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
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
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."
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.