Why Leopard Has Spots
Why Leopard Has Spots; Dan Stories from Liberia by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret H. Lippert. Illus. by Ashley Bryan. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Books, 1998. ISBN 1-55591-344-x HC $15.95 50pp.
There are only six stories in this beautiful little book, but it has more to offer than many books two or three times its size. Won-Ldy Paye (pronounced One Day Pay) is a member of the Dan ethnic group of Liberia. His family lived in Tapita where they were the tlo ker mehn, or storytellers, of the community, just as other families were known for carving, or drumming, or singing. Won-Ldy grew up learning stories from his grandmother, stories which taught him lessons about what is important, how to behave, or stories that were just for fun.
When he left Liberia for the U.S. after the civil war which killed his father and older brother, Won-Ldy came to the United States where he continues the tlo ker mehn tradition. With the help of storyteller Meg Lippert, Paye presents this, the first published collection of Dan stories. The stories are brief, funny, and beg to be told or read out loud.
Won-Ldy's notes on the stories are personal and delightful, shedding light on the culture in which he grew up, as well as on the stories. There seems to be an emphasis on drama and humour in the stories, and improvisation and participation were a part of his family's sharing of the stories with him.
A glossary provides still more interesting reading including instructions for playing a popular counting game. The glossary entry for no Ker Mehn gives the translation as "' a person who plays a story" and makes it clear that such a person is a master performer who usually has a host of complementary skills such as drumming, dance, and music.
From the introduction where he describes his childhood to the last page of the glossary, I found this an entertaining, informative, and lively book. The stories practically dance their way off the page, and armed with the cultural and personal information included by the author the reader cannot help but feel impatient to tell them.
The Second Story Review, Vol 3, No. 3, Sep 1998