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Rural Missouri Magazine
Tall Tales


Dannel Roberts stretches childhood memories
into fanciful stories for children

by Bob McEowen

Dannel Roberts tells one of his tall tales to children in a second grade class at Blair Oaks Elementary School in Wardsville. Dannel’s son Elijah, a student in the class, is the model for the narrator’s character in the “Me and Uncle Mike” books.

If the stories in the four “Me and Uncle Mike” children’s books he’s published are any indication, Dannel Roberts had an extremely exciting childhood.

Readers of the books find Dannel and his brother Mike earning the admiration of the people of Boston — and a fine tea party to boot — by capturing a pirate ship and its band of thieves. The boys battle a crocodile and outsmart a renegade goat who guards a bridge in the tradition of Billy Goat Gruff. They even create the first polar bear when they defeat a marauding grizzly and pull his insides out. Grizzlies are white on the inside, you know.

Of course, the real Dannel and Mike did none of these things growing up near Lancaster. But their real life adventures were exciting enough to fascinate Dannel’s four children as he told stories in the living room of their home near St. Thomas.

“Sitting right here on the couch I would tell stories that really happened,” Dannel says. “I noticed that they liked stories I told more than any book that I’d read to them.”

Because the children know Dannel’s brother as their uncle Mike, each story began with “me and Uncle Mike.” While Dannel sometimes based his stories on real events others were pure fiction. All of them he embellished, adding a few jokes and the occasional tall tale. When Mike heard the stories he encouraged his brother to publish them. With the idea of funding his children’s education, Dannel agreed as long as the two did it together.

In 1998 Dannel and Mike mortgaged their houses, hired an illustrator and formed their own company, Lions, Tigers and Bears Publications. With “Me and Uncle Mike and the 1-Eyed Croc” which was released in November, the company now offers four titles and more are planned.

In "Me and Uncle Mike and the Pirate Ship," the second book in the series, the narrator and his brother defeat a band of pirates and capture their ship.

Each book begins: “Back when I was a kid, one of my best friends was Uncle Mike . . . ” Each tells a fabulous tale of the two boys saving the day. Uncle Mike always pulls a fast one to get the better of “me” but in every case the narrator accomplishes an impossible feat to emerge the hero. Along the way children reading the book learn some fanciful facts that, of course, are not true. Finally, all the “Me and Uncle Mike” books conclude with a caution to not believe everything you hear.

In “Me and Uncle Mike and the 3-Toed Bear” the boys are called on to rid Montana of a terrible grizzly that developed a taste for milk cows. When all the best hunters fail to capture the bear “Me and Uncle Mike” set out to track the animal.

They follow the bear for 26 miles across a mile-wide river and over the top of Mount Everest. After two hours of hard tracking they find their prey. Their slingshots only wake the ferocious bear and the two must flee for their lives. At the very last second “me” remembers “the old Osage Indian inside-out bear trick,” reaches his hand down the animal’s throat and pulls its tail out his mouth, revealing the white fur inside.

If that story isn’t tall enough, the startled bear runs all the way to Alaska and starts a family. Later a lost Christopher Columbus arrives asking for directions. When the explorer asks about the white bears he’s told they are “puller” bears. He hears polar bears and the rest is history.

It’s a ridiculous tale but entertaining every step of the way. “You watch the kids when you read these stories and they’re mesmerized,” the Three Rivers Electric Cooperative member says.

While the first book was a hit with nearly everyone who read it, Dannel and Mike’s enterprise was not an immediate success. They convinced on-line bookseller Amazon.com to carry the title but sales were disappointing. “If nobody’s heard of you they don’t buy,” says Dannel, who designs computer software when not telling tall tales.

Dannel found greater success through book signing appearances in stores and by reading to children in area schools.

“Knowing nothing about the book industry we sold a couple thousand books,” he says. “That may not seem like many but we’ve learned a lot.”

After nearly three years learning the business, the brothers published three more books in the past year, each illustrated by a different artist. Like the first installment, the new books contain exploits that would make Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill proud.

In an illustration by Brenda Nichols from “Me and Uncle Mike and Billy Goat Bob” the boys borrow a disguise from a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

While the original illustrator’s children served as models for the adventuresome siblings in the first book, the newer episodes feature likenesses of Dannel’s own boys, Elijah and Caleb. Other members of the Roberts family — including Dannel and his brother Mike — make appearances as well.

Each of the books contains subtle references and details that are easily overlooked. “Me and Uncle Mike and the Pirate Ship” is ripe with references to rock music while “Me and Uncle Mike and Billy Goat Bob” has a tiny mouse that appears every time the goat is shown and an even tinier green snake which pursues the mouse. Every book includes the phrase “Show me” in honor of Missouri and the exclamation “Oh my!” a reference to Lions, Tigers and Bears Publications.

“Even adults don’t see everything in there until they read them three or four times,” Dannel says.
Dannel’s hope is that parents will read the books over and over again. In particular, he says, he’d like dads to read to their kids. “If Dad likes to read them, guess what? Dad will read more to them.”

Dannel says the rough and tumble Ozarks style of his stories should appeal to dads and kids alike. If what he’s hearing from parents is true, his approach is working.

One parent told Dannel their son liked reading “Me and Uncle Mike and the 3-toed Bear” at the doctor’s office so much the child would feign sickness just to spend time in the waiting room. The parents bought a copy of the book but eventually tired of reading it. When they hid the book away in a closet the child went to the library and checked it out himself.

While that may sound like another of Dannel’s tall tales he swears it’s true. Of course he says the same thing about the puller bears.

In any case, Dannel seems to have found a market for his homespun tales of adventure. While he’s yet to turn a profit he’s sure he will.

“These stories have some kind of magic. I don’t know what it is but people like them,” he says.

Excerpts from the books can be found on-line at www.meandunclemike.com. Order the Me and Uncle Mike Adventure Series from your local bookseller, the Web site or call 1-866-628-6463.

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