Joining the growing trend of reimagined fairytales comes There Was an Old Dragon Who Swallowed a Knight. Author Penny Parker Klostermann takes the reader back to medieval times where dragons wreak havoc and armor-clad knights race to the rescue with valiant steeds. The book is a reinvention of the nursery rhyme “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” replacing the old lady with a mischievous red dragon.
The story begins with the dragon swallowing a knight, as promised in the title. Yet after the knight is gone, his steed keeps “gallop[ing] around at a terrible speed./ Oh, how the dragon wished it would stop.” So he swallows the steed as well. Like the poem it is based on, There Was an Old Dragon is a cumulative poem, which means that after every new swallow, the reader gets a repeated list of everything the dragon has eaten up to that point. After greedily gulping the knight and his steed, a squire, a cook, a lady, a castle, and a moat, the dragon is so bloated and uncomfortable he takes up an entire page. After admitting his mistake of overindulging, the dragon burps out the animals, people, and castle and settles down for the night with just the knight left in his belly. Everything ends well. Well, for everyone but the knight.
While Klostermann’s text is full of wit, Ben Mantle’s illustrations truly make the book hilarious. Perhaps created with a mix of pencil, digital color, and watercolor, Mantle’s pictures resemble stills from a children’s TV show. The characters have cartoon-like exaggerations complete with a knight with teeny, tiny legs and a dragon with a wolfish grin and large horns. Mantle’s lines are clear and the text is always integrated into the full-bleed illustrations. Small details make this book a treasure hunt for attentive readers. Multiple signs warn of the dragon, as do scattered bones and scorch marks. A taloned arm can be seen seasoning the cook with pepper before he gets eaten by the dragon. And, my favorite touch, every time the steed is shown in the dragon’s stomach, his illustration is accompanied by the words “clippity, clippity, clippity, clop” in a miniature font.
The rhyming text and silly situations of There Was an Old Dragon are funny and rhythmical, both qualities that tend to engage children. Young readers would particularly enjoy this text because once they master a phrase, they get to repeat it again and again. This book could be called a fractured fairytale, which is a story that the reader can only understand if they know the original iteration of the tale. However, I did not realize this text was based off of the nursery rhyme and I could not stop from laughing out loud as I read the book for the first time. Knowledge of the nursery rhyme is not required to enjoy this book, but it does help explain the rather odd rhyme scheme shown in the lines “I don’t know why he swallowed the knight./ It’s not polite!” I heartily recommend this book for readers ages 3-8.