Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tall Tales

John Henry by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Dial Books, 1994. "You probably never heard of John Henry. Or maybe you heard about him but don't know the ins and outs of his comings an goings. Well, that's why I'm going to tell you about him. When John Henry was born, birds came from everywhere to see him..."

Openning lines from a magnificent version of the tall tale John Henry. I am sharing tall tales with fourth graders in the library this week. I have gathered some of my favorites to share with them and plan to have a rolliking good time. Tall tales are a unique American genre that grew out of the 1800s years of westward expansion. Many of the settles interested in moving west during that time had been told stories of wonder and magnificence in the land of milk and honey. When they came to find hardships and struggle is was a shock. These stories grew out of the people's attempt to make fun of their hard times and monumental efforts to carve out a new way of life.

Dona Flor by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colon. Knopf, 2005. "Long ago, when Flor was a baby, her mother sang to her in a voice sweet as river music, When Flor's mother sang to her corn plants, they grew tall at trees, and when she sang to her baby, her sweet flower, well, Flor grew and grew, too."

Regional differences across the land brought out heroes that tamed the weather, climbed mountains, re-directed rivers, and caused the sun and moon to weep. The railroads, the timber industry, agriculture and commerce all play into the oral histories found in tall tales. Exploring these stories is a way of celebrating and claiming our cultural history. One of the charming elements of these tall tales is that they almost always begin with a wondrous birth of a magical child:

Thunder Rose by Jerdine Nolan, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. "Rose was the first child born free and easy to Jackson and Millicent MacGruder. I remember most vividly the night she came into this world. Hailing rain, flashing lightning and booming thunder pounded the door, inviting themselves in for the blessed event."

Some of the elements found in tall tales that I will explore with my students are the use of exaggeration, hyperbole, metaphor, and simile. The stories are set in local folk history and were pasted around in oral traditions. They usually include humor and feats of wonder. The hero solves persistent problems that common people are stumped by and is able to restore order and justice to the community. The main character is remarkable right from birth and is of super human size, strength and abilities. The voice of the storyteller draws in the audience in compelling, colorful language. The authors and illustrators of my favorite picture book tall tales have exceptional talents in this regard.

Paul Bunyan by Steven Kellogg. Harper Collins, 1984. "Paul Bunyan was the largest, smartest, strongest baby ever born in the state of Maine. Even before he learned to talk, he showed an interest in the family logging business. He took the lumber wagon and wandered through the neighborhood collecting trees."

I plan to read a couple of these books and then have the children pull out all the characteristics of tall tales that they can identify. I am going to ask them to draw a simple picture of themselves with the exaggerated features they would claim for themselves if they wrote a tall tale about their lives. I'll demonstrate for them with myself as an example.

Here are a couple other ideas for lessons from Read, Write, Think: a  tall tales T chart.pdf and a rubric.pdf. And here is a link to my wiki pathfinder on tall tales. What ideas do you have for sharing tall tales with kids?