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Interviewing Paul Bunyan with David L. Harrison

by David L. Harrison
 | Jun 28, 2012
Paul Bunyan is a mythical character who may or may not have sprung from earlier stories inspired by real lumberjacks who once lived in eastern Canada and northeastern United States. In PAUL BUNYAN, MY STORY, I had to decide which among the nearly endless tall tales told about Paul I would include in the book. I only scratched the surface!

June 28th is Paul Bunyan Day. It’s a good time for students to become better acquainted with Paul and his pals, learn some history, and practice writing skills. I suggest beginning with an interview. You’ll need the following characters: Mama Bunyan, Papa Bunyan, Baby Paul, Adult Paul, Babe the Blue Ox, Sourdough Sam the Cook, and the interviewer(s).

Provide each cast member with a question the interviewer will ask and a prop (doesn’t need to be much) that helps them identify with their character. After the characters have had time to read and decide on their answers, let the interviewing begin. Here are examples of how the exchanges might go.

Q: Mama Bunyan, when did you first know that your new baby was going to be so big?
A: I knew when it took five storks to deliver him instead of the usual one.

Q: Papa Bunyan, how big was your baby son?
A: Three hours after he was born he already weighed 80 pounds. In a week he was wearing my clothes.

Q: Baby Paul, were you too big for a baby buggy?
A: Nope. My buggy was a wagon. It took two oxen to pull me.

Are these fibs really meant to fool anyone? No. Tall tales told about a fictional character fall under the category of folktales. Paul Bunyan is a folk hero. His character depends on lots and lots of folktales that people have been making up about him for nearly one hundred years!

Now that your students have had fun getting into the spirit of Paul Bunyan, it’s time for them to write a few tall tales of their own! Begin by listing your characters on the board (Mama, Papa, Paul, and so on) and brainstorming at least one question (prompt) for each so that your kids will have plenty of choices.
  • Sourdough Sam, what did you put in your pancakes for all those hungry lumberjacks?
  • Babe, describe how cold it was the day you fell in the lake when you were a calf.
  • Paul, what do you like to eat for lunch?
Work out one or two responses on the board until your kids get the hang of it. Remind them that tall tales are usually outrageous exaggerations! (Hint: No telling what Sam put into those pancakes or how much of it!) Next, choose a new prompt and ask everyone to work on it independently. Sharing tales through read alouds reinforces the concept.

Soon, your students will be writing a brand-new Paul Bunyan book! In the process, they will have practiced their skills in interviewing, reading, listening as writers, learning the difference between untruths and tall tales, exercising their imaginations, and writing new material that fits with existing patterns (that is, the Paul Bunyan myths from the North Woods).

Thanks, Paul!

David Harrison has published 80 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for children. As Poet Laureate for Drury University he writes and hosts This Week with David Harrison, an ongoing podcast series of writing tips for use in elementary classrooms. David lives in Springfield, Missouri with his wife, Sandy, a former high school counselor.

© 2012 David L. Harrison. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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