AppLit Study Guides

Tall Tales and Jack Tales: Literature and Writing Activities

Adapted by Tina L. Hanlon, from Teaching Unit by Sarah Harris

In 1988-89 Sarah Harris taught fourth and fifth grade at Lula Elementary School in Lula, GA. Harris's teaching unit is adapted with the editor's permission from "Teaching Unit on Jack Tales," Journey Through Fantasy Literature: A Resource Guide for Teachers. Vol. I. Ed. Roberta T. Herrin. Developed during a Teachers Institute sponsored by East Tennessee State University and the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1988-89. For questions or comments on this page, or to submit additional ideas or examples from your classes, contact Tina L. Hanlon.

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

Back to Other Folktale Activities

Goals Resources Background Class Discussion Writing a Tall Tale


These activities will help students:

If you can't cover all these goals, select the activities below that will suit your class. If you don't have time for detailed comparisons, it may be best to study tall tales or Jack tales, but not both. You can prepare students for writing their own tall tale or tale about defeating a giant without first comparing types of heroes or analyzing language or regional elements in detail.


Harris read to her class from The Jack Tales by Richard Chase (Boston: Houghton, 1943).

Versions of Jack Tales and tall tales are listed in these AppLit pages:
Tall Tale Picture Books
Jack Tale Picture Books
Mutsmag - a heroine from the same tradition as Jack vs. giant tales
Appalachian Folktales in Collections
Appalachian Folktales in Film, Drama and Storytelling Recordings
    For an example of a hunting tall tale on a storytelling cassette, see Rick Carson, Ghosts and Giggles, 1991.
Annotated Index of Appalachian Folktales
Links to Other Online Texts

See Tell Me a Folktale in AppLit's Unit Lesson Plan on Appalachian Folktales.

Folk Heroes section of teaching unit West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature contains student activities, audio and text copies of songs and tales, and teaching materials on tall tales such Tony Beaver and John Henry (formerly in West Virginia's World School web site, now reprinted in AppLit).

AppLit's General Guidelines for Teaching with Folktales, Ballads, and Other Short Works of Folklore, with diagrams of types of folk literature, may give you new insights (or theoretical background if you need to justify your teaching of folktales) on comparing types of folk literature and linking it with other literary and cultural subjects.

Types of folk literature and folktale conventions (setting, character, plot, theme and conflict, style) are explained in "Chapter 8, Folk Literature," Literature for Children: A Short Introduction by David Russell (4th ed. New York: Longman, 2001), pp. 148-73 (includes a bibliography). For longer introductions and many examples, see Judith V. Lechner's Allyn & Bacon Anthology of Traditional Literature (New York: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2004).

The Five Elements of a Story Lesson Plan at has a printable diagram of introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution.

See AppLit's section on Appalachian Dialects for material on dialects and literature, including analysis and activities on specific folktale books, and an excellent set of guidelines In Support of Integrating Minority Dialect Literature into the Curriculum.

AppLit's Diagrams of Types of Folk Literature show how tall tales relate to other types of folktales.

AppLit's Adaptations of Minority Legends:  A Look at a Re-Telling of "John Henry" provides a model for analyzing picture book adaptations of tales associated with historical realities and minority cultures.

Tabloid Tales is a language arts lesson about exaggeration, for grades 3 and up, that explores tabloid stories as modern tall tales. One of the writing suggestions is "Walking Catfish Eats Farmer." By Gary Hopkins. 2002-2006. Education World web site.

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Background on Tall Tales

David Russell points out that English folklore contains "the extraordinary exploits of Jack the Giant Killer. But the United States is the true home of the tall tale, indicating the American preference for broad humor and overstatement" (p. 254). Tall tales spread as a popular literary form in the United States, especially on the frontier, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although they were passed around by word of mouth before and after being written down, they often were written as "mock oral tales" in newspapers and almanacs, also appearing in popular songs and plays. Tall tales often combined realistic local or regional details with wildly preposterous, imaginative and comical fantasies. This incongruity is the source of their humorous effects. Like many other types of folk literature, the older tales told or written primarily by and for adults are the sources of many adaptations for children in different media that remain popular today. Series of episodes from the old short stories, articles, oral tales, or longer books are often combined and condensed in contemporary picture books and tale collections, or given imaginative and modern new twists.

John Henry and Davy Crockett are the most famous classic American tall tale heroes associated with the Appalachian region. They can be found in almost any general collection of tall tales and, in the case of "John Henry," collections of folk songs and ballads. Tony Beaver is West Virginia's other famous tall tale hero, alleged to be the cousin of Paul Bunyan. Although their girlfriends or wives have less prominent roles in older sources, some leading picture book creators, such as Stephen Kellogg and Paul O. Zelinsky, have addressed this inequity with recent books that focus on the heroic adventures of tall tale women.

