The Hunter and the Ebony Tree
Recipient of the Storytelling World Honor Award
Summary: A hunter, with the help of his friends, devises a clever plan to meet the challenge set out by a father to seek a worthy husband for his beautiful daughter.
Awarded the Storytelling World Honor Award.
Published in English.
Translated into Italian, Korean and Gaelic.
Featured in Around the World with Historical Fiction and Folktales: Highly Recommended and Award Winning by Beth Bartleson Zarian.
Featured in Representing Africa in Children’s Literature, Old and New Ways of Seeing by Vivian Yenika-Agbaw, published by Routledge.
Illustrations showcased at the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators in New York, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and McLean Project for the Arts.
"This is a lovely little tale delightfully illustrated."
—Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News anchor (aka "the most trusted man in America"
"The narrative flows easily and clearly among the gorgeous illustrations that
radiate energy and action on every page."
"An outstandingly beautiful book telling a worthy story that brings together a hunter and a maiden who use their heads to succeed. This delightful whimsical romance is inspired by an African folk tale the author heard in West Africa. It radiates joy and appreciation for friendship in the successful pursuit of a goal. The narrative flows easily and clearly among the gorgeous illustrations that radiate energy and action on every page. LaTeef's imagery captures the colorful costumes and stately grace of the characters in tropical settings of clear beauty. The book content and design are exceptional. For many people, it will be a fresh way of looking at and considering black African people. It will surely be influential for young people.”
—Marie Jeanne Adams,
Professor of African History and Art
There are many variations of the folktale in which the simple suitor outwits all others for the hand of the beautiful girl. Nelda LaTeef retells this West African version, accompanied by her bold, collage illustrations. The bright colors, especially the greens, evoke the lushness of the African jungle, while the colorful textured fabrics highlight the native dress. The father of the beautiful girl decides that she needs to marry a strong man who can protect her, but in her wisdom she realizes that her husband will need more than strength. She tells her father that the man who wins her hand will have to pierce the tough bark of the ebony tree with his arrow. Many try and fail. A handsome hunter comes to the village, falls in love with the young girl, and hatches a plan to win her hand. He calls on his friends. The woodpecker drills a hole in the tree, the spider covers the hole with his web, and the butterfly shows him where the hole is when he shoots the arrow. An author's note tells readers the origin of the story, and gives information about the West African culture from which it comes. Young readers will be drawn to the illustrations and storytelling in this wonderful addition to any folktale collection. Recommended.
—Library Media Connection
"LaTeef's vivid illustrations wow the reader and give the book an additional dimension."
—Great Falls Times
The latest picture book from North Kingstown's Moon Mountain Publishing is straightforward in story but, at the same time, magically exotic, thanks to its textured and patterned collage illustrations. In The Hunter and the Ebony Tree (Moon Mountain, $15.95), author and illustrator Nelda LaTeef illuminates a sword-in-the-stone style West African folktale that she heard from a blind Nigerian storyteller who earned a living selling Chiclets in the shade of an acacia tree.
"Father, I have an idea," says the wise and brilliantly berobed young girl in LaTeef's tale. "Let it be known that I will marry the man whose arrow can penetrate the trunk of the ebony tree."
Because the girl is beautiful, a parade of suitors marches through the village, firing off a storm of eager arrows. But none can pierce the cement-like bark. That is, until an especially clever hunter arrives: one who comes equipped with gray matter as well as mighty biceps and top notch marksmanship. You can, perhaps, guess the rest.
But what you cannot imagine are the lovely light-and dark-green leaf patterns, the necklaced mountains, and the reach-out-and-touch-them African fabrics in the book's extraordinary art. In one of the book's back cover blurbs, former TV newsman Walter Cronkite calls The Hunter and the Ebony Tree "a lovely little tale delightfully illustrated." But, for once, Walter is wrong. The tale is far from little since it's one bred into the bone of nearly every culture. As for the illustrations, well, "delightful" doesn't even come close.
—Peter Mandel, Providence Journal
Perseverance is what makes dreams come true, as LaTeef
demonstrates in this magically illustrated story.A truly
satisfying read for children of all ages!
