The Funny Little Woman

11May10

Retold by Arlene Mosel
Pictures by Blair Lent

The Funny Little Woman is a retelling of a tale originally by Lafcadio Hern. Blair Lent’s illustrations in this piece earned him the Caldecott Medal in 1973. Upon researching more about Lent, I learned that in another retelling of one of Lafcadio Hern’s tales Mosel and Lent also collaborated on Tikki Tikki Tembo.
The story takes place in Japan long ago, and the funny little woman in the story is described as liking to laugh (with her distinctive “Tee-he-he-he”) and cooking dumplings out of rice.  On the very first page, although nothing of the sort is explicitly mentioned, we can see a crack forming in the floor of the funny little woman’s house down into the earth. Throughout the story, this perspective of showing us both the world above-ground and the world below ground will be an important feature.

The story begins to take off when one of the funny little woman’s dumplings goes renegade and falls down into the crack that was forming in the floor into the earth. The woman chases her dumpling down into the hole and into another world. This is very reminiscent of the song I learned growing up called “On top of spaghetti” about a renegade meatball – the words go like this: It rolled off the table, and on to the floor, and then my poor meatball, Rolled out of the door.” Like the funny little woman’s pursuit of the dumpling, the song goes on to follow the meatball as well.

As the pages turn and the story thickens, slowly elements in the illustrations above ground begin to turn black-and-white as the new world opens up. First we see the water well, then the hillside, then the small birch tree, until finally the whole house and above ground area becomes black-and-white as the funny little woman fall down into the hole. This signals to the viewer that the world above ground has been left behind, and its going to take a feat to get back.

The funny little woman is taken prisoner by the oni. In Japanese folklore, oni are like demons. They make her their slave to cook rice for them.  Reminding us that time is passing, life above ground is continuing, and of the little house and life the funny little woman left behind are illustrations of this black-and-white above ground world at the tops of the illustrations. The funny little woman grows tiredof this existence and decides to plan her escape. As Mosel crafts this description, she writes that the funny little woman had grown “lonely for little house”. Using lonely in this sense is an interesting use of the word, but then again so if the use of “funny” in “funny little woman” as she’s not particularly funny at all, but just likes to laugh.The oni try to stop her by gulping up all the water in the river, but after a mud-covered little woman makes them laugh, they spit all the water out in their hysterics giving her the chance to get home. She returns to more beautiful home adorned with flowers and more people.

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