review : Spunky Little Monkey


title: Spunky Little Monkey
author: Bill Martin and Michael Sampson
illustrator: Brian Won
date: Scholastic, 2017


There is a music that is black girl music. Call it clapsies, call it double dutch or hand games, it’s all black girl. With its ” three-tone scales, rhythmic syncopation, handclapping patterns that cross the metric nature of melody, and nonlexical scat-song syllables” (Campbell) it is identifiable as a part of African American culture. It’s a gendered form of play in which black boys typically do not participate. The richness of this art form is hard to deny. Like most children’s rhymes, these have mutated versions over the years and “Down Down Baby” (DDB) has been no exception.

I’ve found one source that traces DDB to “Shimmy Shimmy Ko-ko Bop” (Smith, 1959) recorded by Little Anthony and the Imperials. It’s gone through many iterations and now sounds very little like Smith’s song.

What’s peculiarly interesting about DDB is that while racialized versions of many children’s songs can be found in their early history that denigrate Blacks, DDB, like many modern clapsies performed by girls transformed into a song in which black girls confront whiteness.

I like coffee, I like tea.
I like a black boy and he likes me.
So step back, white boy, you don’t shine.
I’ll get the black boy to beat your behind.
Last night and the night before.
I met my boyfriend at the candy store.
He bought me ice cream he bought me cake.
He brought me home with a belly ache.
Mama, mama, I feel sick
Call the doctor, quick, quick, quick
Doctor, doctor, will I die?
Close your eyes and count to five
I’m Alive!
See that house up on the hill.
That’s where me and my baby live.
Eat a piece of meat
Eat a piece of bread.
Come on baby. let’s go to bed


In writing The Games Black Girls Play : Learning the Ropes for Double Dutch to Hip-Hop, Dr. Kyra Gaunt writes of how often this musical form which is culturally and musically linked to black girls has been sampled into commercial music. The clapsies exist in the public domain and as such an obvious part of black girlhood that insiders just don’t see their richness.

But, outsiders do. Bill Martin Jr. is the author of hugely popular books such as Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Brown Bear Brown Bear. His most recent book, Spunky LIttle Monkey,  co-authored with Michael Sampson and illustrated by Brian Won is a riff on “Down Down Baby”.

The book’s main character has no name. The monkey is not designated a gender in the text. This is tricky: do I refer to the anthropomorphic monkey as ‘it’ or ‘them’?  When something is anthropomorphic, it is given human features but this creature suddenly becomes dehumanized as I lean toward ‘it’.

As the story begins, the monkey doesn’t want to get out of bed.


“Mama called the doctor and the doctor said” is straight out of No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed!

IMG_3393As soon as the doctor prescribes rutabagas and exercise, the monkey is filled with energy! (What was mama monkey feeding the little one?)


First the monkey gets the rhythm of the head DING DONG! And, the monkey puts on a sombrero. Monkey continues to get the rhythm throughout his body. The monkey shakes, stomps, claps and ding dongs forward and backward as girls do when singing “Down Down Baby”.

back cover

Let’s think this through. Let’s consider what a diabolical, evil mastermind it would take to intentionally appropriate a black girl’s clapsie, blend it with a nameless little monkey and throw a sombrero on it to remind black children that in this man’s land, they are not human. I cannot believe that’s the case. If it is, could someone from Scholastic please send me a private email so I can pack my bags? I’d simply call this an unfortunate series of events. I’d also call it a lack of awareness that perpetuates violence against black and brown people; that places them in cages and keeps them out behind borders and walls. What we do know, what we all know is that people of African descent have been equated with monkeys and apes since the 18th century. It’s time we know to stop anthropomorphizing them in children’s picture books.

I wouldn’t put this book in a library unless you need to teach what to avoid in a child’s book.

2 thoughts on “review : Spunky Little Monkey

  1. First, thanks for pointing out a very problematic book. Argh. I have an academic-ish interest in how fragments of those rhymes pop up across generations and populations of kids, but what your post really made me think of was a clapsies “event” i witnessed on the playground when i was observing at recess at my youngest son’s school. There must have been 20 black girls, ranging from 1st to 5th grade, moving across the playground in a tight line with a first-grader at the head, leading them all in a clapping song that I can’t remember any more. I have no idea how it got started but it was an awesome thing to behold, and probably even more awesome to be part of! The power of “clapsies,” I guess.


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