—Chris Evert, Tennis Champion
In the village of Tombakonda lived a beautiful girl coveted by men from all parts of the land. Her father determined that only a man of great strength would be a suitable match for his daughter, but the girl knew that a husband needed many other special qualities. She suggests to her father that she will marry the man whose arrow can penetrate the trunk of the tall ebony tree in the center of town. He is delighted, certain this will guarantee a husband of great strength; but the wise girl realizes that the task will require skills above and beyond mere brawn. This authentic African tale is engagingly told by Nelda LaTeef, who heard and recorded the story while doing research among the Zarma people of West Africa, in the Republic of Niger. LaTeef’s illustrations—brilliantly colored acrylic and fabric collage laid on art board—add rich texture to the book’s oral tradition.
–Virginia Nelson, The Bloomsbury Review
"My grandkids were wide-eyed and enchanted and so was I."
—Zelda Fichandler, Chair, Graduate Acting Program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University; Founder, Arena Stage
Wonderfully entertaining! Very highly recommended!
A huge ebony tree stands in the center of the village of Tombakonda. Its hard trunk seems impenetrable. A beautiful young girl lives in the village and many men come to ask her father for her hand in marriage. Her father wishes his daughter to marry a man of strength. The girl wishes for a man with more gifts than just strength. With her father's permission, she sets a challenge. She will marry the man whose arrow penetrates the ebony tree. Many men try, but none succeed until one day a young hunter comes to the village who enlists the help of friends to win his heart's desire.
Author/illustrator Nelda LaTeef uniquely captures the essence of an African folk tale, bringing it vividly to life for children of all audiences. The classic tale of wisdom and cunning to achieve one's goal serves a delightful lesson of encouragement to young readers. The combination of acrylic and collage for the illustrations lends the page a marvelous texture and depth. My young American audience, ages five and eight, found this to be a wonderfully entertaining tale that they ask for again and again. THE HUNTER AND THE EBONY TREE comes very highly recommended.
–Cindy Penn, Wordweaving
"A beautifully told story with a wonderful message for every child."
—Chriss Winston, Director of Speech Writing for President George H.W. Bush
An authentic African folk tale brought to life!
Wonderfully written for young readers ages 5 to 9 by Nelda LaTeef, The Hunter And The Ebony Tree is an authentic African folk tale brought to life in picture book form with LaTeef's remarkable, shape-centered full-color illustrations. The Hunter And The Ebony Tree is the story of a hunter who must demonstrate intelligence, skill, and loyal friends to overcome challenges and win the hand of a wise young woman makes for enjoyable reading aloud to young folks. The Hunter And The Ebony Tree is enthusiastically recommended for family, school, and community library folk tale and picture book collections. —Midwest Book Review
"Will please young readers...while teaching the
importance of careful planning and good friends
as the key to success."
"It will take more than a strong man. It will take a special man.” Or so says the very wise daughter about her husband prospects in The Hunter and the Ebony Tree. This delightfully illustrated African folk tale proves that it takes more than just strength to win the respect of an important future father-in-law and the love of a beautiful woman — it also takes a good plan, loyal friends and some excellent archery skills
Author/illustrator Nelda LaTeef uses brilliant colors and authentic textures in a three-dimensional collage technique to create a vivid picture of life in a West African village. The story, according to the author, was told to her by a Zarma storyteller, or griot, then translated from Zarma into French. Since only ten percent of the Zarma people can read, the griots are truly “guardians of old words” and play an important role in their culture. LaTeef has done the world an invaluable service in recording this enchanting children’s story for future generations to enjoy and cherish.
—C.APPEL, Fearless Reviews
"The story is illustrated with montage illustrations...that
reflect the vibrancy of Zarma culture."
—Jackson (Mississippi) Advocate
In this retelling of a folktale from the Republic of Niger, West Africa, a hunter sets out to win the hand of a beautiful girl in a seemingly impossible test of strength. His arrow must penetrate the bark of an ebony tree, a feat many hopeful suitors have failed to accomplish. Undeterred, the young man seeks the help of a few woodland friends to assist him. The narrative flows seamlessly without a lot of extraneous text. Wonderful acrylic and collage illustrations of the colorful dress worn by the Zarma people create a stunning effect....Storytellers will want to add the tale to their repertoire.
