This is post is edited to contain information that was supplied by a representative from Scholastic to correct information in this review. The additional information appears in blue while the original informations remains.
title: Baby Monkey, Private Eye
authors: Brian Selznick and David Serlin
date: Scholastic, 2018
main character: Baby Monkey
ALSC Institute provided me the opportunity to actually meet Brian Selznick and David Serlin. I’m certain it was as uncomfortable for them as it was for me. I knew I didn’t want to take the opportunity to put them on the spot about race, racism and monkeys but, I did want to take the opportunity to put a face to my blog posts. It was a very brief meeting at the end of a signing line.
So, I left the conference with a book signed by both Selznick and Serlin. Nothing left to do but to write a review, right?
Sujei Lugo, my ALSC roommate, and I went through the book meticulously and I have to thank her for her contributions to this review. She pointed out several noteworthy items that I would have otherwise missed.
Selznick and Serlin were closing speakers for the Institute. They introduced the book by describing it as “perfect for reading aloud or for beginning readers.” Sujei and I both found this classification to be a physical problem when considering placing a book of this size and weight into the hands of 5-6 year olds. The length of the book may be a concern as well. While the story isn’t text heavy, young readers may be intimidated by the thickness.
Other concerns about using this book for emerging readers include the placement of font on the pages. Here, we see “wait” written on a double spread page with the gutter dissecting it. A child who is both just learning how to navigate the pages of a book and phonics would be confused by ‘wa’ on one page and ‘it’ on another.
The reader would also struggle with word endings that disappear into gutters.
Baby Monkey Private Eye is the story of a baby monkey who works as a private detective, solving cases and finding missing items. The backdrop, as described by Selznick, is themed as a film noir detective movie. This results in black and white images throughout the book with the occasional use of the color red to accent somethings in a scene. At the end of the book, Baby Monkey is sleeping in his crib with his mother watching over him.
Baby Monkey has no real name, as is quite often the case with books that feature anthropomorphic monkeys. I’m not sure why this happens, but is seems to reflect little value on the character. Baby Monkey is unable to put on his pants.
This portrays Baby Monkey as as clumsy and ineffectual, a stereotype that brings racism into the use of the monkey. He eats and sleeps in every chapter (stereotypes, again) and with no visual or verbal clues, is able to find what’s missing and solve the case.
Particularly after being given views of Serlin’s boxers during the talk, I have to question what I view as innuendo in the book.
But, it’s the monkey that brought me to this book.
On page 161 there’s an image of a Black woman astronaut. Images of well-known individuals are used throughout the book and the name of who they represent is located in the index. The Gerber Baby, Dr. Benjamin Spock and John F. Kennedy are all indexed. The image of the black woman astronaut is simply “Astronaut”. Not Female Astronaut, not Black Female Astronaut. Both her gender and race are ignored. Honestly, I thought the image was Mae Jemison, but if it is, she’s not named. Doesn’t either or Serlin or Selznick know Mae Jemison? It’s odd that this person isn’t named in the book.
CORRECTION: “The index only cites the paintings and sculptures inside the office for each of the chapter openers, not the Characters, which is why Dr. Jemison isn’t mentioned in the index. Please note that Dr. Jemison is mentioned and thanked on page 191, after having given Brian Selznick, David Serlin, and Scholastic permission to use her image: “…and any resemblance to actual persons, monkeys, zebras, lions, snakes, or mice, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental, except for the astronaut who, with her permission, looks very much like the real astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison.”
He does name the opera singer who appears on pages 23 and 47 as Marian Anderson. She became the first African American to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955. The resemblance is . . . lacking.
CORRECTION: Marian Anderson is named in the key on page 188 and in the index on page 190, but it’s in reference to the small framed image of Marian Anderson hanging on the wall on the right side of the office on page 23 and page 47. Like all the other characters in Baby Monkey, Private Eye (the Chef, the Clown, the Astronaut, and Mama, along with Zebra, Lion, Snake and Mouse) the Opera Singer is not named.
I can’t remember which of the men informed the ALSC audience that “people have loved monkeys throughout history. They play an important part in our history, providing hope… entertainment. They have appeared in movies.” The person went on to name several movies that featured apes including Tarzan , King Kong , Beyond Planet of the Apes all movies that have been cited as allegories of racism and imperialism. I know this, I don’t have the privilege not to. I also know that the history of monkeys and apes includes an equivocation with people of African descent. I’m almost willing to give a pass on this, to say that people are just now realizing this as I’ve been calling attention to it, but Roseanne Barr knew that Black people have been called ‘monkeys’. So do soccer fans in Europe and hotel clerks in Washington DC. Why are people in children’s literature acting as if they had no idea? And that’s a lot to put on this one book! I consider children’s authors (well most of them) as well intentioned and that’s certainly the case here. I think the artwork is amazing. The degree of research and keen attention to detail that went into developing this book, although informed through a privileged lens, was quite evident in the ALSC presentation.
Intentions are not enough.
I cannot recommend this book.
6 thoughts on “review: Baby Monkey, Private Eye”
Wow, Edi and Sujei! You nailed it–stereotypic text and illustrations, just like the other “Baby Monkey” stories. And. Just that “Baby Monkey” solves all kinds of mysteries yet can’t put on his own pants demonstrates to one more generation of young (Black) readers the “clumsy Negro” trope. And, there’s no way that the “opera singer” is Marian Anderson; the facial features on the illustration are totally different than are Marian’s in the photo. On the other hand, the unnamed astronaut has to be Mae Jamison, copied from the photo (even the tiny straggle of hair on her forehead…) And–damn it!–the sexual innuendo. Calling attention to this crap, as you continue to do, is so infuriating–and so important.
So tired of this nonsense being “called out.” Stop adding adult inference to a children’s book. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.
I’m tired of this nonsense, too. I’m tired of the racism that exists in children’s books.
You do realize that it’s impossible to know what you like until you read it, right? You do realize that we are all entitled to opinions about books?
Are you really a “Library Teacher”? If so, here’s some reading you might want to do: “The Racist Trope that Won’t Die” (NYT, 6/17/18): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/17/opinion/roseanne-racism-blacks-apes.html.
“Comparing Black People to Monkeys Has a Long, Dark, Simian History” (Huff Post, 1/15/18): https://www.huffingtonpost.co.za/2018/01/15/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long-dark-simian-history_a_23333383/.
“The ‘Coon’ Character: Blacks as Monkeys” (History on the Net, https://www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/diversity/african/3-coon/6-monkey/.
And there’s much, much, more research. As a “Library Teacher,” you don’t want to foist racist books on innocent little kids, do you? Just asking.
That comment from “Library Teacher” is precisely why authors continue to write/illustrate books like BABY MONKEY.
Thinking about the use of monkeys in books for children… I wonder what a Timeline might look like?
THE STORY OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE came out in 1920 (there’s a monkey in it, named Chee-Chee).
CURIOUS GEORGE came out in 1941.
My apologies for quick typing. Marian Andersen should be Marian Anderson
Comments are closed.