The story of Paul Bunyan is an American folktale. It may be more proper to say that the stories of Paul Bunyan are American folktales, because there are quite a few of them, sometimes gathered together into a single long story, but sometimes not.
Paul Bunyan is a folk hero among loggers (he made a brief reappearance among oil industry workers, too) who is bigger and stronger than anyone else. The stories told about him are silly and implausible, but always center around his amazing size and strength.
There are a number of excellent picture books about Paul Bunyan. Stephen Kellogg has done his usual great job with the story. Carol Ottolenghi and Esther Shephard are other good choices. Rabbit Ears has done a nice audio version. Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart, by Marybeth Lorbiecki, adds a heroine and an ecological message. Audrey Woods has done Bunyans (Scholastic Bookshelf), which imagines a family for Paul.
There are also a number of Paul Bunyan stories online:
- Animated Tall Tales has an animated readaloud story.
- American Folklore Net has a collection of Paul Bunyan tales.
- Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier by Larry Hammer is a modern Paul Bunyan tale to listen to. It seems to me that Hammer has kept very faithful to the feeling of the traditional tales, with some very modern humor. Older students will enjoy listening, and perhaps feel inspired to write their own.
- Another modern Paul Bunyan story, Paul Bunyan and the Great Poetry Contest, could lead to some interesting discussions about poetry, and how its quality can be judged.
Having heard some Paul Bunyan stories, have your class retell them or act them out. Here are some resources for puppet plays:
- Make a Babe the Blue Ox puppet with a paper bag and the pattern printed onto blue construction paper.
- I didn’t find a Paul Bunyan paper bag puppet to go with the Babe puppets, but I think that these patterns would work if you change the colors.
- Crafts for Kids has a different style of puppet for Paul and Babe, both in felt.
On to the cross-curricular connections:
- Education.com has a PDF download using the story to distinguish between fact and fiction.
- Enchanted Learning’s cloze exercise for the story is a quick comprehension check.
- Stories about Paul may first have been published in 1906, by newspaper reporter James McGillivray. During the first part of the 20th century, publicists for the logging industry used Paul Bunyan for promotional purposes. Some maintain that these were old stories, picked up for commercial use but originally from the lumbercamps, but others say they were just made up for the newspapers. Does that mean that Paul Bunyan isn’t real folklore? Discuss this in your class, and prepare a debate. You will want to make a clear definition of “folklore,” and perhaps to consider other examples of folktales — don’t forget Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, made up entirely by Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward department stores!
- Evan-Moor has included Paul Bunyan in their American Tall Tales (Evan-Moor) book from the Read and Understand series. The story is presented with reproducible comprehension and vocabulary pages as well as other reading skill work.
- The stories of Paul Bunyan take place in different locations. Paul was born in Maine, and then his family (needing more room) moved to Minnesota. From then on, people in different regions made up their own stories, like this one set in Oregon. Although we had both lumber camps and oil drilling in Arkansas, I’ve never found any stories of Paul Bunyan here. If your region has no Paul Bunyan stories, your students could fill that need by writing their own.
- Paul was a major flapjack fan, and of course he liked maple syrup. Take the opportunity to talk about natural resources and the path from raw materials to manufactured goods with this American product. This also gives you chance to talk about how climate affects available resources, how livelihood varies in different regions of the country — well, you’ve got 4th grade economics sewn up! Here is how maple syrup can be made at home. Finish your unit by making and eating pancakes — or make paper ones, stack them tall on a paper plate, and drizzle them with rubber cement. Stick a plastic picnic fork into them and let the rubber cement dry for a surprisingly realistic stack of pancakes with syrup!
- Fascinated by maple syrup? ThoughtCo has a collection of printable worksheets on the subject.
- The obvious math connection for “Paul Bunyan” is size. When you make paper pancakes (see above), make them in different sizes and have the little mathematicians stack them from largest to smallest. Read all the Paul Bunyan books and try to determine Paul’s actual size. Since some say he is seven feet tall and others say he combed his beard with a pine tree, it might be hard to decide.
- Measurement is another obvious math connection. 42 axe handles and a plug of tobacco could fit between Babe the Blue Ox’s eyes. How big was Babe? You could bring in an axe, for added excitement, or just mention that an axe handle was traditionally 12 inches long. Maybe it was the width rather than the length of the axe handle? Try out some of the other nonstandard measurements mentioned in the stories.
- The Paul Bunyan tales are full of numbers. Five storks delivered Paul to his parents, Paul’s parents had to milk two dozen cows every morning, the river spat five thousand nineteen gallons of water onto Paul’s beard. Practice making word problems with all these figures. Divide the class into teams and let each side make problems for the opposing team. Then have an Arithmetic Bee, then way they did in the old days. In Paul Bunyan’s day, in fact, Arithmetic Bees were a popular community event, although Paul doesn’t seem to have gone to any.
- Pancake math is a collection of links to fun ideas across grade levels.
- There is a lot of talk about the seasons and the temperature in Paul Bunyan stories. If you read that it is 68 degrees below zero and all the lantern flames freeze, it can be a great time to pull out some thermometers and get a clearer mental image of what that might mean.
- Paul Bunyan and his friends were very resourceful about solving problems, but were their solutions realistic? Have students design a test for one of Paul’s exploits, in the style of TV’s “Mythbusters,” for a fun look at how to test a hypothesis.
- Paul Bunyan’s exploits would not now be considered good land management or a wise use of resources. A page from a 1921 Wisconsin newspaper describes wholesale clearing of land and killing of deer very cheerfully. In fact, the article was written for the purpose of encouraging local farmers to clear more land. Compare this attitude with our modern views. Would Paul still be a hero today?
- Listen to “Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier” and use it is a starting point for making tall tales using modern technology.
- Benjamin Britten did an operetta of the story, with words by W. H Auden. Both Britten and Auden deserve to be studied more than they are, so why not throw this little-known work into the classroom? It was composed in 1941, and is available on CD for background music during Paul Bunyan projects or for directed listening. Here’s a page of the score. This piece was intended for high school performances, but is not often done. Maybe your school is ready for it?
- One of the things Paul Bunyan was most admired for was his skill at problem-solving. Identify problems in his stories and find his solutions. Make a chart of the problems and solutions. Make up some more problems for Paul to face, and imagine some new solutions in the style of Paul Bunyan.
- The stories of Paul Bunyan might have sprung up in the lumber camps of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where life was hard. Here is a lesson plan on life in the Wisconsin lumber camps which examines some of the hardships of that life. How might stories of a problem-solver with the determination of Paul Bunyan have encouraged people living under these conditions?