Indonesian Children’s Favorite Stories is a charmingly illustrated multicultural children’s book which presents Indonesian fairy tales that provide insights into the country’s rich oral culture. Indonesian folktales are no different from those of the Western world – the triumph of the virtuous over evil, the awarding of a just prize for good deeds, etc. – except that exotic Malay cultural and physical environments serve as the backdrop for the stories.
Set in tropical rainforests, on balmy beaches and in the remote highlands of the earth’s largest island chain, these stories represent only a few of the rich store of Indonesian legends that give glimpses of Indonesia’s ethnic groups, rural life and its unique plants and animals ranging from Sumatra to Sulawesi and Maluku (but mostly Java). Though the stories are aimed at children ages 5-12, readers young and old will find little to offend here and much to enjoy.
Indonesian folktales generally incorporate one or more main themes: obedience, envy, men’s wrath, women’s loyalty, sibling rivalry, trickery and childishness. The characters are often poor but resourceful farmers, woodsmen, carpenters, fishermen and other commoners who confront demons, royalty and evildoers. Magic spells are cast and the help of a spirit is enlisted to win fortunes or the hand of a maiden. They are stories of lowly people and humble creatures in trouble. A large and scary forest is always not too far away.
Teasers but not spoilers: “True Strength” tells the story of a wise, humble and clever man who thwarted three thieves when they realized that they were in the presence of someone with supernatural power far greater than theirs. “The Buffalo’s Victory” is set in West Sumatra’s land of the Minangkabau, a people who live in peace until the King of Java deems them subservient to him. When the Minang kingdom is threatened by the much more powerful Majapahit kingdom of East Java, they propose a contest to decide their fate by pitting a baby water buffalo against their opponent’s huge champion bull. This story reflects the inter-regional/inter-ethnic rivalry that exists all over Indonesia to this day.
In “The Woodcarver’s True Love,” a princess from the island of Simbau in the Sulawesi Sea chooses to marry a worthy commoner over many rich suitors who had gathered before the king. This is a tale about a pure heart and the real meaning of love. “The Magic Headcloth” relates how one wise ruler protected Java by fighting the Giant King Dewata Cengkar. The hero, Aji Saka, is given the honor of bestowing a great gift on the people – the knowledge of letters.
Widely and perennially popular are the traditional kancil (mousedeer) fables that applaud the heroics of a small, weak yet cunning figure who uses his intelligence to triumph over animals much larger and more powerful than himself. In “Kancil Steals Cucumbers,” the mousedeer tricks a farmer’s dog into letting him free after being caught eating cucumbers. According to historians, the kancil symbolizes the ideal Javanese man who solves problems in a calm, level-headed way to avoid open conflict. Mousedeer stories have been turned into books, numberless cartoons and wayang (puppet) performances. The oldest written version is a song-poem written in 1822.
A frog wins the heart of a princess and accomplishes miraculous acts in “The Frog and the Magic Axe.” In spite of his ugly appearance and because of her undying faith in him, the frog turns into a handsome man who she marries. In the funny “Caterpillar Story,” you don’t know where the tale is going as a series of unexpected events culminates with a poor village boy marrying the village chief’s daughter. In “The Story of Timun Mas” (“Golden Cucumber”), a brave girl, the daughter of a poor farmer, escapes from the clutches of the evil green giant Buto Ijo by using magic tricks.
There are notable differences between this new 2019 edition and the previous 2005 edition. Though this new edition has the same foreword, stories, illustrations, number of pages, it’s printed in a larger format on glossier paper which makes the book easier to read and brings to best advantage the attractive illustrations. Other multicultural children’s books in the Tuttle series that have been retold for international audiences include fairytales from India, Singapore, the Philippines, China and Tibet, Korea, Bali and Vietnam.
Indonesian Children’s Favorite Stories highlights folktales and legends that are some of the most popular and beloved in Indonesia. With the usual pantheon of astute princesses and virtuous peasants, each gives insights into the country’s environment, traditional culture and morals. Even in the age of YouTube, they offer a taste of how universal values of bravery, cleverness, true love, kindness and loyalty have been transmitted to Indonesian children for hundreds of years. Now with this larger format edition, grownups are able share the stories with young readers of all backgrounds in the West.
Indonesian Children’s Favorite Stories by Joan Suyenaga and Salim Martowiredjo, Tuttle Publishing 2015, ISBN 978-080-484-5113, hardcover, 64 pages, dimensions: 9 x 0.3 x 9 inches.
Review by Bill Dalton
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