6 minute read

Phillis Gershator (1942-)


Phillis Gershator is the author of award-winning picture books often grounded in the folkloric traditions of such places as the Caribbean and Africa. Her stories have been either original works, like Rata-pata-scata-fata: A Caribbean Story, or retellings, such as Tukama Tootles the Flute: A Tale from the Antilles.

Having spent her entire life surrounded by books, it is not surprising that Gershator's career path eventually led her to become an author. "[My] family was in the book business in New York," the author explained in a Junior Library Guild article, and she often received books as gifts. She read so much that her mother often had to force her to go outside to play and get some exercise. As a graduate student, Gershator majored in library science. Her first job as a librarian was on the island of St. Thomas, where her family had moved after leaving New York City in 1969. The Caribbean eventually became the setting for Rata-pata-scata-fata and Tukama Tootles the Flute.

After working for several years at libraries and publishing companies in New York City, Gershator returned to St. Thomas in 1988. Gleaning much satisfaction through her library work and as a Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) volunteer, Gershator wanted to contribute even more to children by writing her own stories. Career and family kept her from spending much time on her writing, though she published her first book, Honi and His Magic Circle, in 1979 and had been composing poems and short stories since the early 1970s. It was not until the mid-1990s that her career would really take off, however. In 1993 and 1994 she published three very successful books: Rata-pata-scata-fata, Tukama Tootles the Flute, and The Iroko-Man: A Yoruba Tale, all of which have won awards.

Rata-pata-scata-fata is about a young St. Thomas boy named Junjun who tries to avoid household chores by chanting "Caribbean gobbledygook" in the hope that his tasks will be completed by magic. Although luck, not magic, smiles on him to grant him all his wishes, Junjun attributes everything to his gobbledygook. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the tale "an engagingly cadenced story that will be just right for sharing aloud." "Gershator has a light and lively sense of language," declared Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Betsy Hearne, "along with a storytelling rhythm that shows experience with keeping young listeners involved."

In a similar vein to Rata-pata-scata-fata, Tukama Tootles the Flute is about another St. Thomas boy who is unreliable in his chores. In this yarn, young Tukama loves to play his flute so much that he does not help his grandmother like he should, even when she warns him that his disobedient ways might one day cause him to wind up in the stomach of the local two-headed giant. Tukama's grandmother's words prove unsurprisingly prophetic when the boy is captured by the giant, but he manages to escape by playing his flute for the giant's wife. The frightening experience teaches Tukama a lesson, and thereafter he postpones his playing until his chores are done. Pointing out the similarities between this story and "Jack and the Beanstalk," School Library Journal reviewer Lyn Miller-Lachman commented that Tukama Tootles the Flute "offers an opportunity to observe similarities and differences in folklore around the world." A Publishers Weekly critic favorably remarked that the "text pulses with the rhythms of island dialect and is laced with the casual asides of an oral storyteller." Like the Caribbean children in these stories, Gershator considers herself to be very lucky. "Wishes do, once in a while, "come true," she wrote in her Junior Library Guild article, "so I don't consider Rata-pata-scata-fata a fairy tale, and oddly enough, that little boy seems very familiar."

A little boy asks a number of different animals to describe their reactions to the year's first snowfall in Gershator's When It Starts to Snow. A bear explains that snow means that it is time for him to go to sleep; a mouse says that it is time for him to hide in a house to escape the cold; and a fish describes how he must lie at the bottom of the pond to stay warm. "With words that roll off the tongue, pictures of charming woodland inhabitants and a dash of science," the critic for Publishers Weekly noted, "this one will have readers raving to go on a snow quest of their own."

