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What are Tall Tales?

When I was a third grader, my teacher did a unit on tall tales. I remember it quite well, especially because every student in my class had to write a tall tale for inclusion in a collected stories book for our class.

My tall tale was about a giant named Watson. He is so large that he accidentally knocks down buildings, and the townspeople yell at him and shake their fists. Downtrodden and ridiculed for his incredible height, Watson is sad and keeps to himself.

As the story goes, Watson is so large, he must use the ocean as his bathtub (and according to my illustrations, he must keep his clothes on in the ocean-bath). One day, an airplane full of people is about to crash into the ocean. My drawings show a shark in the ocean, waiting with his knife and fork and a checkered bib tied around his neck. “Oh, no!” The plane passengers scream!

As luck would have it, Watson is wading in the ocean at the same time. He catches the plane and saves the people–Hurrah! The shark swims away, disappointed, and Watson’s tremendous height is finally celebrated and embraced.

Why do I remember this story so well, over 35 years later? Well, partly it’s because of my illustrations. It’s also because the third grade story collection still exists in the world, in a dusty box somewhere at my mom’s house. I’ve seen it many times over the years. The next time I run across it, I will pull it out and add it to my own memory box.

Students love tall tales

Have you ever read tall tales to your students? They LOVE them! Whenever I’ve read tall tales to students–both in elementary and middle school–students really get into them. Checkouts of tall tales (and other traditional stories) skyrocket, and some students will ask for tall tales for months. Even years later, students tend to remember their tall tales.

Characteristics of Tall Tales

Did you know that tall tales also come from Europe, Canada, and Australia? These stories are generally set on the frontier. In Australia, they are set in the “bush” or the outback.

I think I’m going to try putting my fledgling Spanish skills to the test to see if the public libraries here in Puerto Morelos or Playa del Carmen might have some Mexican tall tales. I think here they may be called cuentos? Even the new Pancho Bandito series appears to be set in Texas.

Though the characters and settings may vary, they generally have some common traits:

  • hyperbole or exaggeration
  • regional settings
  • shared in the oral tradition
  • brave, larger-than-life heroes who accomplish great feats using strength and wits
  • heroes often have an animal companion or special object they carry with them
  • explain origins of natural landforms
  • frontier location and time period
  • often humorous, silly, or outlandish
  • told as though they were real (“I worked with him once!” or “I saw it with my own two eyes!”)
  • survival over harsh or deadly nature (animals, weather)
  • may be based on real people
  • ballads, animations, parks, brands, statues

Why are tall tales so awesome for kids? Keep reading…

 

UP NEXT: Five Benefits of Teaching Tall Tales

(Please hold comments to the last post in this 4-part series. This is Part 1.)