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November Books: Monkey Tales

By on October 31, 2011

Especially during November, we often turn our thoughts toward spending time with family and giving thanks. Among many things for which we are thankful are family experiences of storytelling and reading together. This month we show off several books for reading together – specifically about monkeys, these are folk tales, stories to spark imagination, and one in particular, about a family of monkeys from the rainforest. During this season of thanksgiving, remember to take time to read and laugh together.

by Meribeth Shank


Cloud Tea Monkeys
by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard, Candlewick Press, $15.99

More than a picture book, co-authors Peet and Graham have based this intriguing story on an ancient legend of tea-picking monkeys. Beginning with Tashi, a small girl, whose mother becomes too ill to harvest tea from the plantation near the mountain village where they live, this book takes readers to the long-ago and far-away in its opening sentence and initial painting.

The overseer, an unpleasant man with sharp eyes and a temper, intimidates the tea pickers — women all — and chases away the monkeys who usually arrive mid-morning, coming down from the mountains. Hidden under a large tree at the edge of the tea bushes, Tashi often shares her lunch with the monkeys she begins to recognize and name.

Deft ink and gouache illustrations capture contrasts in the expressive text; mist-cold morning (“light, the color of lemons, soaking into the sky”), hazy burning midday sun, and especially the dappling light cast by tree-shade. Illustrator Wijngaard’s subtle use of color conveys the vast sweep of fields, sky, clouds and mountains; while perceptively highlighting the colors of clothing, headgear and even the textures of leaves, hair, rocks and baskets. From the overseer’s mean smirk, to the cautious expressions of the women workers, accenting Tashi’s smiling pleasure, the monkeys’ fearful grins — and indeed the faces made as the Royal Tea Taster tests the flavor of the tea leaves from Tashi’s basket filled by the monkeys — the artist makes astute use of brush and palette to reveal movement, emotion, and even pain on the sick mother’s features.

An Author’s Note at the end explains briefly, the difference from today’s easily accessible items, how dangerous the paths often were, to acquire goods for trade, making them costly because they were so precious – as are the origins of this rare tale.

by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Woody Miller, Charlesbridge, $16.95, $7.95, Ages 4-7

Award-winning author Sayre introduces her readers to howler monkeys from the rainforests of Central and South America in this playful picture book poem. These noisy animals live together in family groups and travel through the trees, climbing and leaping, even in the rain.

Rhyming verses are printed in a larger font while prose, in smaller print on the same double page spread, supplies additional information about howler monkeys’ habitat, diet and behavior. Miller’s soft-focus illustrations are done in an almost tactile fuzzy/furry-looking acrylic with watercolor crayon and colored pencil in rainforest shades of green and brown.

The repeating lines of a rhythmic rhyming chorus furnish readers with the howlers’ call and an opportunity to howl along: “Woo-hoo-hoo! AH-UH-OH!” This is especially appealing to youngsters and is a careful matching with the active creatures whose energy moves across the pages to the accompanying text (except, of course, the pages where they’re sleeping!).

A map and “More about Howler Monkeys” pages are included at the back of this fascinating nonfiction book about a little known mammal.

Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India
by Gerald McDermott, Harcourt, $16.99, Ages 3-7

The sixth and final book in author/illustrator McDermott’s series of trickster tales, this story comes from the Buddhist tradition, and written originally in Sanskrit, is one of a well-known collection of legends and fables called the Jataka Tales. Fast moving Monkey, who lives in a tree along a river, is a mango-lover. Hoping to eat Monkey for dinner, Crocodile offers Monkey a ride to an island in the middle of the river where there are ripe mangos. Eager Monkey hops on Crocodile’s back.

As Crocodile swims, he drops lower and lower in the water until Monkey, frightened, warns Crocodile that he cannot swim. Right, agrees Crocodile, explaining that he wants to eat Monkey’s heart. Clever Monkey answers that his heart is back in his tree, convincing Crocodile to return, where Monkey scampers to safety, taunting his former captor.

Using fabric paint and ink to hand-color textured paper, and choosing vigorous colors, characteristic of India, to accent the action, McDermott’s double page collage spreads are alive with vivid movement, a seamless match of text and illustration. Monkey’s clever solution to eating luscious mangos and escaping hungry Crocodile is three-fold: Downriver, Monkey discovers rocks in the river between the trees on the bank and the mango tree on the island, and is able to reach the fruit he desires without Crocodile’s assistance; when Crocodile decides to imitate a rock, hoping to catch unwary Monkey, he teases Crocodile into speaking, proving that Crocodile is not a rock after all; and finally, agreeing that Crocodile’s suggestion to hop on him like a rock is a good idea, Monkey instead tosses a mango into Crocodile’s open mouth, leaping on Crocodile’s nose, after he snaps closed his mouth, and arriving safely on the riverbank. This lively tale will mesmerize the youngest children and, keep adults captivated even as they read it aloud.

Maggie’s Monkeys
by Linda Sanders-Wells, illustrated by Abby Carter, Candlewick Press, $16.99, Ages 3-5

A “family of pink monkeys” has moved into the refrigerator, reports Maggie’s big brother. Although he is never named, his frustration is palpable as he describes first how his dad, then his mom, and finally his older sister Kate, buy into younger sister Maggie’s imagined monkeys, playing along. He unsuccessfully approaches each one, offering his opinion that pretending has gone “too far.”

Author Sanders-Wells uses imaginative language to show each family member’s creative response to Maggie’s monkeys: when he takes out the mayonnaise, Dad carefully closes the door to avoid the monkeys’ tails; Mom fills a bowl with banana pudding just for the monkeys; Kate helps dress the monkeys in imaginary clothes. When the older brother attempts to adapt, he sits in one monkey’s lap and is scolded by Maggie; he tries talking in monkey, and Maggie explains that they speak English; and when he chooses a book about the zoo to read to the monkeys, Maggie is appalled and says so.

Artist Carter varies her illustrations with borders to define the black colored pencil and gouache paintings, or to confine text, and sometimes both or neither. This use or not, of borders, supplies a framework for the story, and when bright double page spreads anchor the story at pivotal stages, this strategic arrangement increases both energy and movement. This is especially true when Calvin and Grady, the brother’s friends come over and begin to laugh about the monkeys in the refrigerator.

Cartoon-like illustrations keep the humor high in this imaginative tale of a reality obsessed sibling and his reality challenged younger sister, Maggie.


Meribeth Shank works in the Media Center at Miami Country Day School, an independent school in Miami Shores, Florida, teaches classes on Writing Books for Children, and earned her MFA in Writing for children from Vermont College. You can also find her on the web at: meribeths.blogspot.com

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