Childhood Favorites: Rediscovering “The Gunniwolf”

About two years ago, I wrote a short screenplay about what I thought was a good and original premise. By original, I mean a story idea that comes out of my own head, not based on, inspired by or derived from another story, event, newspaper or magazine article. (Nothing’s really wrong with basing or deriving ideas from others’ works; it’s just that I tend to it more than I’d like.)

The screenplay is about a pop superstar who, while out walking in the woods, comes face to face with her childhood monster. In order to escape it, she must sing to it until it falls asleep and she can run away. But when the monster doesn’t hear her singing, he wakes up and chases her down, forcing her to sing it to sleep again.

Pretty original, no? Or does it sound familiar?

The idea began to sound familiar to me a few weeks after I finished the script. It turns out that my script bears some similarity to a story I read in fourth grade about a little girl who wanders into the woods, meets up with a monster and must sing to it until it falls asleep and she can run away. The monster wakes up and chases her down, forcing her to sing it to sleep again.

That tale from my grade school days is The Gunniwolf, an American folktale as told by librarian/folklorist Wilhelmina Harper. The origin of the tale is uncertain. I recall hearing somewhere that it is an Appalachian tale, yet a website I found states that it is African-American. There is a myriad of variations on the tale, which suggests that it has roots in many cultures. The only certainty is that the story was passed down through oral tradition.

The Gunniwolf is a favorite of storytellers because of “its cadences, onomatopoeic words, and dialect songs.” (Upton, 2003) The little girl’s song “kum-kwa, khi-wa” varies from version to version, as does the “pit-pat, pit-pat” of her running and the “hunker-cha, hunker-cha” of the gunniwolf’s pursuit, but elements such as descriptive sounds and cadences are maintained. The repetitiveness of story elements – the chase, phrases of dialogue and the girl’s song – makes it a favorite of very young children.

The main difference between The Gunniwolf and my screenplay is the theme or moral (There are several minor differences as well that I won’t go into here). The Gunniwolf is a cautionary tale – a story created to entertain children and adults, as well as to scare or warn against certain actions or behaviors – that warns children of the dangers of wandering away from home or into the woods alone. My screenplay instead looks at how the pop star who, having never grown out of her childhood fear, comes to see the irrationality of her anxiety: There’s nothing to fear, not even fear itself.

Though ultimately the stories are different, I was at first a little bummed that I hadn’t at last come up with a truly original story idea. But I was more amazed that I had somehow incorporated elements of The Gunniwolf into my screenplay after not having thought about it for many, many years: I didn’t even remember the title until a few weeks ago! It goes to show the power of a good story!




The 1967 (left) and 2003 editions of The Gunniwolf

PINES lists two editions of The Gunniwolf by Wilhelmina Harper. Harper’s text is the same, but each edition has a different illustrator – William Wiesner and Barbara Upton – whose artwork has a profound impact on the story. Similar to some of Maurice Sendak’s work, William Wiesner’s illustrations are like line drawings colored with earth tones. Despite it being an American tale, Wiesner creates a world that bears some Asian influences (or so it appears to me). This is evident in the look of the girl, the gunniwolf, her home and the jungle (as it is called in the text). I wonder if Vietnamese culture might have had any influence on Wiesner, as the edition was published in 1967, during the Vietnam Conflict. By contrast, Barbara Upton’s illustrations are done in colored pencil, creating a beautiful, colorful rural American setting. Frogs, mice and rabbits populate the jungle where the little girl picks many types and colors of flowers: A complete opposite of Wiesner’s dense, motionless jungle. The gunniwolf itself draws comparison. Wiesner’s gunniwolf resembles a lion, or a poodle with a bad haircut; Upton’s looks more like a wolf, but comes across as a big friendly dog. Critics feel that while indeed more aesthetically pleasing, Upton’s artwork doesn’t reflect the threat and danger of the jungle and the gunniwolf as does Wiesner’s.


Girl and gunni

“Little Girl, why for you move?” Compare Wiesner’s illustration (left) with Upton’s


The Gunniwolf with illustrations by Barbara Upton is available at 5 CCLS libraries. The Gunniwolf with illustrations by William Wiesner is available through PINES. Please ask the staff at your library branch for assistance. Below are some resources available on the web:


Read editorial and user reviews posted at

Turner South’s Learning Through Storytelling uses a version of The Gunniwolf as a tool to teaching listening skills:

An audio version of the tale read by Bonnie Pierce in mp3 format:


Richard Thompson’s The Story Vine provides resources for parents and story tellers. His version of The Gunny Wolf (note the variation in spelling) is interactive with sounds:


Ms. Garden Plum lists several tales for girls, including this version of The Gunny Wolf (again, note the variation in spelling):



My screenplay, titled Fear Itself, won’t be available for a long time, but I plan to produce a film version next year. I’ll keep you up on its developments.

Published in: on May 10, 2007 at 4:31 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] Read the blog “Childhood Favorites: Rediscovering ‘The Gunniwolf’” […]

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