Retold by Ross, Gayle. 1995. How Turtle's Back was Cracked: A Traditional Cherokee Tale. Illustrated by Murv Jacob. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers. ISBN 0803717288.
Turtle and Possum were best friends. Possum would climb a persimmon tree and pick persimmons. He would alternate between eating one himself and throwing one down for turtle to eat. Wolf sneaks behind turtle and started catching the persimmons, but turtle had his eyes closed and did not realize what was happening. Possum noticed the wolf and threw down a large persimmon, which got stuck in the wolf's throat and killed him. Turtle took credit for the wolf's death, and this angered the other wolves. They caught turtle and wanted to kill him, but were tricked into throwing him in the river. Turtle's back hit a rock in the river and his shell cracked.
How Turtle's Back was Cracked is a traditional Cherokee tale and explains why it looks like turtle shells are cracked. It also teaches lessons about how to behave. If turtle had never taken credit for killing wolf and had not gone around showing off his wolf-ear spoons, he would never have gotten into trouble with the wolves and his shell would not have cracked. Turtle was able to do something wise when he tricked the wolves, though. His shell was cracked, but he did not die.
The story is identified as a Cherokee tale. The author, Ross, says she heard the tale growing up as a Cherokee, but she also did research on it. She found a simple form of the story in James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee which was published in 1900 by the Bureau of American Ethnology. Ross practiced telling the story for years before she wrote the book.
The only time Cherokee words are used within the story is when turtle sings while healing himself. He sings, "Gu'daye'wu, Gu'daye'wu," which means, "I have sewn myself together. I have sewn myself together."
Two foods are mentioned within the story. At the start of the story, turtle and possum share persimmons from the persimmon tree. Once turtle has the wolf-ear spoons he goes from person to person eating the corn soup that they offer him. It was a custom to offer visitors this special corn soup, but turtle takes advantage of people's hospitality so he can show off the wolf-ear spoons. He created the spoons after taking the wolf's ears as a tribute from the dead wolf. It was a custom for a hunter to take a tribute from an animal in order to capture a piece of the animal's spirit.
The illustrations in the book are colorful and contain a lot of detail. The sky stands out since it is painted with bright, swirled colors. The sun is always pictured with a face. There is a lot of trees and wild life presented and the colors used for them make it seem like the story is taking place in autumn.
The turtle, possum, and wolf are pictured wearing some clothes. Possum and wolf wear an item around their waist that looks like an apron. Turtle wears a belt around his waist. The animals and people wear beads around their wrists and ankles. Possum, the wolf, and some of the people also wear necklaces. The people wear leather clothes and moccasins. The women wear dresses and have long hair, while the men wear pants and no shirts with their hair cut short into Mohawks.
The aspect of each picture that stands out the most is the eyes of the animals. The wolves all have shining yellow eyes. The turtle has a large red eye with a black star shape in the center. The turtle's head is always shown from a side view so that only one eye is seen. This eye stands out on every page and helps draw the reader's attention to the turtle.
"Despite its echoes of the more familiar Brer Rabbit story ('born and bred in the briar patch'), this Cherokee pourquoi tale has a flavor all its own. Ross notes that she remembers the tale from her childhood, found a written source, and developed it through storytelling to its present form. Jacob's distinctive acrylic paintings illustrate the story's dramatic moments in scenes rich in colors and patterns. An entertaining picture book to read aloud." -Booklist
Read How Turtle's Back was Cracked with other turtle stories during story time. Other books that can be read are Anansi goes fishing by Eric Kimmel, Turtle Splash! by Cathryn Falwell, and Turtle's Race with Beaver: A Traditional Seneca Story by Joseph Bruchac. For the craft children can color a picture of a turtle and draw in the cracks on his shell.