King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle
This is the tale of orchid expert, nature conservationist and swamp monster, McDarkly, who lives “quietly all on his own” in his “muddy swamp home.” That is, until the king disturbs McDarkly’s peace arriving abruptly and announcing his plan to turn McDarkly’s home into a roller skate park. Thanks to the intervention of a clever and kind princess, McDarkly gets the opportunity to save his orchids and their habitat, but only has ten days to do so…
This is brilliant story that’s as moving as it is funny – my kids love it and so do I. The rhyming text is lovely and lively and, combined with beautiful illustrations, evokes a charming and convincing fairy tale world. A theme of regeneration and transformation permeates the story; caterpillars become butterflies, orchids flower and the swamp blossoms into a site that is “bursting with grace.” Even the king has improved by the end.
There is a powerful message about protecting our ecosystems, and the book also demonstrates why we should never judge people or places by their appearance. As well as the swamp, the king initially derides McDarkly because he does not find him aesthetically pleasing. The king even dehumanises McDarkly, referring to him as ‘it’ as he haughtily shouts, “Oh send for my butler to give it a bath."
McDarkly is a wonderful and compelling character; a gentle giant far more refined than the king, with intentions that are more honourable too. The king rudely mocks and arrogantly orders McDarkly around and engages in undignified "guffawing." He is short-sighted, selfish and barbaric, focused solely on himself and his leisurely pursuits.
The King can’t see past his own agenda and is incapable of appreciating the world around him. Like other powerful men who are more invested in golf than matters of real importance, the king is more interested in roller skating than protecting the environment. Concerned only with how things look, the king is blind to their true beauty.
Beauty is something of which there is an abundance in this book. The illustrations are lush and colourful, and you almost feel as though you’ve been transported to a humid swamp and can smell its earthy scent. We love the little creature that’s frequently seen in the background.
Most of the time the only visible part of this miniature monster are the eyes that emerge from the swamp on stalks. Despite this, you can still sense what he is feeling, whether it’s concern, surprise, curiosity or happiness. My kids are always highly amused to see him speed through the endpapers on a stolen roller skate, clasping his hands in delight.
There’s so much detail in the images. The king’s hilarious entourage includes a walking gramophone, a subject with a disco ball on their head and another carrying roller skates on a cushion. The book’s barcode is decorated with orchids and even the butterflies seem to have personalities.
Catherine Emmet ditched spreadsheets to pursue a career as a writer and King of the Swamp marks her debut as a children’s author. Her next book, The Pet is due for release in 2021 and I can’t wait to see it. Ben Mantle has illustrated many award-winning and bestselling books for children, including several that he also wrote himself. Ben recently collaborated on Boot with Irish author Shane Hegarty which was a 2020 Dublin Citywide Read.
This is another book that would make an excellent classroom resource. As well as raising awareness of the splendour nature and why it shouldn’t be interfered with, it’s a fantastic story to read aloud. My kids love to howl along with McDarkly when he is upset, which is something I imagine that would be even more fun in a group setting.
King of the Swamp gently teaches children that no matter how bad things may seem, there’s always some “beauty and grace” that can emerge from the darkness. This is a lesson that is especially relevant in 2020. A bright and hopeful book that’s every bit as magnificent as the natural world it celebrates.
Title: King of the Swamp
Author: Catherine Emmett
Illustrator: Ben Mantle
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 20th August 2020