This list of folktales from African kicks off my series of book lists featuring folktales from around the world. Needless to say, Africa is a diverse continent, with no single culture and so just like Appalachian tales do not reflect stories from the Wild West, neither do Liberian folk stories reflect Egyptian culture. Nevertheless, I’m grouping these picture books together because I think it is a useful way for parents to get started sharing these books with their children.
African folktales for kids
I have a penchant for pourquoi tales from all cultures and this list reflects that interest. I encourage you to talk with your kids about the differences AND the similarities of between these folk tales and Western legends, myths and creation stories. In addition, many of these authors (I have noted a few) have written other African folktale books and you should check them out from your library! You’ll find links to my other folktale lists at the end of this post, so you can contrast and compare the tales with stories from several cultures.
One more comment before I begin. Folktales are not a substitute for contemporary stories with diverse characters. Folklore, legends and tall tales from Africa will introduce your kids to diverse cultures, but I encourage you to also seek out picture books with diverse protagonists portrayed in everyday life. (Note: book covers and titles are affiliate links)
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale. This is a book I remember vividly from my childhood. When a mosquito tells a tall tale to a lizard, he sets in action a chain of events that has tragic consequences. A stunningly illustrated story about the consequences of lying. Originally published in 1975, this Caldecott award book should be enjoyed by every child.
Who’s in Rabbit’s House? This story really captured the attention of my kids. As much as I love Verna Aardema’s Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale because I remember it from my childhood, I like this title even more. That’s partly because the story is presented as a play, a conceit for which I have a particular fondness. Masai villagers gather together as actors don masks to perform the story of a group of animals who attempt to get a mysterious creature, the “long one”, out of rabbit’s house. As happens in many folktales, it is the smallest creature who has the most success. A truly wonderful book.
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky. A wonderful pourquoi tale. Water wonders why he is never invited to Sun’s house. Sun replies that his house is not large enough and sets out building a new one to accommodate his friend. But when water comes to visit, he fills the entire house and there is no longer room enough for Sun and his spouse, Moon. Can you guess where they found a new home? I particularly like the illustrations, with their emphasis on the mask.
A Story, a Story. Beautiful, vibrant woodcut illustrations accompany the legend of how Ananse, or the Spider-Man, is determined to get stories from the Sky-God. The Sky-God sends Ananse off on several quests, never believing that a weak and old man will fulfill the tasks. Only, he realizes too late that Ananse is rather clever.
Why The Sky Is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale. Long ago, anyone who was hungry could pluck what they needed from the sky but the sky gets tired and angry at the people who are wasting his bounty. The story has a positive message about the importance of not taking things for granted and good stewardship of the planet. This gorgeous book was also a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year.
MORE: Play Dara, a three in a row traditional game from Nigeria
Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia. For quite some time, my younger son was absolutely obsessed with this book. This tale of how the human body came to be in its form today is also a story of the importance of cooperation and determination. Author Won-Ldy Paye has several other books based folktales from the Dan people of Liberia. I especially like Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile.
MORE: Play Queah, a traditional board game from Liberia
The Hatseller and the Monkeys: A West African Folktale. This is a fun retelling of the same story that inspired the much loved classic, Caps for Sale. The theme of a monkey (or monkeys) tricking a hatseller appears in many cultures. This story is set in Mali. I really like how joyful the hatseller is in this book and the little lesson about how important breakfast is (!). It also has some great background information about the style of hats in the book. Author Baba Wagué Diakité has several other wonderful books to choose from, kids will enjoy The Magic Gourd.
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. Although I’ve already listed two Verna Aardema titles above, she has several more that you should read (she published more than 30 books), including this one based on a Kenyan tale. Cattle herdsman Ki-pat recognizes the dire need for rain and pierces a cloud with his arrow to unleash the storms. Told as a repetitive, rhythmic, cumulative tale (think: This is the House that Jack Built), it emphasizes the dependence of humans on the natural world.
How the Amazon Queen Fought the Prince of Egypt. Surprisingly, I had the most difficulty finding picture books based on folktales from Egypt. Many people like The Egyptian Cinderella, but it wasn’t my favorite. This picture book is best for older kids and I chose it because I thought the introduction to hieroglyphs was cool as well as the idea of fierce Amazon women. Part folklore, part historical fiction, this is a great choice for kids who love all things Ancient Egypt. (I’m pretty sure that’s a required phase of childhood.)
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa. Every culture has its trickster tales. Fans of multicultural folk tales will already be familiar with Gerald McDermott’s many trickster tales from around the world. In this West African tale, Zomo has to accomplish three seemingly impossible tasks in order to please the Sun God. His trickster ways help him out, but in the end he finds the joke is on him.
Honey… Honey… Lion! A Story from Africa. I know Jan Brett has legions of fans, and although I do like her sidebar story-within-a story illustrations, I much prefer the more interesting and striking illustrative styles of the other books on this list. The honeyguide is an African bird that leads other animals to its namesake. Ordinarily it partners with the Badger for the benefit of all the animals. However, when the Badger goes rogue, things start to get sticky. The moral? Sharing is good.
Abiyoyo. American folk singer and storyteller Pete Seeger adapted the African folktale of Abiyoyo. When a giant comes to town it is only the sound of the ukelele that can calm him. In my opinion it is essential that you also listen to Seeger sing the tale. If you can’t get a copy of the CD you can watch the Reading Rainbow video of Seeger and Levar Burton. (Be prepared for some serious 1986 wardrobe choices.)
The Name of the Tree: A Bantu Tale Retold. There has been a drought and the animals are hungry. Without enough grass, they turn to a tree filled with fruit too high to reach. In order to obtain the fruit they must learn the name of the tree, which only the lion knows. This book had a great storytelling tradition feel to it and rather reminded me of Aesop’s fables as we learn that when it comes right down to it, it is the most patient and determined that win in the end.
How the Guinea Fowl Got Her Spots: A Swahili Tale of Friendship. A guinea fowl determinedly helps her friend the cow evade the jaws of a hungry lion and in return, cow returns the favor by bestowing on the bird the gift of camouflage. I love how devoted the cow and fowl are to each other. Their strong friendship means they would do anything, however foolish to help each other.
Sense Pass King: A Story from Cameroon. I am grateful to Ink & Pen blog for first turning me on to this book. Gorgeously illustrated by the same team that illustrated many of Aardema’s books, the story from Cameroon follows the tale of a young girl. Ma’antah’s intelligence and cleverness earn her the village’s admiration but she is envied by the foolish king. The King brings Ma’antah to stay at the palace so he can keep an eye on her, and ultimately get rid of her. But brave Ma’antah is too clever and outwits him at every turn.
Tales about Anansi the Spider. I have not read these books. I am truly embarrassed to admit this, but I simply cannot read a book about a spider. I know. It’s humiliating, but it’s just too creepy for me. However, Anansi is such an important figure in African folklore, I obviously cannot leave him out. There are many books about Anansi, these are two of the more popular ones.
More folktale picture books you and your children will love:
- Indian folktales for kids
- Chinese folktales for kids
- Japanese folktales for kids
- Latin American folktales for kids
- Native American folktales for kids
- Celtic and Irish legends
- Scandinavian folktales for kids
- American tall tales
- Jewish folk tales