How to Write an Original Tall Tale

by Suzanne Williams

When I was an elementary school librarian the third graders at my school would do a unit on tall tales every year. They read stories about Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed and other famous figures from American folklore. One year I decided to have the students write their own tall tales. None of them had parents who were loggers, like Paul Bunyan, or cowboys, like Pecos Bill, however. I wondered if it might be easier for students to create a more "contemporary" tall tale hero--one who worked at a job their parents might have—say a computer programmer or a dental hygienist. Since I was a librarian, I decided to write a "sample" tall tale about a librarian to show students the kind of thing I was after. Long story short: I liked the resulting story well enough that I kept refining and revising it until it was published by Dial as the picture book, Library Lil, with wonderful illustrations by Steven Kellogg.

The "recipe" on page 4 was borrowed from my son's school. I adapted it to suit myself and used it to guide my first draft of Library Lil. Students also used the recipe to write their own tall tales. The starter sentences for each page are there to help keep student stories moving along, but can be abandoned for more creative wording, of course.

Getting Started:

You'll want to share many tall tales with students before they write their own. Steven Kellogg has retold and illustrated quite a few besides my own:

Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett: a tall tale
Pecos Bill: a tall tale
Paul Bunyan, a tall tale
Mike Fink: a tall tale
Johnny Appleseed: a tall tale

To find collections of tall tales, ask your librarian, or browse the library's 398.22 section.

Narrator's Style and Literary Devices:

As you share tall tales, call students' attention to the style in which they are written and the use of literary devices such as simile and hyperbole (exaggeration). Students will want to experiment with those things in their own stories.

In Library Lil, for example, I adopt the style of a narrator who, though not a character in the story, is intimately involved with it and occasionally speaks directly to the reader using the first person "I". Here's the very first line of the story:

I bet you think all librarians are mousy little old ladies.

And toward the end of the book:

Last time I was over to Chesterville, they'd added a new wing to the town library.

In the closing paragraph:

Since Bill's been on the job, Lil says there hasn't been a single overdue book. I think she's kind of sweet on the guy.

Examples of hyperbole in Library Lil (often accomplished through comparisons, metaphor and simile):

By the time she was eight, she'd read all the books in the children's room.

To Lil's way of thinking, TV was an evil that ranked right up there with poison ivy and mosquitoes.

[The bookmobile's] battery was deader than a pickled herring.

Suddenly folks were borrowing more books than they had in the entire fifty years since the library had been built.

... when he took off his jacket to play pool, he revealed a skull-and-crossbones tattoo that would scare the wool off a sheep.

Now, at first Lil took no more notice of Bill and his gang than a duck would of rain.

It cost her little more effort than flinging an apple core.

... Lil threw motorcycle after motorcycle onto a stack reaching up toward the moon.

Similes:

TVs popped off like flashbulbs. (Unfortunately, not many students know what a flashbulb is these days!)

... battling eighty-mile-per-hour winds that threatened to carry her away like a feather in an updraft.

He spat the words out like bullets.

A Larger-than-Life Persona:

Tall tale characters are usually larger than life with some extra special physical strength. Because I had boxed and moved all the books in a library several times during my career (to accommodate remodeling projects) I knew what special physical strength my librarian character should have—upper arm strength!

Here's how Lil's special strength is portrayed throughout the story:

As a child:

When the third grade soccer ball got stuck under the principal's car, Lil retrieved it. (illustration shows her lifting up the car with one hand.)

... she balanced the remaining [encyclopedia] volumes on the palm of the other hand.

As an adult:

Up and down the streets of town she went, pushing that bookmobile ahead of her just like a baby carriage.

Straightening, she suddenly hoisted the motorcycle with one hand and tossed it into the street.

Problems/Disasters:

Stories thrive on problems and conflict. When Lil first lands a job in Chesterville she discovers to her horror that townspeople are more interested in watching TV than in reading good books. She gets a chance to change things when a storm knocks out the power lines for two whole weeks. Using her special arm strength to push the bookmobile (oh no, dead battery!) around town, she delivers books to "every man, woman, and child." Then another problem arrives in the form of Bust-‘em-up Bill, a motorcycle gang leader who practically sneers at the word "books." Again, Lil's special arm strength saves the day when she calls Bill's bluff and tosses motorcycles to clear space for her bookmobile.

Resolution and Character Change:

In the end Lil succeeds in making readers of everyone in Chesterville, and of Bust-‘em-up Bill and his gang too:

It wasn't long before every man in Bill's gang was reading away. ‘Course some of them hadn't learned too well in school, so Lil gave ‘em some easier books to begin on.

Bill discovers that he likes reading. He even becomes Lil's library assistant and a "whale of a storyteller." The townspeople give him a new nickname: Bookworm Bill.

Lil changes too, moderating her anti-TV stance to allow her to join Bill in watching his favorite Tuesday night professional wrestling program. Here's the very last line of the story:

Says she's even taken to watching a little of the Devil's Invention—particularly on Tuesday nights.

 

RECIPE FOR AN
ORIGINAL
TALL TALE

Fold together two
pieces of 12 x 18
white construction
paper in a "hot dog"
(lengthwise) fold.
Staple in the middle.

(cover)

MY LIFE STORY

 

(illustration)

 

AN ORIGINAL TALL TALE

BY

(page one)

 

When I was born...

 

Describe the special
powers or strengths you have that make you different from others and that point toward your future career.

(page two)

 

When I was a child I...

 

 

Describe an event that foreshadows (hints at)
your future career.

(page three)

 

When I grew up I...

 

 

Describe training for
your career and
how/where you landed a job.

(page four)

 

Unfortunately...

 

Describe a big
problem or disaster
that occurs that is
a challenge for
someone with your
job and specia
l powers.

(page five)

 

I...

 

Describe how you
used your special
powers to meet the
challenge and solve
the problem.

(page six)

 

Now...

 

Describe any changes
that resulted from
your meeting the
challenge/ solving
the problem.

 

From the Writing Curriculum Files
of Children's Author, Suzanne Williams
www.suzanne-williams.com