—School Library Journal
"This book teaches young children the values of self-
esteem, honor and goal setting."
—Marva N. Collins, educator and author of "Marva Collins Way," "Ordinary Children" and "Values"
In this beautifully illustrated book for five to nine-year olds, Nelda LaTeef takes a Zarma folktale from Niger in West Africa and retells it in her own words. The tale is a standard one: a loving father will only allow his wise and beautiful daughter to marry a man worthy of her, and so he decides that any potential suitors must be put to some test in order to win her hand. But the twist here is that although the daughter knows that she cannot contradict her father, she would also like a say in whom she marries. Taking advantage of her father's state of uncertainty, she suggests that her future husband should be able to pierce the trunk of the very old ebony tree that stands at the center of their village, knowing that it will take qualities other than physical strength to accomplish the task.
While folktales in general are often the repositories of some of society's most conservative values, especially when it comes to the treatment of women and the voice of female characters, the blurb on the dust jacket of the book suggests that this story is an exception. However, the small window of agency afforded the daughter in participating in the choice of a future partner is offset by LaTeef's consistent use of the word "girl" to describe this marriageable young woman, while her suitors are all described in non-parallel fashion as "men." Obviously, this is a hard call. African women are often much younger than their husbands at marriage, and the story of a girl is no doubt more interesting to children than that of a woman, but the diminution of women is nonetheless inherent to the vocabulary, although the accompanying illustrations of the young woman do not depict a child. A simple way to avoid the problem would have been to give the characters names, but they remain nameless throughout the tale.
The hunter who eventually wins the contest does so by getting help from his friends in the natural world. This is the most delightful part of the tale, and could also be a wonderful basis for a discussion on friendship and cooperation. A woodpecker taps a hole in the ebony tree for the hunter, a spider weaves a fine web to conceal it, and a butterfly marks the spot where the hole is. At the end of the story the hunter tells his bride, "My dear, with loyal friends and a good plan everything is possible."
The acrylic and collage illustrations in The Hunter and the Ebony Tree constitute a large part of the book's appeal. Most strikingly, LaTeef has used actual cloth or photographs of cloth for the long flowing robes, turbans, and other headdresses of the village people. The six-year old and nine-year old with whom I read this book for the first time were particularly delighted with the hunter's leopardskin garments. A valuable addition to this book is the author's note on the last page, where LaTeef describes the origins of the tale. She recorded it from a Zarma griot in Niger and a friend translated it for her into French. The note also provides some accurate ethnographic information on the Zarma and a map showing the parts of Niger, Mali and Benin where the Zarma and other Songhai groups live. This will be of special interest to older children who are studying African geography.
Overall, The Hunter and the Ebony Tree is a responsible and charming retelling of a Zarma tale and would be a good choice for an elementary school library seeking to expand its collection in this area. As such, this book is recommended.
--Reviewed for H-AfrTeach by Fiona McLaughlin <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Department of African and Asian Languages and Literatures, University of Florida
According to this West African tale, a father thinks carefully and wisely about how best to find a good match for his daughter. He sets up a contest that will assure that the man who weds his beautiful daughter will be strong enough to protect her. His daughter realizes that the man who can win the contest of piercing the bark of an ebony tree with an arrow shot from a bow will also be a special man. The story is one that has traditionally been told by word of mouth amongst the Zarma people, who live in the Republic of Niger. The author recorded the story as it was told by a storyteller in Zarma. She then had it translated into French and from French to English. Each page is filled with the lush colors of nature that are characteristic of West Africa. In a primitive art style, the characters appear as cut outs against the tropical green foliage and earthy browns. In each picture, the daughter and her suitors are portrayed in photographed pieces of the patterned native cloth. This interesting design approach helps create a mood for the elegantly told story, and it brings a sense of the culture and lifestyle that link the past to the present.
