Collecting the tall tales of four American legends, Tall: Great American Folktales provides a full-color, visual entrypoint for young readers either just learning about these heroes or who are looking for more. Edited by Donald Lemke, each of the four stories is retold and illustrated by different authors and artists, so there is not much to tie them together except for the tall tale theme.
Leading off the anthology and prominently featured on the cover is “The Tall Tale of Paul Bunyan,” retold by Martin Powell and illustrated by Aaron Blecha. The story of the larger than life Bunyan quickly moves from his childhood origins in the woods to the adoption of his equally large blue ox to his exploits across the country. Some of these feats are almost given as a laundry list with few given a more expanded three or four page treatment in the 32-page story. Though the tale is brief, it gives an easy-to-digest introduction to Bunyan. The art is the brightest and most colorful of the anthology. Its cartoon-ish style complements the character well and makes it fun to read and especially kid-friendly.
In “Pecos Bill: Colossal Cowboy,” retold by Sean Tulien and illustrated by Lisa Weber, readers are introduced to the great American cowboy Pecos Bill. It starts off with a young Bill, nearly drowned in the Pecos River and raised by coyotes, before making a name for himself herding cows, taming mares, and wrangling tornadoes. As in the Paul Bunyan story, the accomplishments of Pecos Bill are quickly enumerated in a repetitive fashion. Another fine introduction to the character, but without much depth to the story. While Pecos Bill and others are characterized well in the art, it has a hazy quality to it that looks like a poor digital transfer, giving the overall story an amateur feel.
“John Henry: Hammerin’ Hero” brings readers the story of the legendary railroad worker as retold by Stephanie Peters and illustrated by Nelson Evergreen. Henry, born with a hammer in his hand and bigger than any baby the town had ever seen, uses his strength first working on a steamboat and then out west on the railroad. This tale doesn’t spend much time on his origin story and instead focuses on his signature, but ultimately tragic, feat — racing a steam-powered drill to see which of them can carve a mountain pass the fastest. The art for this story looks almost hand-painted, with a light touch and more subdued colors, giving this hero a majestic feel. This effect is marred somewhat by the look of the descriptive text and speech bubbles, which are consistent throughout the anthology, but do not mesh with this illustrator’s style.
The last story in the book, “The Legend of Johnny Appleseed” retold by Martin Powell and illustrated by Michelle LaMoreaux, is also the weakest. Appleseed’s tale briefly touches on his young life, before moving into a series of barely connected vignettes about his travels around the country planting apple trees. There is a lot of descriptive text telling, rather than showing, the story. The manga-inspired artwork is a strange choice for this American folk tale, and the illustrations, while colorful, lack depth. Overall, the panels feel static compared to the other stories presented in the book.
As with any anthology, the quality of the stories and art in Tall: Great American Folktales is uneven. The tales are quick to read and accessible for an elementary school audience, but probably do not have much reach beyond that. While this could be a sufficient addition to a folktale collection for young readers, there are more interesting introductions to these characters elsewhere like Steven Kellogg’s Johnny Appleseed and Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s John Henry.
Note also that each of these titles was previously released in 2010 as stand-alone books from the same publisher and appear to still be in print.
Tall: Great American Folktales
by Martin Powell, Sean Tulien and Stephanie Peters
Art by Aaron Blecha, Lisa K. Weber, Nelson Evergreen and Michelle LaMoreaux
Stone Arch Books, 2012