Traditional tall tale heroes are claimed by the residents of specific American places, but their physical abilities and adventures are so vast that they or their stories often traveled across the country. John Henry was a steel-driving hammerman associated with the Big Bend railway tunnel in Summers County, WV, where there is a statue of him, but he also appears in other occupations and places, such as a cotton roller loading ships in Louisiana. The Bunyans by Audrey Wood and David Shannon (New York: Blue Sky/Scholastic, 1996) is a warm and colorful family saga in a picture book. It begins in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky with the meeting of Paul Bunyan and Carrie McIntie, who share equally with their five children in superhuman feats that create famous natural wonders from Niagara Falls to Old Faithful, from Europe to Mars.

Some tall tales are also called legends, since they are extraordinary stories associated with real people, places, or historical events. Davy Crockett was a real Tennessee frontier man who became the butt of jokes after his unlikely election to Congress, and he died at the Alamo. Scholars debate whether he wrote some of the tall tales attributed to him, or just claimed that he did. There are books for children and adults that are factual biographies of Crockett, and others that retell his amazing feats such as fighting Halley's Comet. Old ballads and work songs about John Henry may or may not have been based on a real person or incident.

Another type of tall tale depicts incredible things happening to ordinary people. There are liars' contests held by adults in Appalachia, and tall tales about growing gigantic vegetables or performing highly exaggerated feats of hunting or fishing. The Snake-Bit Hoe Handle is a preposterous story known around the country. Often the storyteller says his own hoe was so swollen after a snake bit it that he built a chicken coop or a house with the wood, but later the swelling went down, with disastrous or comical effects. May Justus incorporated this tale into realistic settings in at least two of her Smoky Mountain stories for children, with a new corn crib shrinking into a doghouse at the end. Catherine Peck (editor of A Treasury of North American Folktales, 1998) calls this "one of the many fantastic stories settlers told to exaggerate the size and scope of the American land and the creatures who inhabited it." Characters may try to take advantage of amazing acts of nature, but people can't always control what happens if they don't have the superhuman type of tall tale hero around. The Walking Catfish is a group of humorous tales about a catfish staying on land so long that it becomes like a pet, until it falls in the river and drowns. Many other folktales from Appalachia and elsewhere, such as Jack tales, are like tall tales when they contain exaggerated and humorous images and actions. Jack is an Everyman character, most often a small and humble trickster or fool who gets lucky and/or clever, receiving magical help from others. (More background on Jack Tales is found in many other AppLit pages).

Tall tales also overlap with other traditions of folklore and mythology when the tales contain pourquoi tale plot elements—stories about the origins of things. Tall tale heroes bring about creations of vast proportions, such as stirring up enough dust to make the Smoky Mountains smoky or creating a new constellation of stars (Swamp Angel), but Tony Beaver is also credited with inventing peanut butter and clothespins. Some of the best known Cherokee Tales from Appalachia and beyond, told in humorous and serious variants, with animal or human protagonists, explain the origins of the Milky Way, fire, corn, strawberries, and the opossum's bare tail. See Diagrams of Types of Folk Literature for a way of illustrating these overlapping types of tales.

While tall tales are so comical and illogical that they are sometimes enjoyed as absurdities, purely for fun, you can also point out their serious themes and historical connections. Like other culture heroes, tall tale characters sometimes combat hardship and injustice. (Or they may have no apparent motive, or more self-serving motives, such as winning a bet or contest—we can't use every folktale for character education.) The enduring story of John Henry obviously reflects the pride of working men and African Americans. He died after winning a contest with a steel-driving machine, a noble attempt to show that the coming of stronger machines would not displace human workers.

Although you may not be able to discuss the meaning of truth in depth with younger students, asking them to distinguish between realistic and exaggerated details should deepen their appreciation of the significance of all stories, not just hit them over the head with a moralistic lesson about fact vs. fantasy, or ruin their enjoyment of make-believe. Instead of insisting that fantastic tales aren't true, point out that they are truly an important and universal type of human expression. Tall tales and Jack tales are a real and valuable part of American history and culture. Much of their content is not real(istic), but they represent truths about human characteristics or experiences, even if they do so in exaggerated or fantastical forms. Tall tales in which humans depict their heroes as larger than a bear or a mountain, or strong enough to chop firewood for every house in West Virginia during a freezing winter, or lucky enough to hit a dozen animals with one bullet, reflect some very basic fears and desires about humans' relationships with nature and with each other. (This background section was written by Tina Hanlon.)

