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Showing posts with label American Folktales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American Folktales. Show all posts


Tailypo! (1991)

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.


The Tailypo (1977)

Retold by Joanna Galdone

Illustrated by Paul Galdone

This is one of the great read-aloud spooky stories. It was first told to me by the mother of one of my neighbors who was down visiting. “Tom tells me you like stories,” she said, and it was a beautiful, sunny day – Earth Day I’m pretty sure it was – not a cloud in the sky.

“Yup, pretty much,” said I.

“When Tom was a kid I used to take him down to the Jonesborough Storytelling Festival…” she began.

“Hey, I’ve been there!” I said excitedly.

“…and his favorite was always the Tailypo .”

“The what?”

“You don’t know the Tailypo?” she asked, incredulous. “Well, there’s all different ways to tell it. There's a man in a cabin, and suddenly he’s attacked by this creature which moves so fast he can’t really see what it is. But he has an axe and he manages to cut off the creature’s tail. Then he boils it up and eats it.”


“And then, in the middle of the night,” she continued, drawing closer, “He hears a voice saying: I want my Tailypo. Tailypo, tailypo, I want my tailypo…” And her voice grew deeper by several octaves, throatier like a chain smoker. She was wearing these dark sunglasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes, but there was suddenly something about her that really invoked this creature. This sweet older lady, transformed before my eyes. “I want my Tailypo,” she continued. “Give me back my Tailypo!”

She kind of freaked me out.

It wasn’t until later that I found this version of the story, done by Paul Galdone and his daughter Joanna in the  seventies. It definitely does the tale justice.

There is really something about Paul Galdone, I cannot put my finger on it. I’ve felt it before. He has such a classic – dare I say, basic – way of telling a story. Very matter-of-fact. Like he’s just telling you the story the way he heard it with no elaboration. So, in a way, I almost put my guard down. But then there’s always an edge. He does not shy away from violence. I remember reading his version of Jack and the Beanstalk to Arlo once, and was slightly taken aback by the illustration of Jack triumphantly cutting the Giant’s head off (a la David and Goliath, it just now occurred to me! I love making connections like that!).

It was actually written by his daughter, Joanna Galdone. The back of the book tells us that she first heard the story from her grandfather (which is a great way to first hear a story). She set about researching its origins, and traced it to the backwoods of Tennessee.  It also says that Paul Galdone modeled the woodsman on a man who lived near him in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. Wow. Every artist should be so lucky.

The man in the story is old, with long white hair and a thick mustache and lambchops which cover the bottom half of his face. He goes out hunting and finds himself a rabbit with the help of his hunting hounds. But then just as he’s about to fall asleep all contented-like, what should he find but that “a most curious creature crept through a crack between the logs in the wall. It had a BIG, LONG, FURRY TAIL.”

Indeed, that’s all we see, just a nice, long furry tail. Probably soft to the touch. Nothing scary so far, though it is a bit intense to see that hunter immediately roused and carting an ax. He manages to cut off that tail and, still hungry, figures, why not,I’ll just boil it into a stew and eat it.

“Tailypo, tailypo, all I want is my tailypo,” comes the voice in the middle of the night. As I read it, I could hear that throaty voice of my friend’s mother.

This occurs three times - and three times - the old man hollers after his hounds to go chase away whatever it is. But the third time, the dogs do not return. Did they run off in fright? Or…

“You know and I know, all I want is my tailypo.”

Galdone finally reveals the creature at the very end of the book, or at least the top half of the creature. We see him peering over the foot of the bed. He has two, large yellow eyes, two furry ears. A hand with claws reaching up over the bed sheets.

“I haven’t got your tailypo!” screams the old man.

“Yes you have. Yes you have.”

Now there’s nothing left of the old man’s cabin in the deep, big woods except the chimney. But folks who live in the valley say that when the moon shines and the wind blows, you can hear a voice say:

‘Tailypo, tailypo
now I’ve got
my tailypo.’


Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (1986)

Jump!: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (Books for Young Readers)
Written by Joel Chandler Harris

Adapted by Van Dyke Parks and Malcolm Jones

Illustrated by Barry Moser

Watercolor and ink on Fabriano Classico
Text type set in Cochin by Thompson Type
Display type set in John Peters' Castellar
Designed by Joy Chu and Barry Moser

Harcourt Brace

"People will talk," begins the Storyteller's Note, "and as long as they do, they will tell each other stories."

