on December 8, 2004
I enjoy storybooks adapted from oral storytelling. This story is from the Limba people in Sierra Leone, Africa. The illustrations are simplistic but not meant to be completely realistic. The mice are purple, green, yellow and gray. Mabella, being the main character mouse, is red. All of the mice have ping-pong ball eyes that give them a foolish appearance. She is different than the other mice because she pays attention to the advice her father's advice of listening, looking and paying attention to her surroundings. He also recommends fleeing quickly from bad situations. How will these lessons come into play when the mice meet a pleasant cat inviting them to join a secret cat society?
I really like the last line of the story, "Limba grandparents say, "If a person is clever, it is because someone has taught them their cleverness."
What does it mean to be clever? Does it mean that when you attend cocktail parties with a chosen circle of friends you're able to whip out a series of timely bon mots? Does it mean that you have the ability to finish every Sunday crossword puzzle that appears in the New York Times? Or does it, perhaps, mean that you use the full range of your brain at all times, thereby saving yourself from harm in the long run? My vote is for the last. And, as the delightful "Mabela the Clever" by Margaret Read MacDonald concurs, not much more need be said on the subject.
Says the book from the start, "In the early times, some were clever and some were foolish. The Cat was one of the clever ones. The mice were mostly foolish". Mostly. There are exceptions to every rule and in this case the exception is named Mabela. Mabela comes from a loving family, one that has given her much good advice in the past. Says her father to her, one should always keep their ears open to listen, their eyes open to see, pay attention to everything you say, and "if you have to move, MOVE FAST!". A sweet little red mouse, Mabela finds use for this parcel of wisdom when a large charming orange pussycat persuades the mice to learn all the secrets of the cat. To do so, they need only walk in a line with the cat in the rear, singing, "When we are marching, we never look back! The cat is at the end! Fo Feng! Fo Feng!". It's Mabela who realizes, at the front of this line, that something is amiss. Especially when the voices of the others behind her becomes softer.... and softer...
Fear not, little children. Though I'm sure that the original folktale of this story had the cat eat every one of the foolish mousies, it does not do so here. Instead, the cat wears a red bag on its back, into which it scoops and drops each mouse that it hopes to eat later. Fortunately for all (except the cat) Mabela intercedes. In her Author's Note at the beginning of the book, acclaimed storyteller extraordinaire, Margaret Read MacDonald, explains that she adapted this tale from one found originally in Sierra Leone. People reading this book are encouraged to sing the marching song with initial gusto and then, as each mouse slips away, softer and softer. She even provides a tune, though she points out that it's perfectly copacetic to create a melody of your own.
What I found especially endearing about this picture book were the illustrations by Tim Coffey. An artist who has only produced one or two books in his lifetime, he's given this tale just the right amount of whimsy to make it a classic. The mice may be foolish, but they're also lovable. Mabela, set apart from the others by deint of her berry red fur, sports a lovely little pair of buck teeth that make her especially adorable. And the cat is an excellent source of beautiful malice. It is a hunter and a charmer. You have no difficulty believing that the mice would follow this coy leader wherever it might ask them to go.
The moral of this story is an excellent one for children. Don't act without thinking and always keep your wits about you. A lovely lesson for one and all. The final line in the book reads that, "If a person is clever, it is because someone has taught them their cleverness". In this case, Margaret Read MacDonald is that person. She, therefore, is the one to thank.
on September 20, 2015
This is a perfect story for reading aloud to primary grade and kindergarten students. It has a message that is presented in a fun way. If you heed the wise words of Mabela's father, you can outsmart the sly cat. When reading this story to kindergarten students, I pretend I am the cat and the students take on the role of the mice. The children speak the sing-song phrase, We get to join the cat club, we get to join the cat club! And they repeat the words of the marching song, clapping their hands in rhythm and calling out Fo Feng! (We pronounce it fo-fen for the sake of the rhyme). There is so much to notice and discuss. For example, how come the cat gets stuck in the thorns and Maybela doesn't? After the story, I help the student make stand-up cats out of orange construction paper. Since the story is African, they draw bold designs in black Crayola marker on the cat's body. This is one of my favorite story times to present and every class I've ever had loves it!
on January 11, 2011
A good story with an unusual moral - at least, I've never heard "Pay attention and THINK about what you're saying!" presented as a moral before, although God knows it ought to be.
No mousies are harmed in the reading of this story. My only real concern with it is that I have no idea how authentic it is.
"Mabela the Clever" is retold by Margaret Read MacDonald, with illustrations by Tim Coffey. An introductory note states that the story has its origins with the Limba people of Africa. The book tells the story of the inhabitants of a picturesque mouse village. A cat comes to the mouse village with an astounding offer. But are his promises too good to be true? And what will Mabela, the clever hero of the title, do about the situation?
This is a suspenseful story that is well enhanced by Coffey's whimsical pictures. His colorful artwork is full of details; he also does a good job of using his pictures to enhance the story's characterizations. And in the end, some good lessons are imparted to the reader.
on March 25, 2001
I just love stories in which small clever creatures outwit big strong stupid ones. They offer children such an empowering message! In this case, the greedy cat is quite clever himself, and the majority of mice are silly and foolish. Only Mabela keeps her wits about her, and she uses her size to her advantage. I do wish that she had required a little more cleverness to resolve the problem. To fully enjoy this story, you'll need an audience of mice to sing the Secret Cat Song with you: boldly, then softer and softer until only Mabela is left to rescue them.