Crookjaw by Caron Lee Cohen and Linda Bronson

Cover of "Crookjaw" by Caron Lee CohenCohen, Caron Lee. Crookjaw. Illustrated by Linda Bronson. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Plot:  Ichabod Paddock is one of the finest sailors and whalers in all of New England, but he meets his match in the enormous whale, Crookjaw. Lured into the whale’s belly by enchanting singing, Ichabod’s encounter with a mysterious lady leads to some odd adventures. Meanwhile, his wife, Smilinda, sets out to find her lost husband.

Setting: Historic Nantucket Island

Point of View: 3rd person

Theme: Folklore, New England, whales, fishing, whaling, sailing, sailors, witches, adventure, Nantucket

Literary Quality: Vibrant narration and illustrations bring this quirky folktale to life. The story begins, “The day Ichabod Paddock was born, he took his pappy’s harpoon for a teething ring. That afternoon he dove into Nantucket Sound. He swam, slick as an eel in a barrel of jellyfish. He swung his teething ring and caught his first killer whale.” Cohen brings humor to light with her awareness of sounds and her characters’ bubbling dialect. Lines like, “Day in and day out Crookjaw ranted and raved, crashed and splashed,” Ichabod’s assertion that “Sure as eggs is eggs, that whale is spellbound,” and the witch’s song “Ichabod, Ichabod, awooooomi, wooooooo, Awooooooo, awooooooo, shshshshshshsh, awooooooo,” make this book a perfect read-aloud.  Linda Bronson’s rich oil paintings on wood boards maintain the whimsy, colors, and nautical nature of the text. Together, words and pictures highlight the joy and adventure in what is traditionally a rather dark tale, but the themes of dangers at sea, a sailor’s loyalty, and the gendered dimensions of power still lurk just beneath surface. A fine adaptation, this picture book is a welcome addition to collections of better known tall tales.

Cultural authenticity: An author’s note from Cohen gives a brief history of whaling, superstitions surrounding the dangers at sea, and traditions of witches in New England. She also includes a discussion of the more recent history, developments, and laws regulating and banning the whaling industry. The story itself includes most of the main elements that can be found in older versions of the tale: Captain Paddock, Crookjaw, the witch in the whale belly, a card game, the wife’s gift of a silver harpoon and the reason behind the silver. Some differences (for example: a man or devil who is also in the whale’s belly, the role of a father-in-law, and the inclusion of the red shoes in this version) are perfectly excusable in the tradition of folklore and adaptations, and as Cohen notes, the red shoes are consistent with other New England folktales.

Audience: Ages 4-9. A good book for a fun read-aloud or as part of a folklore unit in classrooms.

Personal reaction: I discovered the tale of Crookjaw during a storytelling class I took in 2011. After choosing and adapting the story to tell to my classmates, I tracked down as many versions of the folktale as I could find, and was thrilled to come across this picture book. Having spent many summers on Nantucket, the story’s setting and history are near and dear to my heart, but truly this is a book for anyone who enjoys stories of adventure, sea life, monsters, or witches. In my opinion, Captain Paddock and Crookjaw deserve more attention than they’ve received since at least the second half of the twentieth century, and a better recognized spot in the treasury of American tall tale figures!


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