First Graders Pursue Giants and Little People

by Linda Mainland

Linda Mainland taught at Sun Valley School in Mercer County, WV. Her bachelor's degree is from Concord College. She was named Outstanding Teacher at Sun Valley School in 1989. This article is reprinted with permission from Journey Through Fantasy Literature: A Resource Guide for Teachers. Vol. II, p. 108. Ed. Roberta T. Herrin. It was developed during a Teachers Institute sponsored by East Tennessee State University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 1990-91, participants took the institute goals and ideas back to their classrooms for a year-long study of fantasy literature. Guided by mentors, they worked in small cluster groups, which met once in the fall of 1990 and once in the spring of 1991. This article provides good examples of ways to connect study of Appalachian folktales with other classic stories for children. Links on tale titles below are to AppLit's annotated bibliographies, which are updated periodically to list new as well as older retellings of those tales.

Note: Paul Brett Johnson's picture book Jack Outwits the Giant is a featured youth book in the Roanoke Valley Reads program in Fall 2013.

The first-grade class at Sun Valley School has been on a six-week fantasy journey pursuing giants and little people. The journey began with students reading several giant stories from the basal reader. They wanted to hear stories about other giants, so we found similar versions of "Finn McCool" and "Lucky and the Giant" in the anthology The Green Hills of Magic: West Virginia Folktales from Europe, compiled by Ruth Ann Musick. This was the text our West Virginia Cluster Group used under the direction of Judith Byers at Fairmont State. We also found a retelling of "The Brave Little Tailor" in our school library. Discovering this story sent my students in search of more giant tales.

Occasionally, we left the world of fantasy and found historical accounts of giants, such as the one about West Virginia's own Steel Driving John Henry. From the dozens of stories we read, the top three favorites were "Jack and the Beanstalk," The Little Boy's Secret by David L. Harrison, and several versions of Gulliver's Travels. Although Finn McCool was not everyone's top favorite, students observed that he was an interesting giant, because he kept showing up from week to week in very different tales.

As you might suspect, Gulliver's Travels led us to stories about little people: elves, leprechauns, and the Munchkins in the Land of Oz.

We read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Most of the students were familiar with this story from the movie, cartoons, records, and short condensed children's books. They found many differences from the original L. Frank Baum story (1900), including the color of Dorothy's shoes in the other versions. Students were also very perceptive in the questions they asked: "Why would the Tin Woodsman cry, if he didn't have a heart?" and "How could the Scarecrow figure how to do that, if he didn't have a brain"?

The class project consisted of the construction of a yellow brick road. Each child was in charge of designing a section of the road, using a sheet of yellow paper, a ruler, and a pencil. Every day we calculated the number of bricks drawn on each section and added them together for daily totals. On day eleven the road construction made its way to the field of deadly poppies. At that point we counted 9, 832 bricks that reached one-third of the way around the school.

For a field trip, our class traveled to Charleston, West Virginia in April, to see a play version of The Wizard of Oz. To help prepare for our trip, we constructed our own stage with materials ordered from Dover Publishing Company. We also made masks, flannel board characters, and play props.

This has been a most rewarding year. My first-graders loved stories! They loved to listen to stories, to tell stories, to read stories, and to write stories. Most of them took a story book home every night and returned to class the next morning to tell their friends about it. So they were continually excited about reading! What I didn't expect with this group was seeing how proud they became of the stories they created. They saw and heard endless varieties of the same story. They even noted the differences in the visual and book versions of The Wizard of Oz. Through fantasy and good literature, the children used and stretched their creativity and analytical skills.


Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. 1900. Followed by other stories set in Oz. Reprinted in many editions.

Musick, Ruth Ann. Green Hills of Magic: West Virginia Folktales from Europe. 1970. Rpt. Parsons, WV: McClain Printing, 1989.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. 1726. Reprinted in many editions. This is a satiric book for adults and often just the first section, Gulliver in Lilliput, is reprinted or adapted for children. 

