5 Traits of Tall Tales (& How to Use Them in Your Classroom)
Davy Crockett. Paul Bunyan. Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind. These traditional tall tales are fun to read. But tall tales can be even more fun to write. (Because how can you not have fun creating wild, impossible exaggeration?!?!?)
By teaching basic traits that set tall tales apart from other stories in the folktale genre, you’ll provide students with a tool that will aid their enjoyment and comprehension of the tall tales they read. You’ll also be providing them with a framework on which to write and publish tall tales of their own.
Tall-tale traits can form the basis for a tall tales mini-lesson and can also be used to create a reading/writing anchor chart to support students’ learning. Here are five common traits of tall tales:
1. Tall tales combine fact and fiction.
Tall tales include some basis in facts (such as actual places, people, and events). But those facts become farfetched based on the outlandish fiction surrounding them. For instance, it’s a fact that the Grand Canyon is a real place. However, in the tall tale of Paul Bunyan, Paul drags his pickaxe as he trudges through Arizona, accidentally digging out the Grand Canyon along the way.
2. Hyperbole rules.
The fiction used in tall tales is extreme—the more unlikely and impossible, the better. Hyperbole is like exaggeration on steroids. When Paul Bunyan was a baby, his crawling caused earthquakes. When he was grown, he harnessed Babe the Blue Ox to a river to pull the curves out so logs wouldn’t get jammed floating downriver. Whether students are reading tall tales or writing them, hyperbole makes the stories funny and fun.
3. Life is tough.
Life wasn’t easy for American settlers, and the hardships they faced are often reflected in tall tales. For example, in the 1800s, the work of railroad-tunnel gangs was difficult and dangerous. These hardships are found in the tall tale of John Henry.
4. Heroes are brave, buff, and brainy.
The heroes of tall tales embody extreme examples of bravery, strength, and/or cleverness. They’ve simply got more guts, more power, and more smarts than everyone else. One winter, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind hibernated with a grizzly bear just to stay warm. Paul Bunyan could cut down ten trees with one swing of his axe. Johnny Appleseed could talk to animals. Brave. Buff. Brainy.
5. Heroes are also hardworking and never give up.
In those times and circumstances where regular men and women would quit, tall tale heroes shine. There’s no way John Henry was giving up his work as a steel driver, even when competing against a steam-powered drill. When Febold Feboldson decided to settle in the Great Plains, neither drought nor doubters could stop him from carving out a life in Nebraska.
Tall & Twisted Tales
For a super-fun tall-tales activity, have students take a traditional tall tale (such as Davy Crockett or Paul Bunyan) and flip it on its head. This can be done by having each student brainstorm answers to four basic questions:
1. What traditional tall tale are you going to twist?
2. What is the title for your twisted version of the tall tale?
3. What are four ways your twisted tall tale and the traditional tall tale will be the SAME?
4. What are four ways your twisted tall tale and the traditional tall tale will be DIFFERENT?
Have students create their own twisted tall tales by using their answers to these questions along with the “5 Traits of Tall Tales.” This is what I’ve done in my Readers’ Theater Tall Tales Bonus Bundle. Instead of Davy Crockett, there’s Davy Crockpot. Johnny Appleseed has become Johnny Watermelonseed. John Henry suddenly has a twin sister named Joan Henry. And Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox have morphed into Paul Onion and His Baby-blue Socks.
Fun. Funny. And in the case of my Davy Crockpot readers’ theater tall tale . . . FREE.
So go ahead. Take the “5 Traits of Tall Tales” and the four basic questions listed above. Let your students tackle their own twisted tall tales. And while you’re at it, check out my Readers’ Theater Tall Tales Bonus Bundle to see how it can complement a tall tales unit or folktales unit in your classroom!