culture, folktales

Book List: American Folktales

Jackrabbit McCabe and the Electric Telegraph (Schwartz & Wade)
Written by Lucy Margaret Rozier
Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

For ages: 4-8
Jackrabbit McCabe is the fastest person in Windy Flats and has become a town icon. One of his essential tasks in the community is delivering messages quickly and across long distances. Unfortunately, that is endangered when the new-fangled electric telegraph comes to town. The illustrations here are top-notch, resembling retro Disney animation from the 1950s. They are partnered with a story that touches on the ever-present fear in modern life of workers losing their jobs because of expanding technology. It also introduces children to the beginnings of what would become the telecom industry. It could provide a great start to an Industrial Revolution unit.

John Henry (Puffin Books)
Written by Julius Lester
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

For ages: 4-8
John Henry is an American classic, following the same themes as our previous book. Here he was, another battle of man vs. machine but this time set against the expanding railroad system. This is the complete version of the steel-driving man’s journey, taking in more tales of Henry that don’t often get retold. We follow John from his childhood through his coming of age and then the classic battle with the steam drill. This book is a product of Black artists Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney, who deliver a version of the story that touches on the beauty of Black masculinity. The vast majority of American superheroes are white men, which can leave Black children feeling without representation. John Henry shows them they, too, can have fantastical heroes doing extraordinary things.

Dona Flor: A Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart (Dragonfly Books)
Written by Pat Mora
Illustrated by Raul Colón

For ages: 4-8
Due to being populated with so many Mexican communities for centuries, the American Southwest is full of stories pulled from their culture. Dona Flor is a young woman born a giant. At first, this draws ridicule and bullying from the other children, but when they see what she is capable of, Dona Flor becomes a town hero. She became renowned for making tortillas so large that people could use them as roofs when needed. She also speaks every language, including animals, which proves helpful when an ornery puma begins plaguing the village. This is a wonderfully told story about a Mexican Paul Bunyan and illustrated to match. The pictures here feel fluid and satisfyingly full and round, with earthy tones and lush, beautiful accents and touches. This presents a great introduction to many cultural areas and addresses bullying.

Swamp Angel (Puffin Books)
Written by Anne Isaacs
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

For ages: 4-8
This book feels like a transformation of the Dona Flor story but imported to the hills of Tennessee. Angela Longrider is larger than life in many ways and achieves impressive feats from a young age. She builds a cabin when she’s two years old and even wrestles a bear that’s plaguing her community. All of Angela’s adventures result in explanations for various landforms across the United States. The art is an exceptional stand-out here. Paul Zelinsky uses a style reminiscent of American primitive art, the kind seen in prints or sewing projects featuring landscapes of the Appalachians and rural environs the artist’s lived in. That style choice adds so much atmosphere to this book, providing a sense of place that often gets lost in more generically illustrated children’s books.

The Talking Eggs (Dial Books for Young Readers)
Written by Robert D. San Souci
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

For ages: 4-8
In this adaptation of a Creole folktale, we meet Blanche. She’s a Cinderella archetype, a kind girl burdened with chores, while her older sister Rose is mean and sneaky. These traits have been inherited from their mother, a person who shows that not everyone makes for a good parent. Blanche’s kindness to an aged “auntie” she meets while on an errand pays off in dividends. The artwork here is done by the master, Jerry Pinkney, a painter who has done magic with watercolors in some magnificent picture books of the past six decades. Those looking for an interesting variation on the Cinderella story will find a great piece to work into lessons on comparison and contrast with other versions.

Thunder Rose (HMH Books for Young Readers)
Written by Jerdine Nolan
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

For ages: 4-8
Much like the other folk heroes of the American Southwest, Thunder Rose is a rooting-tooting roughrider who does fantastic things. Like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill, she’s been doing impressive things from birth. Her name comes from the night of her birth, where after being named Rose, she turns into a ball of lightning and blasts through the roof. She may be small, but she packs a bunch, especially when she takes on two tornadoes and lassoes them into storm clouds. The people are thankful for the water. One element that elevates this book above many folk tales is how reflective Rose is; she thinks a lot about who she is and what she should use her powerful skills to do.

The Tailypo (HMH Books for Young Readers)
Written by Paul and Joanna C. Galdone
Illustrated by Paul Galdone

For ages: 5-9
This is the spookiest tale on this list and a familiar one for those who grew up loving campfire ghost stories. An old man goes hunting in the woods around his home in the Appalachians. After striking out and returning home with a rumbling stomach, the old man strikes out a strange tiny creature that sneaks into his house. He can only get the tail but cooks it up and eats it. That night the creature returns and begins scratching away, inching closer and constantly calling out, “Tailypo, tailypo, all I want is my tailypo.” This isn’t for all kids, but the ones who love those jumpscare stories will be begging to hear this story repeatedly.

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