March 08, 2018


There Was an Old Mermaid Who Swallowed a Shark! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

There Was an Old Pirate Who Swallowed a Map! By Lucille Colandro. Illustrated by Jared Lee. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $8.99.

     The “Old Lady” books by Lucille Colandro and Jared Lee all take off from the original “house that Jack built” story of the old lady who swallowed a fly (“I don’t know why she swallowed the fly – perhaps she’ll die”). That original ends with death, which kids today are not supposed to find funny: “I don’t know why she swallowed the horse. She’s dead, of course.” There is no death in the Colandro/Lee variations on the swallow-this-and-that theme, and there is in fact little variation from book to book – indeed, the items swallowed do not always connect very well with each other, even though oddball connections are the whole point of the original “Old Lady” rhyme. The books nevertheless always provide at least a mild degree of fun – and now there are two new ones, both in hardcover, that expand the “franchise,” add new characters, and take the stories in a new and enjoyable direction.

     At first it seems that the Old Mermaid and Old Pirate books simply follow the formula of other Colandro/Lee productions: “There was an old mermaid who swallowed a shark. I don’t know why she swallowed the shark, but it left no mark.” And: “There was an old pirate who swallowed a map. I don’t know why she swallowed the map – ARRR! – but it wasn’t a trap.” The Old Pirate start is weaker than that of the Old Mermaid, but both share the Old Lady in her usual role – she is simply shown as a mermaid in one book and in pirate costume in the other. More importantly, even before the rhymes start, the books introduce two new characters: a little boy and a little girl. In the Old Mermaid book, they are seen in a rowboat pointing out the shark and mermaid; in the Old Pirate book, they are aboard a ship, saying “Yo ho ho!” and “Ahoy, matey!”

     Each time the Old Lady (as Mermaid or Pirate) swallows something, the book switches back to the boy and girl as they ask questions or comment on what is happening. In the Old Pirate book, “How do we choose which way to go? Read the map and then we’ll know.” In the Old Mermaid book, “Did the squid [one of the swallowed creatures] swim really fast? It propelled itself with a mighty jet blast.” By interspersing boy-and-girl comments with the Old Lady swallowing things, Colandro and Lee expand these books beyond earlier ones in the series – and at the very end of each, they go a step further by giving factual information on the objects swallowed. In the Old Pirate book, for example, kids are told, “The spyglass was first invented in the early 1600s. This handheld telescope used two lenses to magnify objects that were too far away to see.” And in the Old Mermaid book, one entry says, “Eels don’t have scales. They are covered with a slimy substance that allows them to slither and slide.”

     There is also another way in which the Old Mermaid and Old Pirate books are distinguished from others in the Colandro/Lee series: at the end of the main narrative, it turns out that the two kids are with the Old Lady and the whole story is make-believe. The Old Mermaid book eventually shows kids and Old Lady looking into a gigantic aquarium, with the text saying, “There was an old mermaid who loved to spend her whole day playing pretend/ that everything under the water was her friend.” And the Old Pirate book concludes, “There was an old pirate who stayed until dark/ on the pirate ship ride at the amusement park.” So everything in both books was entirely imaginary – well, of course all the Colandro/Lee stories are a lot to, umm, swallow, but by making the “play” elements explicit here, author and illustrator change the overall tone of these books. And now there is even a place for the ubiquitous little black dog shown by Lee in all the Old Lady adventures: here the pup simply accompanies the Old Lady and the kids (maybe her grandchildren?) on their enjoyable outings. These two books can serve as entry points to the Old Lady series for kids not yet familiar with it – or they can help revive interest in it if kids have found their attention flagging because of the similarities among the many earlier Old Lady books. Either way, the Old Mermaid and Old Pirate books provide a pleasantly different view of the Old Lady and her ever-unsatisfied appetite.

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