--Susan Schott Karr, The Children's Literature Comprehensive Database, Themed Reviews: African American Folk Tales
Cronkite and the Ebony Tree
Harvard grad adapts African folk tales
By MARGOT E. KAMINSKI
Crimson Staff Writer
Nelda LaTeef ’81 brings joy to children ages five to nine—and also to Walter Cronkite and Chris Evert. LaTeef’s first children’s book, The Hunter and the Ebony Tree, was published earlier this year. Tennis champion Chris Evert calls it “a truly satisfying read,” and venerated CBS anchor Walter Cronkite calls it “lovely,” according to praise on the book jacket. LaTeef is happiest, however, with the praise of her five-year-old nephew: “He says it’s his favorite.”
LaTeef took a circuitous route to the world of children’s books. She worked briefly in a law firm, got her MBA and wrote her first book: Working Women for the 21st Century: Fifty Women Reveal Their Pathways to Success, which featured Evert. LaTeef then established a women’s textile company called Pillow Talk, which made linens and pillowcases for cultural institutions. She sold it after seven years, and became the director of development of the Foreign Policy Association, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public about foreign policy.
Once again, she began to write. She says it was the stories she heard 20 years ago while during thesis research in West Africa that compelled her to shift gears professionally and write for kids. “The Zarma people have a saying: ‘One who hears something good must repeat it.’” She had been reading nightly to her three-year old niece and five-year old nephew, Lauren Petra and Harris Ned LaTeef, and came up with the idea of doing an anthology of folktales. “But if you put the tales together there’s no room for illustration,” she says. “And the perfect bridge between cultures is art.”
LaTeef chose to recount one story, a tale of a young woman whose father wishes her to marry the strongest man she meets. The woman convinces him instead that her suitors should perform a task: she will agree to marry whoever can get their arrow to stick in the trunk of the ebony tree. The story, she says, “teaches the importance of careful planning and good friends. In it, strategy is more important than strength.”
LaTeef used her own strategy in the retelling. She enlarged upon the woman’s role, having her create the contest instead of passively observing. “I kept the main ideas. From there, I took poetic license.” Although she happened on it in her 20s, LaTeef’s serendipitous discovery of the story was in part the result of her childhood travels.
Her father was a U.S. Foreign Services officer who, with his wife, transposed a family of two sons and two daughters from Asia to Europe to Africa and back. “We were the first Americans to drive by land from the Republic of Niger to Timbuktu,” recalls LaTeef. “We got lost along the way and arrived after three days of traveling, only to run straight into a family of tourists from New York.” Her four years in Cambridge were the longest LaTeef had ever spent living in one place.
LaTeef became a social anthropology concentrator at the beginning of her junior year. With a grant from the department, she went to Senegal to conduct thesis research on the effects of technological development on Senegalese women’s lives. She snuck in a side trip to visit friends she had made during her family’s earlier three-year stint in the Republic of Niger. It was there that she heard her stories, from the mouth of a woman griot (storyteller) who sat under the shade of a 30-foot-wide acacia tree.
LaTeef spoke no Zarma and the woman spoke nothing else, but a friend stood and translated while LaTeef scribbled furiously into the notebook she always carried around. “A griot is more than just a performer. She’s the keeper of old words, the library of a village,” says LaTeef. As an anthropologist, LaTeef was fascinated. Griots have particular importance in a society such as the Zarma’s, which has a literacy rate of only 10 percent. LaTeef was fascinated by the beauty of the oral tradition and the sheer sound of the woman’s voice. “She could make the most amazing noises, like purrs—I would immediately write it down.”
She contrasts her writing to other children’s books she’s read. “You have to be explicit about the moral in the ending; that’s what I like about folktales. You leave with something there. There are so many children’s books where you finish reading them and come away saying, ‘What was the plot, what was the story?’”
“Folk tales are so wonderful because they really bridge cultures; they instruct as well as entertain. From the furthest corner of the globe, everything is accessible,” pronounces LaTeef.
“Whether you live in an adobe hut or a skyscraper in Chicago, all humanity loves a good narrative.”