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New York's Bravest

Written by Mary Pope OsborneAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mary Pope Osborne
Illustrated by Steve JohnsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Steve Johnson and Lou FancherAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lou Fancher

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In the 1840s, there was a real vounteer firefighter named Mose Humphreys whose bravery was reknown throughout New York City. Plays about him began being performed on Broadway in 1848 and over the years his strength and heroics took on larger-than-life proportions, much like those of Paul Bunyan. Mary Pope Osborne has honed down the legends about him to a brief, dramatic, sometimes comical, but ultimately moving text of picture book length. Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher’s stunning paintings capture this 8-foot-tall superhero rushing into burning buildings, saving babies and bankers, and wolfing down the feasts bestowed upon him by the grateful citizens of old New York–until the one big hotel fire after which he was never seen again. The author has included a historical note about the origins of this tall tale, and the book is dedicated to the 343 New York City firefighters who gave their lives to save others on September 11, 2001.

Mary Pope Osborne included a longer, different version of this legend in her distinguished collection American Tall Tales.
Mary Pope Osborne|Steve Johnson|Lou Fancher

About Mary Pope Osborne

Mary Pope Osborne - New York's Bravest

Photo © Paul Coughlin

“I’m one of those very lucky people who absolutely loves what they do for a living. There is no career better suited to my eccentricities, strengths, and passions than that of a children’s book author.”—Mary Pope Osborne

Mary Pope Osborne is the author of the popular Magic Tree House series. She works with her husband Will and her sister Natalie on the nonfiction companion series, Magic Tree House Research Guides. Many of her books have been named to best-books lists.


“I grew up in the military. By the time I was 15, I had lived in Oklahoma, Austria, Florida, and four different army posts in Virginia and North Carolina. Moving was never traumatic for me, but staying in one place was. When my dad finally retired to a small town in North Carolina, I nearly went crazy with boredom. I craved the adventure and changing scenery of our military life. Miraculously, one day I found these things, literally only a block away—at the local community theater. From then on, I spent nearly every waking hour after school there.

“After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 1970s, I lived an intensely varied life. For a while I camped in a cave on the island of Crete. Then I joined up with a small band of European young people heading to ‘The East.’ We traveled through 11 Asian countries and nearly lost our lives, first in an earthquake in northern Afghanistan and then in a riot in Kabul. My trip came to an abrupt halt in Katmandu when I got blood poisoning. During the two weeks I spent in a missionary hospital there, I read all of the Tolkien trilogy. To this day, my journey to ‘The East’ is tangled up in my mind with Frodo’s adventures.

“After I returned home and recovered from my illness, I promptly headed back into the real world. I worked as a window dresser, as a medical assistant, and as a Russian travel consultant. One night I attended the opening of a musical about Jesse James. From the balcony, I fell in love with Will Osborne, the actor/musician playing Jesse. I loved his boots and his white cowboy hat; I loved how he sang and strummed the guitar. A year later, in New York City, we were married.

“Thereafter, when I wasn’t on the road with Will, I worked as a waitress, taught acting classes in a nursing home, was a bartender, and had a job as an assistant editor for a children’s magazine.

“Then one day, out of the blue, I began writing a story about an 11-year-old girl in the South. The girl was a lot like me, and many of the incidents in the story were similar to happenings in my childhood. The first draft was crudely written, but it must have communicated something to an editor, because shortly after I finished, it became a young adult novel called Run, Run Fast as You Can. Finally, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

"Now 24 years and 80 books later, I think I’m one of the most fortunate people on earth. Whenever I work on a book, I feel as if I’ve traveled to some amazing place in the world. Writing Tales from the Odyssey, I sailed with Odysseus through the ancient Greek world. Working on the Spider Kane Mysteries, I spent time in an abandoned cottage garden with a group of nutty and wonderful insects. Working on my novel Haunted Waters, I lived in a haunted castle with a sea spirit. While working on my new picture book, Pompeii: Lost and Found, I felt as if I myself were excavating an ancient Roman city. And of course, with my Magic Tree House series, I take daily journeys with Jack and Annie to different times and places, from the prehistoric world of dinosaurs to the world of Camelot. Though there are 36 books of fiction and 13 non-fiction books in the Magic Tree House series now, I don’t think I’ll ever run out of places to travel to in my imagination.