This is the first volume of a trilogy of retellings of traditional Brer Rabbit stories, illustrated by the great Barry Moser and adapted by Van Dyke Parks and Malcolm Jones.  It includes:

The Comeuppance of Brer Wolf
Brer Fox Goes Hunting but Brer Rabbit Bags the Game
Brer Rabbit Finds His Match
Brer Rabbit Grossly Deceives Brer Fox
The Moon in the Millpond

Also included is the score of an original song written by Van Dyke Parks, "Hominy Grove."

Off the wall, wallflower.  Now the dance has begun.  It's our shining hour til all our dancin' is done.

In all three books, Barry Moser’s medium of choice is watercolor. His illustrations are the definition of jaunty. He pays great attention to their clothing – their top hats and suits which look like they were purchased a decade ago and sit in a dusty closet awaiting Sunday morning. I could easily imagine Woody Guthrie hitching his way through this Hominy Grove, on his way to an open box car.

The Storyteller's Note ends with:

Tempered by hardship and nourished by hope, these tales are a testament to the belief that no one can be wholly owned who does not wish it.

Please read Tales and Their Tellers 4: The Signifyin' Rabbit for more on this series of books.


John Henry (1994)

Retold by Julius Lester

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Pencil, colored pencils and watercolor

Typography by Jane Byers Bierhorst

Dial Books

Another gorgeous book by Pinkney and written by the great Julius Lester, who took great pains to find a new way of telling this story. He writes in his introduction that he found a great resonance between the characters of John Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr. He's uncertain as to what the connection is, precisely, but doing this book helped him explore the issue.

Lester went through several old stories and songs and lifted ideas and stanzas to fill in the details of John Henry's life. We begin with a birth sequence reminiscent of another famous birth in a stable in Bethlehem. In fact, the very first image is that of a shooting star.

Pinkney is an obvious lover of animals, and he fills the opening sequence with moose, bears, birds, mountain critters and forest dwellers of all size and shape and variety - even a unicorn I just now noticed - who have come to the home of the Henry family as they welcome into the world their uncommonly strong baby boy, lifting his cradle above his head.

"You have probably never heard of John Henry. Or maybe you heard about him but don't know the ins and out of his comings and goings. Well, that's why I'm going to tell you about him."

John Henry as a child
John Henry as a child.
John Henry grows into an adolescent almost instantaneously, and is seen the very next day out chopping trees and piling up lumber. He "helped his papa rebuild the porch he had busted through, added a wing onto the house with an indoor swimming pool and one of them jacutzis (sic). After lunch he chopped down an acre of trees and split them into fireplace logs and still had time for a nap before supper."

The day after that, John challenges Ferret-Faced Freddy to a race: Freddy on horseback, John on foot. I'm sure you can guess who the winner is.

Its as though John doesn't know what to do with his strength, and becomes a trickster of a kind. It's not until he meets the road crew that he finds his calling. With his two twenty-pound sledgehammers with four-foot handles made of whale bone, he breaks through a boulder which remained untouched after a dynamite explosion. As he swings his mighty hammers, he sings out:

I got a rainbow
Tied round my shoulder
It ain't gon' rain,
No, it ain't gon' rain.

John Henry stell driving man
"Let's have a contest!"
There seem to be a thousand variations to the John Henry legend, in terms of these early adventures. However, the climax is always the same. The steam drill.

"It can hammer faster and harder than ten men and it never has to stop and rest!"

"Let's have a contest. Your steam drill against me and my hammers."

Pinkney shows John towering over the boss man, his hammer slung across his shoulders. All the other workers look on in intense curiosity and admiration. What wonderful detail Pinkney has paid to their clothing: The boss man's derby and checkered pants, John's red kerchief and black vest. He clearly spent a great deal of time considering their clothing options of the day, and everything about it comes across as absolutely authentic.

The next day, the contest begins. The narrative relies more on the illustrations here than the text. All day and all night, the steam drill and John Henry attempt to finish first. Finally, the contest is over. "The boss of the steam drill was flabbergasted. John Henry had come a mile and a quarter. The steam drill had only come a quarter."

The victory is short-lived, however, as anyone who has ever heard the song will know. John Henry had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.

"Some say he was buried on the White House lawn late one night while the President and the Mrs. President was asleep."

More picture books based on American Folktales!

Shooting star above the White House
An omen above the White House.

Woody Guthrie sings the ballad of John Henry, recorded in 1944.

Julius Lester (1939 - )

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