Santa Clara, CA: Bad Wolf Press).

A Study Guide was developed as a result of the 2007 National Storytelling Network Conference.  Tied to national standards and benchmarks, this guide offers connections to several subject areas including reading/language arts, social studies, movement, art, math, and science.  I would recommend the Story Structure Chart, which helps children compare this story to other Anansi stories and the idea of retelling the story from Little Bush Deer’s point of view.  Using Stevens’ illustrations as a springboard, students could even re-create an illustrated re-telling hiding Anansi or other animals in the background.  To add to a lesson focusing on movement, students could use rain sticks, drums and vocalizations to re-create jungle sounds. 

Using this joke as an entry point, students could compare and contrast Anansi to Spider Man:

Q: What’s the difference between Anansi and the new Spider Man?
A: Anansi has a web, and Spider Man has a web site!

Storyteller, Marilyn Kinsella has written a puppet show re-telling.  The entire play is free for your use, if you give her credit.  Kinsella, Marilyn (N.d.). Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock: an African Tale adapted for puppets (accessed online from

Finally, the author himself offers a Study Guide via his website,  It is available as a free, PDF download, and contains ideas related to art, cooking and science.  My favorite idea is to have children create their own special rock with magical properties.

Vital Statistics

Kimmel, Eric (1988). Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. Illus. by Janet Stevens. New York: Holiday House. ISBN 978-0-8234-0689-0.

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