"The Magic Tree House has also whisked me to schools all over the country, and the contact I now have with millions of readers has brought overwhelming joy into my life. I love the letters I get and I love reading the countless Magic Tree House stories that children themselves have written. I feel as if my readers and I are all exploring the creative process together, using our imaginations and writing skills to take us wherever we want to go. This, I tell my small fellow authors, is true magic."


We passed an old dilapidated tree house . . .

I spent a year trying different ways to get two kids back in time. I tried an enchanted cellar with magic whistles, an enchanted museum, and an enchanted artist’s studio. I wrote seven different manuscripts using different magical devices and nothing worked. Then on a walk in the country with my husband, we passed an old dilapidated tree house. We started talking about the tree house . . . and continued talking about it. The next day I tried writing about it—to see if it might possibly be magic. And it was.

I’m aching to hang out with penguins . . .

My stories always coincide with my personal interests, which seem fairly unlimited at this point. I find that the more you learn, the more you want to learn. I want to take Jack and Annie to Antarctica. I’m aching to hang out with penguins.

They started dreaming me up . . .

At first I just dreamed Jack and Annie up. They seem so happy and complete. I don’t want to subject them to the awful peer pressure that comes with growing older. They’d probably start hanging around the mall instead of climbing into the tree house.

My brothers and I had great adventures on our bikes and in the woods and on the beach where we lived. We felt as though we’d been to far distant worlds by the time we came home—adventures we happily kept to ourselves. I want kids to live through Jack and Annie’s independent journeys as well as their own!

It’s harmonious teamwork . . .

My editor has had an incalculable impact on these books. She has worked on all [the] books to date, and has been a great inspiration and guide. The series has a wonderful illustrator, Sal Murdocca. Sal researches the illustrations himself, and he’s very flexible and open to my ideas. The series’ designer and editor also have input into the art. It’s harmonious teamwork.


I’m a creature of constant change . . .

No two days of writing for the last 20 odd years have been the same. I write at every time of the day. I carry my laptop to every part of the house—or to places outside the house. I’m a creature of constant change. I do a lot of research before I start writing, but I do a great deal more after I start writing, as I confront more and more questions about the subject matter.

I’m living an extraordinary life . . .

The best part of being a writer is being transported to other places and living other experiences. By surrounding myself with the smells, weather, animals, and people of imaginary landscapes, I feel as if I’m living an extraordinary life. The worst part of being a writer is not having enough time or energy to write all the things I want to write.

I started writing poetry in high school . . .

I was living in North Carolina and I loved the work of Thomas Wolfe. Not until my late twenties did I have any idea I could be a writer. I only knew that I loved living in my imagination, and that no matter what job I was doing, my mind and thoughts were elsewhere. I was ready to settle for being a professional daydreamer.

I’ve had too many favorite authors to list . . .

As a child, I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In my teen years: Thomas Wolfe, J. D. Salinger, Hermann Hesse, and Jack Kerouac. In my twenties: Tolstoy, Nabokov, E. B. White, and Colette. Since then I’ve had too many to list. The Little Princess, The Three Ugly Sisters, and Big Farmer Big were my favorite books.

To aspiring writers:

Write, write, write. Always try to have fun and at the same time always do the hard work of rewriting.

Mary Pope Osborne is the author of many highly acclaimed books for children and young adults, including novels, picture books, biographies, mysteries, and retellings of fairy tales, myths, and tall tales. She has completed two terms as president of the Author’s Guild, the leading organization for professional writers in the United States.



