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17 Kings and 42 Elephants


by Margaret Mahy
Illustrated by Patricia McCarthy

            In 17 Kings and 42 Elephants, award-winning New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy has created a rollicking, frolicking trip through a jungle.  The picture book contains no cultural markers, and its setting points to an unspecified jungle location.  Mahy uses imaginative rhythms paired with preposterous rhymes to describe the entourage's ponderous journey through the jungle:


Seventeen kings on forty-two elephants

Going on a journey through a wild wet night,

Baggy ears like big umbrellaphants,

Little eyes a-gleaming in the jungle light.


Her rhymes, although they pair actual creatures with Mahy's imaginary, nonsensical words, evoke fascinating rhythms.  Mahy's rhythmic pairings include:


            Seventeen kings saw white toothed crocodiles . . .

            Green-eyed dragons, rough as rockodiles . . .

            Seventeen kings sang loud and happily . . .

            Tigers at the riverside drinking lappily . . .

            Who joined the singsong? Cranes and pelicans . . .

            Flamingos chanting "Ding Dong Bellicans!" . . .

            Tinkling tunesters, twangling trillicans . . .


A London Times review (1972)[i] calls these "verbal distortions . . . ill-advised."  Adults may well find this to be true, but these "distortions" evoke strong visual images.  "Rockodiles" reminds the reader of a crocodile's knobby head; "drinking lappily" gives a strong image of how the tigers drink (lapping up water with their tongues); and "umbrellaphants" give the reader an idea just how big are the elephants' ears - like an opened umbrella. 

Patricia McCarthy's striking, watercolor-like illustrations add to the frolicking fun[ii].  Mahy describes the crocodiles as "romping in the river."  It is hard to imagine a fearsome crocodile "romping," but McCarthy's illustrations succeed in depicting these creatures happily romping in the river.  McCarthy's "ponderous hippopotomums" - one with ponderous rear end facing the reader - actually look as if they are "danc[ing] to the music that the marchers [kings and elephants] made."  The tigers - some "drinking lappily" - peer thoughtfully at the kings and elephants.  This brings one tiger eye-to-eye with the reader and allows the reader to see, by the tigers' thoughtful (not menacing) expressions, that the tigers "knew the kings were happy as they marched along."

Discerning readers of all ages (including the writer of this review) might wonder how seventeen kings could be on forty-two elephants.  Readers might also be disappointed that Mahy doesn't explain where the kings are going.  Despite these concerns, readers will find this rhythmic trip through the jungle to be hilarious.  The rhythms, rhymes, nonsensical words, and movements of the animals and kings make this a book that begs to be read aloud and acted out.


[i] The [London] Times Literary Supplement. 1972. Review of Seventeen kings. This review refers to the first publication in Great Britain in 1972. 

[ii]When republished in the U.S. in 1987, the book was reillustrated by Patricia McCarthy, according to publication facts given on the copyright page in the 1987 edition.




Mahy, Margaret. 1987. 17 Kings and 42 Elephants. New York: Dial. First published in Great Britain by J. M. Dent & Sons. ISBN 0-8037-0458-5


This review was written for a graduate course at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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