Retold by Jan Wahl
Illustrated by Wil Clay
Twenty years later, the story of the fearsome Tailypo gets told again. If you recall, in my last entry, I reviewed the fearsome beast with the bushy tail as imagined by Joanna and Paul Galdone. The book mentioned that, in researching the story, Joanna had discovered that it had originated in Tennessee. I love details like that, and in this version by Jan Wahl and Wil Clay, we really delve deeper into that origin. This book seems firmly rooted in the lore of the Tennessee woods.
“Once way down in the big woods of Tennessee lived an old man all by himself in a cabin with one room and that was his parlor, his sitting room, his bedroom, his dining room, and his kitchen, too,” and there it all is, spread out before us, a hundred details showng us the life this man lives, in rich, warm tones. A roaring firplace casts warm shadows throughout, as the man enjoys his stew and the company of his hunting dogs.
“…and one night after he ate his supper there crept through the cracks in the logs a Creature with a great, big, long tail.” Although it is not a hairy tail, as Galdone imagined, but seems more reptilian in nature, as though this is some prehistoric monster haunting the Tennessee woods.
One bloody swing of the hatchet later, a little salt and a little pepper, an old man with a full stomach dozing contentedly, and we are able to enter the heart of the matter.
“Tailypo, tailypo. All I want is my tailypo.”
What I found most interesting about this version of the story was actually something I found on the back jacket flap.
“Here’s what the critics have said about Tailypo!” it announces clearly. This is a pretty standard element for picture books to have.
School Library Journal says, “…a scary and highly graphic accompaniment to his succinctly retold African-American tale.”
Kirkus infoms us that “…Clay provides dramatic double-spread painting for Wahl’s retelling of this scariest of African-American tales.”
The common element there, I couldn’t help but notice, is “African-American.”
In Galdone’s version, the unfortunate hunter is an old white man. In Wahl and Clay’s version here, he is an old black man.
Was Paul Galdone being disingenuous? Was he trying to whitewash a folktale from a particular group of people?
I tried to do a bit of research myself, and couldn’t find any mention of the Tailypo ever being specifically African-American in origin. So how then, could School Library Journal and Kirkus be so in-the-know? What do they know that I do not? And then it occurred to me, perhaps they ain’t. Maybe they’re just assuming that its an African-American folktale because… the main character in the story happens to be black?
If it had been a Chinese woman living in a cabin in the woods, would they have heaped praise on such a wonderful retelling of that old piece of Chinese mythology?
Race aside, this one does have a bit more grisly ending.
“I DON’T HAVE YOUR TAILYPO!” hollers the old man, running off in terror as the… thing… grabs him by the shirt tails of his longjohns. It now seems to resemble a Hoth wampa. The man’s limbs disappear in a tangle of white fur and claws.
“Yes, you have,” it says, and that is that.
Part of the power of this story is that we are so used to children’s picture books ending in some level of understanding. Like, it should turn out that the Tailypo was really just misunderstood. Or, at the very least, the old man should escape and live to tell the tale.
Not so, sweet children. Not so.