Gershator tells a love story in her 1999 story Tiny and Bigman. Miss Tiny is a large woman who is told by the men on her Caribbean island home that she is so strong, she makes them feel weak. But when the frail Mr. Bigman comes to the island, he finds Miss Tiny to be perfect. The unlikely pair get married. But a hurricane hits the island just as Tiny is going to give birth to their child, and must fight to keep the roof from blowing off the couple's house. Shelle Rosenfeld in Booklist called Tiny and Bigman "an inventive, appealing love story," while a critic for Publishers Weekly described it as a "sunny picture book."In Only One Cowry: A Dahomean Tale Gershator turns from the Caribbean to Africa, recounting the tale of a miserly king who wishes to only pay one seashell as a dowry for a bride. Yo, his clever assistant, goes out to find a family willing to have their daughter marry the king for such a small dowry. Along the way, he manages to trade the seashell for more useful and valuable items, eventually assembling a kingly amount for the king's dowry. But when the bride he locates discovers the king himself was satisfied with paying a single seashell, she exacts her own price from him. Grace Oliff in the School Library Journal believed that "Gershator brings her considerable storytelling skills to this tale." Writing in Booklist, John Peters predicted that "young readers and listeners will laugh" at the tale while Jennifer M. Brabander in Horn Book admired "Gershator's thoughtful attention to the story's oral roots."

The Babysitter Sings is the story of a baby who is crying because his parents have left for the day. His desperate babysitter sings a variety of songs based on traditional lullabies from the Caribbean and Africa to quiet him down. The baby finally stops crying and falls asleep just before his parents return. According to Lauren Adams in Horn Book, "Gershator smoothly integrates bits of traditional lullabies . . . into original verse in this tribute to babysitters." "The text's reassuring tone and the dazzling artwork make this offering a gem to share with little ones," Ajoke T. I. Kokodoko wrote in the School Library Journal. The Kirkus Reviews praised The Babysitter Sings as a "reassuring rhythmical tale."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Booklist, April 15, 1994, p. 1541; May 1, 1994, p. 1603; May 15, 1994, p. 1676; February 15, 1995, p. 1094; November 15, 1998, John Peters, review of When It Starts to Snow, p. 595; October 15, 1999, review of Tiny and Bigman, p. 452; October 15, 2000, John Peters review of Only One Cowry, p. 442.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of Rata-pata-scata-fata: A Caribbean Story, p. 257.

Horn Book, May-June, 1994, Mary M. Burns, review of Tukama Tootles the Flute: A Tale from the Antilles, p. 326; September-October, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Rata-pata-scata-fata: A Caribbean Story, p. 574; November, 2000, Jennifer M. Brabander, review of Only One Cowry, p. 764; May-June, 2004, Lauren Adams, review of The Babysitter Sings, p. 313.

Junior Library Guild, April-September, 1994, interview with Gershator, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1994, p. 142; May 1, 1994, review of Rata-pata-scata-fata: A Caribbean Story, p. 629; April 15, 2004, review of The Baby Sitter Sings, p. 393.

Publishers Weekly, January 10, 1994, review of Tukama Tootles the Flute: A Tale from the Antilles, p. 60; April 4, 1994, p. 79; November 9, 1998, review of When It Starts to Snow, p. 75; October 11, 1999, review of Tiny and Bigman, p. 75; October 15, 2001, review of When It Starts to Snow, p. 74.

School Librarian, November, 1994, p. 145.

School Library Journal, April, 1994, Lyn Miller-Lachman, review of Tukama Tootles the Flute: A Tale from the Antilles, p. 118; July, 1995, p. 27; September, 1995, p. 194; September, 2000, Grace Oliff, review of Only One Cowry, p. 216; December, 2001, Susan Hepler, review of Moon Rooster, p. 102; July, 2004, Ajoke T.I. Kokodoko, review of The Babysitter Sings, p. 75.

Teacher Librarian, November, 1998, Shirley Lewis, review of When It Starts to Snow, p. 49.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: E(mily) R. Frank (1967-) Biography - Personal to Martha Graham (1893–1991) BiographyPhillis Gershator (1942-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Member, Writings, Work in Progress