“Mary Pope Osborne provides nicely paced excitement for young readers, and there’s just enough information mixed in so that children will take away some historical fact along with a sense of accomplishment at having completed a chapter book.”—Children’s Literature on the Magic Tree House series

“A rousing adventure tale filled with dancing fairies, white stags, and hideous beasts.”—School Library Journal on Christmas in Camelot


—A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
—A Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book
—An NCSS–CBC Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies
—An ABC Children’s Booksellers’ Choice Award


—An American Bookseller Pick of the Lists
—A Parents Magazine Best Book of the Year


—An Edgar Award Nominee for Best Juvenile Mystery


—A Parents’ Choice Story Book Honor
—A Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Book of the Year

The Ways We Worship

—An Orbis Pictus Honor Book, National Council of Teachers of English

About Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson - New York's Bravest
Steve Johnson lives in Minneapolis, MN.

About Lou Fancher

Lou Fancher - New York's Bravest
Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher have collaborated on many award-winning and bestselling picture books, including Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou.  Steve and Lou live in Moraga, California, with their son, Nicholas. Visit their website at www.johnsonandfancher.com
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


featuring New York's Bravest, American Tall Tales, and John Henry: An American Legend

The tall tale is a distinctly American story form that celebrates an ordinary citizen’s ability to overcome obstacles. Of course, the heroes of tall tales are anything but ordinary, and therein lies the fun and charm of the stories.

This guide, for grades 2-6, uses several outstanding books of tall tales to explore the genre and to discover the American character in activities across the curriculum.


New York’s Bravest
Beloved author Mary Pope Osborne adds her own two cents to introduce young children to the legendary Mose Humphreys, the 19th-century New York City firefighter who was eight feet tall and able to swim the Hudson River in two strokes.

American Tall Tales
Meet America’s first folk heroes in these nine wildly exaggerated and downright funny stories. In the tradition of the original 19th-century storytellers, Mary Pope Osborne combines, edits, and also supplies fascinating historical headnotes.

John Henry: An American Legend

This tall tale is another celebrated work by Caldecott Medalist, Ezra Jack Keats.
*“The heroic figure of John Henry is captured in a simple rhythmic picture book. Dramatic pictures with large bold figures express the feeling of this tall tale.”–Starred, School Library Journal


Mary Pope Osborne is the author of many highly acclaimed books for children and young adults, including the Magic Tree House series, which has sold over 12 million copies, and One World, Many Religions, an Orbis Pictus Honor Book. She lives in New York City and Connecticut with her husband, Will.

Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher have collaborated on a number of notable children’s books, including My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer, The Frog Prince Continued by John Scieszka, Bambi retold by Janet Schulman, and Robin’s Room by Margaret Wise Brown. Steve and Lou live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with their son, Nicholas.

Michael McCurdy has designed and illustrated many books, including The Owl-Scatterer, a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 1986. He has also written books for young readers, including Hannah’s Farm: Seasons on an Early American Homestead. Mr. McCurdy lives with his wife, Deborah, and their two children on an old farm in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts.

Ezra Jack Keats long crossed social boundaries by being the first American picture-book maker to give the black child a central place in children’s literature. He illustrated over 85 books for children, and wrote and illustrated 24 children’s classics. He received the prestigious Caldecott Award for the most distinguished picture book for children in 1963. He passed away in 1983.



Ask your students to name their favorite tall tales. Show the students the illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher in New York’s Bravest. Discuss the traits that make these characters “larger than life.” Brainstorm a list of the different characters in the tall tales. Have students draw a picture of a tall tale character, and then have them discuss in groups why they admire these characters.


•After reading New York’s Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne, discuss with your class what it means to be brave. Focus on the dedication page and the historical note. How was Mose brave? How are real-life firefighters like Mose? How was firefighting different in Mose’s day than it is now? What qualities of firefighters are the same? Which ones are different? The children should write their responses in their journals.

