The Fortune Tellers - Thao Lam
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The Fortune Tellers

The Fortune Tellers

The Fortune Tellers

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I love libraries. I am a proud owner of two library cards: one for the city of Toronto, and one for the city of Mississauga. Libraries are amazing; where else can you walk out with an arm full of books and not get jumped by security? Keep reading…

Now, for an immigrant, libraries are a novel idea. The first time I borrowed a book was from my school library, and I remember taking it home and my mom being mortified because she thought I had stolen school property (petty crime at the age of 5). It was our second year in Canada (my family were “boat people” from Vietnam), but there was still a lot to learn about life in our new country. Library cards, like the books themselves, were free, no matter what your age, education, income or nationality. For a 5-year-old, who didn’t speak English and whose family was starting over, the act of borrowing a book about any subject was a sign of freedom and trust, something not easily come by in some parts of the world.

February is Black History month in Canada and the U.S., a month to highlight people and events in the history of both countries that often don’t get discussed much inside or outside of the classroom. February marks the birthdays of two Americans who had a huge impact on the lives of African-Americans: President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who had escaped from slavery as a young man. Libraries usually host special events for Black History month and librarians always showcase an impressive collection of books on this topic every February. Don’t just rely on Wikipedia; explore and learn more about this fascinating part of our history by picking up one of these books.

If you are lucky, you will find a copy of The Fortune Tellers in among your library’s collection for Black History month. I must have borrowed this book from the library a couple dozen times growing up. In fact, I think I accumulated enough late charges to buy my own copy.

The Fortune Tellers is written by Lloyd Alexander and illustrated by Trina Hyman. This original folktale, set in the West-African landscape of Cameroon, is full of witty humour and illustrations that are vibrant and full of life. In this story, a carpenter visits a sly fortune-teller, who tells him that he will be rich if he can “earn large sums of money,” that he will be famous when he “becomes well known,” and that he will have a wife if he finds her and “she agrees.” As fate would have it, our carpenter hero’s life takes a surprising turn after he fills in for the fortune-teller, who has gone missing.

I spent hours as a child soaking in the vivid details on each page, and I still discover something new each time I read the book. Hyman has done a spectacular job of capturing the landscape and villages of West Africa, from the stalls lining the marketplace to the rich colours and patterns in the traditional fabrics each character wears. Hyman’s research and careful attention to the culture and lives of West Africans adds authenticity to the story.

The Fortune Tellers, a children’s book review by Thao Lam

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Author Lloyd Alexander

Award-winning author Lloyd Alexander, knew he was going to be a writer since the age of 15, very much to the displeasure of his parents. Alexander was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1924 and grew up during the Great Depression. Looking for adventure, he joined the US Army and, after serving as a staff sergeant in intelligence and counter-intelligence during World War II, Alexander went to study at the University of Paris. While there, he met is wife of 61 years, Janine Denni. Lloyd Alexander passed away on May 17th, 2007, two weeks after the death of his wife.mHere are two facts about Alexander that I found interesting: one, he was one of the creators of the children’s literary magazine Cricket; and two, the manuscript for The Fortune Tellers sat in his attic for 15 years, lost and forgotten until his wife discovered it.

Illustrator Trina Schart Hyman

Coincidentally Hyman also worked for Cricket, where she was an art director from 1973 to 1979. She illustrated over 150 books and won four Caldecott awards. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, her favorite story as a child was “Little Red Riding Hood”, so much so that she spent much of her childhood wearing a red cape. Hyman received extensive training in the arts, starting with enrollment at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, and continuing on to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after she married. She and her husband later moved to Sweden where she studied at Konstfackskolan (Swedish State Art School).

The Fortune Tellers was a labor of love for Hyman, as the illustrations were created for her grandson, Michou. The images she created were born from memories of her visit to Michou’s father’s home in Cameroon. Hyman was considered one of the first white American illustrators to frequently incorporate black characters into her books.

Trina Hyman passed away of breast cancer November of 2004. In her final years of life, she lived in a secluded cottage with her 5 cats on a remote buddies mountaintop.

To read more on Trina Hyman, please visit

Publisher Dutton Juvenile (September 30, 1992)

ISBN-10 0525448497

ISBN-13 978-0525448495