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Class Discussion

1. Exaggeration and Humor. While reading one or more examples of tall tales to the class, discuss which elements of the story are not real or true. List specific examples of exaggeration, such as "Jack was also starved when a black bull came up from the woods and told him to unscrew one horn to get bread to eat, and unscrew the other horn for milk" (Chase, "Jack and the Bull," Jack Tales, p. 22). Or "That night, Tarnation [a defeated bear] fed everyone in Tennessee, I can tell you. . . . You could hear waistcoat buttons popping as far away as Kentucky. The leftovers filled all the empty storehouses in Tennessee" (Isaacs and Zelinsky, Swamp Angel).

By noting the examples of exaggeration, students will develop a definition for tall tales, which will help them understand that no one is expected to believe a tall tale because the charm of the story lies in its being so impossible that it couldn't be believed. Students may want to collect or tell examples of tall tales with similar exaggerations.

How do the storytellers in tall tales often push us to believe the tales even though we laugh because we know their stories are too incredible to believe? Point out examples where the narrator claims to know the characters (e.g., at the end of many Jack tales) or makes jokes such as "every single word is true, unless it is false" (Rosalyn Schanzer, Davy Crockett Saves the World).

Let students compare their own responses on which details they find most humorous in the tales you discuss.

2. Plot Structure. Use the tall tales as models for students to explore and identify story elements that can be found in other types of literature. Have students read several tall tales on their own, or read to each other. Then they can explain examples of plot elements such as introduction (establishing place, setting characters), rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion. If you need to simplify this traditional model, use the words "beginning," "problem," and "solution" or "outcome." Write or diagram this conventional plot structure on the blackboard so you can circle terms or add notes as students provide examples. Or use the printable diagram from The Five Elements of a Story Lesson Plan.

Students who need more concrete representation of story elements might illustrate each element and place them in a sequence. Beware of complications that could arise with retellings that contain a series of portraits or anecdotes (as in The Bunyans), rather than a unified plot of conflict and resolution. Illustrations for the story may be drawn as a pre-writing activity.

3. Comparing Characters and Plots. Look more closely at characters and actions to see how Jack tales (or other tales you study) are different from typical tall tales. Before a discussion of differences, you might ask each student to write or outline a character sketch of one character, or make a drawing of that character (good preparation for writing their own tales as well). Some questions to consider:

4. Regional Details. Do your tales contain references to specific places? If not, are there details of landscape, climate, wildlife, plant life, or characters' occupations and customs that have a more general regional significance?

If you want to pursue this topic in more depth, you can bring in a little or a lot of the existing historical research on John Henry, Davy Crockett, Tony Beaver, or the origins of Chase's Jack tales and background on storytellers such as Ray and Orville Hicks. See AppLit's Background Resources.

Ask students what details they would include if they were setting one of the tales in their own community. This can be good preparation for using details of setting in their own tales.

5. Language. To reveal other regional and stylistic elements, ask students to compare examples of Appalachian speech with standard English. They will need to look at written copies of the tales, but sometimes dialect features are more noticeable to listeners when they hear a tale being told or read (on an audio recording, perhaps. Ray Hicks' 2001 book The Jack Tales comes with a CD, but this most famous North Carolina storyteller's voice can be hard to follow at first, so you would need some time for students to listen carefully to recordings like this. It can be fascinating once you get into the rhythm of listening to a new voice or dialect.) Have students look at written tales for spellings that indicate pronunciation, as well as regional vocabulary, nonstandard grammatical constructions and colorful or metaphorical regional expressions. Note that in some books (not in Chase's Jack Tales but in Swamp Angel, for example), the narration is in standard English while nonstandard dialect features appear in the dialogue. For more guidance and examples, see AppLit's Dialect section. Teaching Four "Jack" Books contains an exercise on illustrating the picturesque speech in a tale.

Encourage students to use their own conversational speech patterns in the tales they write. If they are clever enough to imitate the language patterns of a book they are reading, or perhaps use colorful expressions from older people they know—great. But if they lack the confidence to be that creative, or they have negative attitudes about trying to write their story in "bad English," ask them to stick to language that comes naturally to them when they tell a story to a friend. (And don't let them call anyone's native dialect bad or incorrect.)

6. More Themes. Depending on where earlier discussions have taken you and how much time you have, extend your discussions by asking students whether they agree with people who say tall tales are so silly, illogical and unbelievable that they are "just for fun." Consider any of the following questions:

Questions like these might be meaningful to discuss after students have written their own tales and shared them with the class. It should increase enjoyment, not spoil the fun, to debate some of these weightier issues.

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Writing a Tall Tale

See also 

Study Guides for Jack Tale Players

Students Write Jack Tales

Bibliographies of Appalachian Folktales

Complete List of AppLit Pages on Folklore

West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature (tall tales in Folk Heroes section)

Links checked 5/7/07   |   Top of page   |   This page's last update 8/19/13

Complete list of AppLit pages on Folklore

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