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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

American Tall Tales

American Tall Tales
by Mary Pope Osborne
wood engravings by Michael McCurdy


Last year, as part of the Summer Reading Program at the library, the kids got to choose a couple of books for completing their reading goals. Ana chose American Tall Tales by Mary Pope Osborne with no subliminal or overt steering on my part.

Of course, the fact that some of the other choices on the shelf were "baby books" as she put it probably drove her to grab this one. I didn't probe further at that time.

But, me being me, I did grill her a bit later (very subtly as I'd like to imagine) about why she picked this particular book and not some of the other chapter books on the shelf.

Why did I care? Well, because I would have picked this very book as well (for her) from that shelf even though there were other 'popular' ones and I wanted to know if she had any particular reason.

As it happens, she had two reasons - one is that she has heard They Might Be Giants sing about Davy Crockett and this book had a story about him; two, the author is familiar from Jack & Annie books (Magic Tree House). As a bonus, the second story was titled Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind and it certainly seemed intriguing.

Anyway, there's the long-winded back story, which hopefully establishes that I like this book.

There are nine stories in all, plus a wonderful introduction by the author. Bibliography cites the primary sources the author used for this book.

The introduction is for a more mature audience but the girl understood the essence of Tall-Talking and Tall-Tales thanks to the very first sentence in the Introduction:

"Tall talk, or exaggerated storytelling, began in the 1800s as a way for Americans to come to terms with the vast and inhospitable lands they'd come to inhabit — thick dark forests filled with bears and panthers; treeless, arid deserts and plains; towering mountains; and uncharted seacoasts."

Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Stormalong, Febold Feboldson, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, Davy Cockett, Mose are the nine characters featured in this book. A map  at the start of the book shows the areas in the U.S.where these legends grew out of.

Each story has a short half page Notes On The Story section in which the author explains a bit more about the upcoming story. For instance, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind is not a single person - the author chose to combine various women characters who endured the harsh life of the Tennessee and Kentucky backwoods right along with the men. And Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind just happens to be the name of Davy's fictional wife.

At some point, all the stories started merging and converging as they took on a formulaic progression, much like Jack & Annie books with their cookie-cutter format. But, for the most part, they were all entertaining and well-narrated.

The wood engravings are amazing and complement the stories and the setting well.

The feeling of awe that was sparked by Laura Ingalls Wilder books and the American Girl Historical Characters books was furiously fanned by this book. Even if these are tall tales, they depict a life in the U.S that is completely disconnected from what it is today for us.

And the book inspired her to write a short book herself. It is called Ana's Tall Tales. Illustrations and Stories by her. The book has 7 short one-page stories, each a tall tale - an exaggerated story about herself, set partly in the contemporary world and partly in a fantasy world. I promised her that I won't take photos of it and share it as the book was her birthday present for Papa who turned a year older a few weeks ago.

[image source: personal photo]



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