Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears: A West African Tale is a children’s book written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. A cause and effect story to illustrate the power and danger of lies, it won the Caldecott Medal in 1976 for its vivid illustrations.
The story takes place in a West African countryside and begins with a gossipy mosquito who tells an inane piece of gossip to an iguana. The iguana is annoyed by the mosquito because he is a such a tremendous liar, so he puts sticks in his ears so he doesn’t have to listen. However, the sticks mean that he can’t hear any of the other animals talking to him; the python says hello and when iguana ignores him, he assumes that the iguana is mad at him and tries to hide in a hole and, by doing so, scares the rabbit, who runs away, which causes the crow to assume that there’s some danger, so the monkey runs to warn the other animals and in his haste he lands on an owl nest and accidentally kills an owlet.
When the owl discovers one of her children is dead, she mourns so much that she doesn’t hoot to wake up the sun. The other animals hold a meeting to determine what happened and by investigating each animal, find out that the mosquito is the true culprit. The animals call to punish the mosquito, and it’s told that the mosquito has a guilty conscience and that “to this day she goes about whining in people’s ears: ‘Zeee! Is everyone still angry at me?'”
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears won the Caldecott Medal, which is awarded for illustrations in childrens books. It won with good reason. The illustrations are bright and vibrant and propel both the characters and the plot forward. The art was made using watercolors applied with an airbrush, pastels rubbed on by hand, and india ink. The cut-out effect was acheived by actually cutting the shapes out of vellum and frisket masks at several different stages (Aardema 1975). The story is a good one for children; the dangers of gossip and lying. The text also uses onomatopoeia that will resonate with kids: the iguana goes “mek, mek, mek, mek” through the reeds, the rabbit bounds “krik, krik, krik” across a clearing, the crow calls “kaa, kaa, kaa!” The mosquito meets his final punishment with a “KPAO!” at the end of the book, which is both foreign enough to be African and familiar enough to a south Texas audience.
I really enjoyed this book. It has a very good lesson on both gossip and perception — the illustrations when the animals are telling what they thought happened were very vivid and added an element that wasn’t expressed by the plot; for example, the rabbit telling about the snake invading her hole was incredibly frightening. I would have left the hole quickly, too.
This tale from Africa is another of those cumulative goose chases except that instead of pursuing an object, the game here is fixing the blame for an overlong night. As King Lion summarizes the chain of events after it’s all straightened out, “”it was the mosquito who annoyed the iguana, who frightened the python, who scared the rabbit, who startled the crow, who alarmed the monkey, who killed the owlet-and now Mother Owl won’t wake the sun so that the day can come.”” Not one of your indispensable kernels of folk wisdom, but it is the kind of brisk go-round that can pick up a lagging story hour group. And though the stunning illustrations are not our favorite Dillons-they don’t generate much life or involvement-their crisp cut paper look commands attention.
Kirkus Reviews 1975
“In this Caldecott Medal winner, Mosquito tells a story that causes a jungle disaster. “Elegance has become the Dillons’ hallmark. . . . Matching the art is Aardema’s uniquely onomatopoeic text . . . An impressive showpiece.”
Booklist, starred review.
Living in south Texas, mosquitoes are an every day sight, which would make this book very easily understood by children — I’m not sure you’d be able to find a kid in south Texas who couldn’t detail the particular annoyance of a mosquito buzzing in your ear. I would choose this book to identify the dangers of gossip and the literary element of cause and effect. A good opener to reading this story would be to play a game of “Telephone” to show just how difficult it is to determine the truth when the story has gone through several people.
Aardema, Verna. (1975). Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears : a west african tale. New York, NY: Dial Press.
Booklist. (n.d.) [Review of the book “Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears”]. “Booklist.” Retrieved from https://us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780803760899,00.html
Kirkus’ Reviews. (1975). “Why mosquitoes buzz in people’s ears.” Kirkus Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/verna-aardema-4/why-mosquitoes-buzz-in-peoples-ears/#review