Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing Tall

by Pam Smallcomb

            In most elementary schools, students complete a study unit on tall tales.  Many of these wonderfully funny stories came from our own continent. Some of these tales originated in Canada, and some in America. The heroes in these stories faced challenges and dangers that pioneers and the working class of the 19th century might have had to face in their own lives. Things like drought, or building a railroad across our country. However, the way the hero solved these problems was different.  He used abilities that no normal human could possibly have. Today we might call those abilities superpowers.
            In the beginning, many of these stories were based on real people. As the stories were told and retold, they became bigger than life.  Perhaps gathering around a campfire, telling a story of a hero gave people the courage to try again the next day (or maybe they were just fun to hear).
            When writing your own tall tale, it’s good to remember that there are some things that these stories have in common. Here are just a few:

1. Your hero should have an unusual childhood or birth story. For example, it’s said that John Henry was born full-sized. He was over 8 feet tall! He went to work on the railroad when he was just 3 weeks old.

2. Your hero should have a regular job.  During our frontier days, Paul Bunyan was a logger, Pecos Bill a cowboy and John Henry a railroad worker. The tall tale hero in your story could have any job we have today: computer specialist, autoworker, plumber, etc.

3. Your hero needs a superhuman trait (of strength, size, etc.). He should have courage. Pecos Bill rode a tornado like a bronco. He used a rattlesnake for a lasso.

4. Exaggeration. There can never be enough in a tall tale. More is better. For example, it took five giant storks to carry the infant Paul Bunyan to his parent’s home.  He was just that big.

5. A tall tale is written as if it were completely true and factual.

6. A tall tale often explains natural phenomena (like the Painted Desert or the Grand Canyon.)

7. A tall tale is a story that is told humorously, and the problem of the story is solved in a funny way.

Many tall tales do feature male heroes. For a look at some female heroes starring in their own tales, grab a copy of Cut From the Same Cloth by Robert San Souci.  Tall tales are always a fun read, and a great way to teach kids about exaggeration, humor, and putting an upbeat spin on the hardships we face in life.

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