It’s the holiday season, so I’ve taken my class through a whole stack of Christmas- or winter-related books over the past few weeks. And while I love me some holiday-themed children’s books, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Bell (in the words of one popular non-politician) “is a disaster.” The story itself was embarrassingly moronic, the word choice and rhyme schemes were terrible, and the ending was a real downer.
I have no doubt that, by inventing this Little Old Lady, Lucille Colandro discovered a formula for kids that works. What’s doubtful is that any of her readers will eventually come of age and recall fondly the joys of reading about this big-mouthed old bag! Not every book teaches, but every book ought to at least strive to not make its readers dumber, and I think in this Colandro has failed.
There’s an age-old rule regarding same-word rhymes that seems to be increasingly ignored in this sad, everyone’s-a-writer era. The rule is: “Don’t use same-word rhymes.” Colandro’s book is one giant poem (of sorts), and though she has an unimaginable platform for sharing her art, she squanders it with bad writing couched in a terrible idea. She chooses six Christmas objects that don’t rhyme with each other (bell, bows, gifts, sack, sleigh, and reindeer), and then rhymes five of these with themselves, as if adding other words to her ridiculous story would confuse her young readers. Of the thousand words that rhyme with “sleigh,” she rhymes the word with “sleigh”! I simply can’t get over it.
Regarding the downer of an ending, I think that Scholastic’s editors are partly to blame for raising our expectations. The back cover of the book “teases” the reader this way: “You won’t believe why this old lady swallowed a bell, some bows, some gifts, a sack, a sleigh, and some reindeer! Read this book to find out.” Sounds like a mystery, right? Sounds like the answer might be something surprising, something I wouldn’t believe, something that’s not “Santa.” Not only does this “teaser” tell the entire story in seventeen words, it anticipates something new and exciting. So when Santa shows up and then immediately flies away with his politically correct, historically incorrect “Happy holidays to all!” the reader can finally wear a smile, because now he can drop the dumb thing and be done with it.
While my review of this book is caustic at best, please understand that it comes from a kindness deep within me. All writers strive to make their voices heard, and while some (like me) are fortunate enough to land a publisher and a platform, so many other talented people continue lost in obscurity. So when decent writers discover that big-name publishers like Scholastic print such gibberish as this, they take it as a personal and professional affront. I’m caustic for them.