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Larger than life: reading and writing tall tales.

Where can a pancake griddle be so big that grown men can skate on it, wearing pats of butter on their feet? And in what universe does the Grand Canyon become a half-pipe for skateboarding? It can only happen in the fantasy world of tall tales. This genre is characterized by fictional, often intentionally ridiculous, stories that provide a reason for or origin of a natural phenomenon. Tall tales are often based on characters who are unusually adept or powerful; they are particularly appealing to children who are cognitively capable of understanding the tongue-in-cheek humor associated with the antics and absurd claims of its characters. This Idea-Sparker introduces teachers to three writing activities inspired by this unique genre.

Before beginning writing activities inspired by tall tales, children need to be familiar with examples and characteristics of this genre. Teachers can read aloud well-loved tall tales to introduce the genre to children and request that the school librarian do the same. A special display section can be made in the classroom library to draw attention to books on tall tales that children can read on their own. Parents can be informed that tall tales are being read at school and provided with a list of books to check out from the public library to be read at home.

Video clips associated with tall tale characters are also available through the popular website YouTube, including Disney Classic: Paul Bunyan, Reading Rainbow "At the Library" Animated Short, as well as others that feature talented storytellers sharing various tall tales. Through sharing tall tales, children will learn the unique features associated with them, such as: exaggeration, humor, origin of characters, heroism or extraordinary abilities, and references to actual places. Once students are familiar with tall tales, they will be ready to hone their writing skills through the following activities.


Introduce "Postcards From Paul" by sharing with children the website www.op97.k12., which has examples of postcards that the character Paul Bunyan has written to his mother. Each postcard depicts famous locations around the world, along with Paul's outlandish description of its origin or what he did there. Read several examples and discuss the elements that make these brief stories tall tales. Brainstorm with children other places that Paul could write about, including well-known sites from the local area or state. Building on these examples, have children write their own postcards from the perspective of Paul Bunyan. Children can publish their final messages on 4 x 6 index cards and draw a related picture on the reverse side. Postcards can be displayed on a bulletin board, mailed home, or made into a book by hole-punching one corner of each card and connecting them with a hinged ring.


Once children are familiar with various tall tales, they will understand the characteristics well enough to create their own larger-than-life character. Using a template, web, or list, they can develop their new character according to four traits: appearance, action, dialogue, and monologue (Tompkins, 2005). Figure 1 presents the format for a handout to create fictional characters. Teachers can edit the handout to meet the needs of their students. After creating the character with descriptive words, children typically enjoy drawing illustrations to reflect the character's personality. The complete character description and illustration becomes a natural prewriting activity for writing an original tall tale.


Now that children are thoroughly familiar with tall tales and how to develop a fictional character, they will create their own original tall tale by "spinning a yarn as tall as me." Using rulers or yardsticks, students will tape together copy paper to a length that equals their height. After writing their own tall tale containing the common characteristics, they will publish their original story on the paper, inserting illustrations as desired. These tall tales make an interesting display and can be complemented by photos of the authors. This "larger than life" method of publishing children's tall tales is a perfect fit for this genre.

Suggested Titles:

Kellogg, S. (1985). Paul Bunyan. New York: HarperCollins.

Kellogg, S., & Robb, L. (1992). Pecos Bill. New York: HarperCollins.

Kimmell, E., & Whatley, B. (2007). Great Texas hamster drive: An original tall tale. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish.

Krensky, S., & Oldroyd, M. (2007). John Henry. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group.

Krensky, S., & Reeves, J. (2007). Mike Fink. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group.

Osborne, M. P., & McCurdy, M. (1991). American tall tales. New York: Random House Children's Books.

Tompkins, G. E. (2005). Literacy for the 21st century: A balanced approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wood, A., & Shannon, D. (2006). The Bunyans. New York: Scholastic.

This Idea-Sparker was provided by Karyn Tunks.
Figure 1. Creating a Character Template


Facial features: How character moves: What the character
 might say:

Body Shape: How character behaves: Dialect:

Habits of dress: How character reacts in When the character uses
 positive situations: formal vs. informal

Mannerisms: How character reacts in Character uses
 negative situations: present-day expressions
 vs. those used in the

Gestures: How character relates to Character repeats a
 others: specific expression:


Facial features: What the character might think:

Body Shape: What the character might feel:

Habits of dress: The character's innermost fears:

Mannerisms: The character's worries:

Gestures: Who the character loves:
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Tunks, Karyn
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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