Folktales are priceless additions to any classroom or home library. Folktales demonstrate the power of myth and of storytelling, and add a deeper historical understanding of the land from which the folktale springs. Two wonderful American folktales are the stories of Pecos Bill and John Henry.
Kellogg’s beautifully illustrated story retells the tale of Pecos Bill, raised by coyotes in Texas. It recounts his run-ins with a huge rattlesnake, an odd monster, outlaws and Lightning, the Widow-maker. It ends with the establishment of a unique ranch, the courting of Slewfoot Sue and Bill’s reunion with his family.
This highly entertaining tale introduces the concept of a tall-tale and a folk hero. The illustrations add a great deal to the story, building upon and further explaining the text.
Literacy instruction about understanding inferences would be appropriate as the illustrations help illuminate difficult concepts in the text. For example, any child not understanding the concept “widow-maker” is presented with an illustration of the tombstones of men who tried to ride Lightning. The text offers the opportunity to discuss regional differences in language use. The literary classification of folktale can be introduced along with creative thinking. Children could be asked, “If you were Pecos Bill what would you do with your rattlesnake lasso?” This text would be a fun addition to a unit on Texas or the West in general.
John Henry, the great African-American railroad hero, is presented with a lyrical, nearly poetic manner in Keat’s richly illustrated book. The rhythm of the writing evokes the rhythm needed for hard, repetitive physical labor. The great pride of a man who thought his muscle could beat the machine is a timeless tale.
This book would be a wonderful addition to a unit on Westward Expansion. The story of the railroad itself is a story of technology over pure human endeavor. Questions about the need for railroads and discussions of mechanization are introduced to even the youngest listener.
Creating Folktales and Myths
Folktales are a rich resource for teachers. These magic stories have been passed down through the years because they embody humor as well as truths. Children could be invited to write and illustrate their own folktales. A comparison of American folktales and those of other nations would be a fun way to begin to discuss other cultures as well.
Keats, E. J. John Henry: An American legend. New York: Scholastic, 1965.
Kellogg, S. Pecos Bill. New York: Scholastic, 1986.
This article was originally published July 11, 2010 on Suite 101.com (link.)