Another Lesson Plan: Cruikshank, Wendy. "Gigantic Learning with Giants." Lesson plan on giants in fairy tales, by a teacher in Calgary, Alberta. Scholastic web site. Reprinted from Instructor magazine, Jan. 2003. Recommends a variety of tales with giants, including Jack Outwits the Giant by Paul Brett Johnson. Includes a variety of activities focusing on setting, rhymes, language, numbers, reader's theater, etc.

Other Collections of Tales on Giants and Little People

Goode, Diane. Diane Goode's Book of Giants and Little People. New York: Dutton Children's Books, 1997. Eighteen tales and poems from different parts of the world, with warm, colorful illustrations and notes. The American tales include the California tall tale "Lovesick Lopez" and "Wiley and the Hairy Man" from the Alabama WPA collections.

Hague, Michael. The Book of Fairies. New York: Morrow, 2000.

Hayes, Barbara. The Enchanted World of--Giants and Ogres. Illus. Geoffrey Campion. Vero Beach, FL: Rourke Enterprises, 1986. "Retells six traditional tales about ogres and other kinds of giants, including the one who chased Jack down the beanstalk and the one who imprisoned Ulysses and his men."

Hoke, Helen, ed. Giants! Giants! Giants! From Many Lands and Many Times. Illus. Stephen Lavis. New York: F. Watts, 1980. "A selection of 14 stories and 2 poems all relating to folk and fictional giants."

Jones, Brenda Wyn, Ann Saer, and Peter Brown. Giant Tales from Wales. Llandysul: Pont Books, 1998.

Mills, Lauren. The Book of Little Folk: Faery Stories and Poems from Around the World. New York: Dial Books, 1997.

Olcott, Frances Jenkins. The Book of Elves and Fairies. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2002.

Outhwaite, Ida Rentoul and Diana Briscoe. Little Book of Elves and Fairies. London: Buster Books, 2001.

Shelby, Anne. The Adventures of Molly Whuppie and Other Appalachian Folktales. Illus. Paula McArdle. Chapel Hill: Univ. of NC Press, 2007. Molly triumphs over giants in several tales, as Jack does in books of Jack Tales. Some tales about Molly Whuppie emphasize how

Walker, Paul Robert. Giants! Stories from Around the World. Illus. James Bernardin. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995. "Jack and the Beanstalk" (England), "Kana, the Stretching Wonder" (Hawaii), "The Giant who Had no Heart" (Norway), "The Cyclops" (Ancient Greece), "The Cannibal's Wonderful Bird" (South Africa), "Coyote and the Giant Sisters" (Pacific Northwest), "David and Goliath" (Ancient Israel).

Watson, Jane Werner. Golden Books Treasury of Elves & Fairies with Assorted Pixies, Mermaids, Brownies, Witches, and Leprechauns. Illus. Garth Williams. New York: Golden Books, 1999.

Tales with Giants and Little People Indexed and Reprinted in AppLit

The Animal Ballgame - Cherokee tale about smaller animals winning

First Fire - Cherokee tale in which small spider achieves what other animals can't

Jack and the Bean Tree

Jack and Fire Dragon

Jack and the Giants - also full text of "Jack and the Giants" retold by R. Rex Stephenson

Jack and Mossyfoot

The Little People - Cherokee tales

Mutsmag & Nippy and the Yankee Doodle (at right, Jack Tale Players perform "Mutsmag" with two-headed giant, drawn by a student of Franklin County, VA, below). Full text of R. Rex Stephenson's adaptation of "Mutsmag" illustrated with children's drawings.


Snow White

Swamp Angel

Tall Tales in Picture Books - most tall tale heroes, such as John Henry and Tony Beaver, are gigantic in stature and/or physical strength.

See also:

AppLit Study Guides and Lesson Plans

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

Links to Other Online Texts

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