Behind The Story: Shutta Crum on WHO TOOK MY HAIRYTOE?

WHO TOOK MY HAIRY TOE? by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Katya Krenina (Albert Whitman, 2001). This just-scary-enough story of Old Tar Pockets is the perfect cautionary tale. Order a copy now, so you’ll have it handy for read aloud come Halloween. Ages 4-up. This interview was conducted via email in 2001.

What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

Who Took My Hairy Toe?As a children’s librarian I have done lots of storytimes for kids of all ages. I told versions of “The Hairy Toe” or “The Teeny Tiny Bone” for years. The endings never seemed to satisfy me.

Most versions of this story ended like a campfire tale. The teller either grabbed the person next to him or her and shouted, “You’ve got it!” or the monster simply came in the night and retrieved its toe or bone and disappeared. I felt this story was ripe for a better ending, and a better beginning. The story began with someone digging up a hairy toe. Usually there was no reason given for someone to do that. And then, why would anyone want to keep it?

I began to think that most of the stories my listeners liked best had some sort of justice handed out in the end, which happens a lot in folktales. In fact, G. K. Chesteron once said, “Children are innocent and prefer justice, while we (adults) are guilty and prefer mercy.” So I wanted a Hairy Toe with consequences and a reason for why someone would keep a hairy toe.

Also, I knew this story had its roots in the South and I was led naturally to think about other stories that have their roots there. I thought of the tar baby stories. Then I created Old Tar Pockets and the consequences he faces when he unearths a hairy toe and stuffs it into his pocket.

A fascinating thing about “The Hairy Toe” is the history of the story itself. It is a very old folktale with a long oral tradition. WHO TOOK MY HAIRY TOE? is my version of that folk tale that has passed from one person to another for hundreds of years.

Most folk tales have a long lineage, and one can see the resemblance of “The Hairy Toe” to other tales, such as the “Teeny Tiny Bone,” a British folk tale that may have come to America with early settlers.

Between 1935 and 1943, writers working for the Federal Writer’s Project recorded many folk tales. Writers talked to people in several states. They wrote down the life histories, customs, slave narratives, folklore, songs, and poems that they heard. Later, some of this material was published.

Walter McCanless, from Anson County, North Carolina, recorded a version of “The Hairy Toe” that he heard from his wife. She heard it during her childhood, in about 1882, from Dupris Knight, an African-American. This could mean that the story had found a home within the rich Southern storytelling traditions of African-Americans.

In 1949, “The Hairy Toe” appeared in an anthology by B. A. Botkin entitled A Treasury of Southern Folklore (Crown Publishers). Folklorist and anthologist M. A. Jagendorf also collected several versions of the tale. “The Tale of the Hairy Toe” is in his Folk Stories of the South (Vanguard Press, 1972). There, he mentions a similar tale he heard in Ohio called “Tailipoo”.

What I love about folklore is that people hear, change, make a tale their own, and then pass it on. Anyone can do that. Enjoy this tale. Make it your own. Pass it on. Let it live for hundreds of years more.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I started sending it out in May of 1998. I got a verbal offer over my answering machine in Dec. 1999, and the contracts in January 2000. So it took a little over a year and a half to sell. It was originally titled, OLD TAR POCKETS. I think I actually started writing it in the winter of 1997/98. It was published in Sept. 2001, actually fairly quickly.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The only problem that I remember distinctly about WTMHT was that when I first submitted it to Albert Whitman, it was a straight folk tale retelling. They responded that they didn’t usually do many of those—I was just starting out and still had some problems with pinpointing publishers then. But they did say that they had a line of holiday books, and would I be willing to rewrite OLD TAR POCKETS as a Halloween book.

Well, my mother’s children were all born with functioning brains—and of course I said, “Yes!” It really took very little to do that. There is the mention of “On All Hallow’s Eve” on the first page. A little further you’ll find, “He met his ruination one Halloween.” And then later, the monster runs out “into the October night.” Finally, “Now when ghosts and goblins haunt the hills….” That’s about all it took, then it was sold! My editor, Abby Levine, at Albert Whitman and Company was wonderful to work with.

The neat thing about WHO TOOK MY HAIRY TOE? is that it is perfect for young readers who want to be a little scared, but not too much! And the kids always ask; how did the monster lose his toe? That’s a question I’m not ready to ask the monster yet.