Have you ever heard of the tricky spider named Anansi? This West African god frequently takes the form of a spider, and holds the knowledge of all of the folktales and stories; he is cunning and tricky, and uses his cunning guile to try to get what he wants. It is thought that Anansi was originally found in stories from the Ashanti and then the Akan people in Ghana, and from there the stories spread through West Africa. During the Atlantic slave trade, the stories crossed the ocean with the slaves through oral tradition. Especially in the Caribbean, Anansi’s cunning ways symbolized a resistance to powerful slave owners.
Anansi stories (and their variants: in the US he is known as “Aunt Nancy”) are considered “trickster” folktales because the small spider uses his intelligence and trickiness to triumph larger creatures. Stories such as these are told by elders to pass down knowledge and moral messages to the younger generations. Sometimes the stories were acted out by the storyteller, or even sung with dancing and drumming. In the 1950s people began collecting the famous stories and writing them down so that school children in Ghana could learn them.
Before reading, ask the kids what they know about spiders. Find Ghana on a map and trace the route the slave traders took to the Caribbean. When the kids are listening to the stories, ask them to pay attention to:
- the characters
- the setting
- the plot (events in the story)
- main idea
When the initial problem is presented, pause the story and ask the kids:
What do you think will happen next? What do you think Anansi will do?
Read Anansi Stories
Here are some wonderful Anansi stories for children, in order of the authors’ last names:
Anansi Does The Impossible!: An Ashanti Tale retold by Verna Aardema.
The Pot of Wisdom: Ananse Stories by Adwoa Badoe and Baba Wagué Diakité.
Ananse and the Lizard: A West African Tale retold and illustrated by Pat Cummings.
Anansi and The Box of Stories (On My Own Folklore), adapted by Stephen Krensky.
In The Barefoot Book of Tropical Tales (Barefoot Collection), retold by Raouf Mama, you can read “Anansi and the Guinea Bird,” a tale from Antigua.
Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott.
African Tales (One World, One Planet) by Gcina Mhlophe and Rachel Griffin has a version of Ananse and the Impossible Quest. It is illustrated with beautiful handmade paper, embroidered with collages of scenes from the stories.
Ananse’s Feast: An Ashanti Tale retold by Tololwa M. Molel.
There was one book (out of so many) that we didn’t love, but I will mention it here for people to make their own judgment. Anansi and the Magic Stick, by Eric A Kimmel was a fine story, but my son noticed that the only 2 people in the story were white..? It was just a little bizarre because it would seem that since the story is from Ghana, the people would have been of African descent. With minority characters already hard to find in books (out of 5,000 kids books published last year, only 3.3% of books were about African-Americans), you would think a story featuring a West African folktale would have characters that fit the setting.
Watch and Listen to Anansi Stories
Here is an Anansi story (of how he got manners from turtle):
This story is “Anansi and the Pot of Beans”
In this video, Denzel Washington tells an Anansi story that includes how slaves brought the stories from Ghana to Jamaica.
Lesson Plans with Anansi the Spider
PBS Kids has an interactive lesson about Anansi the Spider.
Why Anansi has Thin Legs is an excellent on-line interactive lesson from the British Council.
Finally, here are some great lesson plan ideas for grades 1-2 written by first grade teachers.
Do you have any other favorite Anansi stories we didn’t mention? Have you ever heard of trickster tales? What’s your favorite?