There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly by Simms Taback

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There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly by Simms Taback

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Category: For Sharing
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: One of the most manic picture books around, the Simms Taback version of There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly is a gloriously busy book with a wonderful blending of the traditional and the surreal. Bookbag thinks it's a must-have and more than worth the wait for Amazon to source it for you.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 32 Date: September 1997
Publisher: Viking Children's Books
ISBN: 0670869392

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Please tell me you've heard of Burl Ives. Please! Just in case you haven't, he was a folk singer mostly known for his renditions of traditional childrens songs. Super, they are. However he was also a Broadway star and perhaps most famously a film star. He was Daddy Rufus in The Big Country, for example, you know - super speech at the party, shoots his own son, Chuck and Gregory Peckory have a big fight. He was also a great friend of John Steinbeck, travelling chronicler of dust bowl America. Burl Ives, that's him. Anyway, I digress, sorry, we're on childrens folk songs and more specifically a particular childrens folk song, writer unknown as usual, made famous by Burl Ives in his musical guise: There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly.

"There was an old lady that swallowed a fly I don't know why she swallowed the fly... Perhaps she'll die"

Oh, just typing that wee little bit makes me laugh. I love the upbeat rhythm of the first line, the slowing down of the second, the pause, which you must hold as long as possible, and the low tone of the third, which you must accompany by rolling your eyes as theatrically as you can. The old lady goes on to swallow a spider, a bird, a cat, a dog, a cow and a horse, one after the other, and together they make one of those repetitive, cumulative songs so popular with children. This one has the most gruesome of finales: "she dies of course, she swallowed a horse". It's funny, it's a little bit outrageous, it's hugely theatrical, it might not have bottoms, but it does have digestive systems and that's nearly as good. Best of all, thrown into the mix is a good sprinkling of the underlying, shivery darkness of all good folk tales.

The first thing you'll notice about the Taback book is that it's frenetic, it's madly busy, and there's not a scrap of white space anywhere. The pages are alternately black, or vividly dark yellow and the lyric to the song is added to the page in ransom note style with handwritten text arranged as a kind of collage on scraps of different, equally vivid colours. It just makes you feel like singing and and laughing and rolling your eyes in horror as the dreadful fate befalls the old lady; there's not a static moment in the book, just as there shouldn't be a static moment in the singing of the song. The old lady is as mad as a hatter, she has glasses perched dangerously close to the end of her nose, she waves an umbrella and a capacious handbag about wildly as she goes on her spree of consumption, her eyes are crossed and bloodshot, and in the middle of her gaudy dress there is a die-cut hole in the page which gradually expands to show the contents of her stomach as she swallows her way through a menagerie.

Oh, it's so busy, there's so much to look at, so much lively detail, I can't even begin to tell you all about it here, you'd be reading all day. It's a joyously manic book bringing together surreal art, traditonal music and an awful lot of fun. Our favourite parts are the alternative rhymes offered by the glum-looking animals who've yet to be swallowed about the latest one to make its way into the floating, growing crowd inside the old lady - "I hope it's a lie," says the dog, after the demise of the cat, "And she had a frog on the sly" says the horse as he watches the cow disappear into the, by now, rather grossly inflated old lady. You can make up your own, of course, if you like. There are so, so many details to make you laugh in this glorious patchwork of riotous colour. "WHOLE COW DEVOURED" shrieks a newspaper headline on one page. In our last view of this staggering consumer the old lady lies on her side, feet in the air, umbrella falling, glasses still perched precariously on the end of her nose. The horse was one animal too much, and she's expired. The very last page shows her tombstone, and above it, in letters in the night sky is the moral of our tale: "Never swallow a horse". Heehee.

There Was An Old Lady That Swallowed A Fly is what they call a cumulative tale. It's probably the simplest of all story forms and fits well as a song, because its charm really does lie in its minimum plot and maximum rhythm. The little episodes within it follow each other logically, the animals grow from tiny, to small, to medium, to big, to absolutely enormous, from it children learn to repeat sequences and recognise patterns... and I hope you realise what boringly worthy tosh that last bit is! Simms Taback does, I'm sure, or he'd not have created this surreal, crazy book full of energy and humour. He knows that children long for laughter, and too often their point of view is overlooked by adults who feel the purpose of any book written or illustrated for them is to teach. Well, the only lesson Simms Taback and his book has is about how good it is to laugh and clown around. And that's the best lesson there is.

Another wonderful picture book based on folk traditions is This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and Kathy Jakobsen.

Booklists.jpg There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly by Simms Taback is in the Top Ten Books With Gorgeous Illustrations.

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