•Have a Mose Humphreys Day at your school to honor the firefighters in your town. Write letters to firefighters thanking them for the job they do. In the letters, have the children tell about Mose’s feats. Decorate your room to look like a firehouse. Invite a firefighter and present him/her with the letters. Have the children dress up as Mose Humphreys and ask each to tell about a fantastic feat that Mose could do.

•Encourage your students to be good citizens in the spirit of Mose Humphreys. Create a Mose Humphreys Good Deed Award. Every month give out the award to a student who does something “above and beyond.”

•Rewrite the story of Mose Humphreys in play form. You can add new characters and new extraordinary feats that he did. Make hand puppets of the characters and perform it in a puppet theater.

•Davy Crockett and John Henry have songs written about them. It is fitting that Mose Humphreys have one, too. Write a song about Mose, New York’s bravest firefighter. Use a tune familiar to the children.


Tall tales come out of an oral tradition. Stories were passed from one person to the next changing along the way. Exaggerations grew and facts were altered, and as a result there are often several versions of the same story.

•Read and compare New York’s Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne and John Henry by Ezra Jack Keats to the different stories of John Henry and Mose Humphreys in Mary Pope Obsorne’s American Tall Tales. Make a chart showing what is the same about each and what is different.


•As your class reads the books and meets the characters, each student should keep a running chart that identifies the characteristics of the heroes and heroines of the tall tales.

•Divide the children into groups of six and have them play Tall Tale Charades. Write the names of the characters on index cards and place them in a box. A child draws out a name and acts the part of the character without using words. The other children have to guess which tall tale hero is being portrayed.


•Have children collect adjectives and descriptive phrases that are used to describe the characters in the tall tales. Write the names of the characters on one set of index cards and the descriptions on another set and play a matching game. The children should notice that the adjectives often apply to more than one character.
•Play with the language of tall tales. Tall tale heroes were brave, strong, big, fast, smart, tough, strange, tireless, ornery, funny, talented, etc. In fact, they could outdo just about everybody with everything they did. Use these descriptors, and any others the class can come up with, and play the response game How Big Was He?

To play this game, use Mose and all the other tall tale heroes mentioned in the books. Have the students illustrate all the fantastic qualities of the heroes. Display the illustrations with captions on a tall tales bulletin board.



•Tall tale heroes were ordinary folks about whom extraordinary stories were told. Write tall tales about contemporary people: firefighters, teachers, nurses, students, etc.

•Create a tall tales newspaper with your class. Have the children write and illustrate newspaper articles telling about the lives of the tall tale heroes. Be sure to talk about the structure of a newspaper article (headline, byline, dateline, story).


Ask students to find unfamiliar words and try to define them from the context of the stories.

New York’s Bravest
pumper, volunteer, tenement, wedged, trolley.

American Tall Tales
Davy Crockett: varmint, bragging, panther, keelboat.
Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind: coonskin cap, hickory sapling, bonnet, dumpling, butter churn.
Johnny Appleseed: pioneer, missionary, orchard, wilderness, frontier.
Stormalong: fathoms, outcast, bowsprit, sea chantey.
Mose: Bowery, tenement, volunteer, cobblestone, valiant.
Febold Feboldson: plains, sod shanty, prairie schooner, panned, postholes.
Pecos Bill: coyote, cowpoke, Hell’s Gate Canyon, lariat.
John Henry: steel driver, Allegheny Mountains, steam drill, dignity, contestants.
Paul Bunyan: mackinaw, ox, logging, Grand Canyon.

John Henry: An American Legend
rascal, riverboat, paddle wheel.


American Tall Tales
--IRA Children’s Choice
--Notable Children’s Book in Field of Social Studies
--School Library Journal Best Book of the Year


Prepared by Clifford Wohl, Educational Consultant.



Download a PDF of the Teacher's Guide

  • New York's Bravest by Mary Pope Osborne; illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
  • August 22, 2006
  • Juvenile Fiction - Legends, Myths, Fables
  • Dragonfly Books
  • $6.99
  • 9780375838415

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