This list of folktales from Africa is part of 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. When sharing these African folktale be sure to identify the region from which they came.
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 different cultures, but I encourage you to also seek out picture books with diverse protagonists portrayed in everyday life, like those on this list of picture books by Black authors.
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African Folktales for Kids
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.. 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. Pourquoi tales like this one focus on answering the question of how something came to be. Take a look at our Pourquoi folktales book list for tales from around the worl.
Anansi and the Golden Pot by Taiye Selasi, illustrated by Tinuke Fagborun. In this West African folktale, a boy named Anansi meets the famed trickster spider named Anansi. The spider gives the young lad a pot that magically refills with whatever its holder wishes for. However, Anansi the spider also issues a warning that the contents of the pot are to be shared with others. The boy does not take this advice to heart and keeps the delicious contents of his pot a secret. As you might expect, this leads to consequences in which Anansi the boy must learn lessons about generosity and kindness.
Who's in Rabbit's House? by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. This story really captured the attention of my kids. As much as I love 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.
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell, illustrated by Blair Lent. 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 by Gail E. Haley. 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. However, he realizes too late that Ananse is rather more clever than the Sky-God gives him credit for being. Ananse (sometimes spelled Anansi) is an archetypal trickster who figures frequently in West African folklore, and who made his way into African-American folktales.
Why The Sky Is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson, illustrated by Carla Golembe. Long ago, anyone who was hungry could pluck what they needed from the sky, but the sky got 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 encourages 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 by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret H. Lippert, illustrated by Julie Paschkis. 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 present configuration is also a story about 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 by Baba Wague Diakite. This is a fun retelling of the same story that inspired the much loved classic, Caps for Sale. The theme of a monkey tricking a hat seller appears in many cultures. This story is set in Mali. I really like how joyful the hat seller 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.
Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Although I've already listed two 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 by Tamara Bower. 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.
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa by Gerald McDermott. Every culture has its trickster tales. Fans of multicultural folk tales will likely be familiar with Gerald McDermott's many retellings of 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 by Jan Brett. Jan Brett's legions of fans will enjoy her sidebar story-within-a story illustrations, and her take on this African folktale. 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 by Pete Seeger, illustrated by Michael Hays. 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 ukulele 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 by Celia Barker Lottridge, illustrated by Ian Wallace. 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 the moral lesson that it is the most patient and determined that win in the end reminded me of Aesop's fables.
How the Guinea Fowl Got Her Spots: A Swahili Tale of Friendship by Barbara Knutson. A guinea fowl determinedly helps her friend the cow evade the jaws of a hungry lion. In return, the 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 by Katrin Hyman Tchana, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This folktale 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.
More folktale picture books you and your children will love: