Back-To-School Book Series: Jeff Mack's 'Mr. Monkey'

Aug 16, 2018

A monkey bakes a cake for a contest, and every possible thing goes wrong. This same monkey is invited to perform a trick at a school, but he has to battle crazy weather and ends up juggling cows.

These stories make up the first two books in the Mr. Monkey series by Northampton, Massachusetts, author and illustrator Jeff Mack. 

Mack travels a lot to speak in elementary schools, and said the idea for Mr. Monkey came about on a trip to Houston.

Jeff Mack: I had been there for about two weeks and I had talked to a lot of kids [and] spent a lot of time on stage. I vary up my presentations quite a bit, but there's a certain amount of things that get repeated each time. And I was talking to my agent on the phone at the end of the week, and he says, 'You should write a book about your experiences visiting a school.' And I was feeling by the end of two weeks a little bit like a trained monkey.

So I came up with this character who was supposed to be me as a monkey, visiting a school. He's an earnest guy. He really wants things to go well. He wants to do the right thing, but things never go right for him. And there's always some kind of improvisation to kind of fix the situation so that it works out for the best.

Sam Hudzik, NEPR: And in "Mr. Monkey Visits a School," he's invited to the school to do a trick and he has a plan and it goes terribly wrong, and – like you said – he has to improvise. Does that happen to you when you're at a school?

It happens. Almost always things go pretty smoothly. But, you know, the last visit of that tour – it was like school spirit day. Kids were all coming in from relay races outside. They were hot, sweaty, their faces were painted in different colors of the school. And then the librarian handed each of them a cupcake with blue frosting as they walked into the school and said, 'I don't want to see any of this frosting on the carpet.'

I'm sure that worked really well.

There were high expectations for this group and they were super sugared-up, super energized. And it involved the little improvisation to keep their attention and keep everything going well.

So Mr. Monkey – as you said – is always trying to do well, but yet he's a real klutz. And your books don't have a lot of words, but there's a lot of action going on: running, biking, falling – lots of falling. Can you talk about the challenges of drawing action?

I think so much of the storytelling is through the pictures. And a lot of the challenge has to do with what you choose not to show, as well as what you choose to show. So a lot of the humor comes from seeing the moment before and seeing the moment after this calamity happens. But sometimes you don't actually see the calamity, and your mind kind of makes up that moment of action in between those two frames. I think that can be kind of a funny thing.

But I find that when I'm making books, I tend to do the entire thing with pictures first and then I go back and I write the story to fit the pictures. I write the words to fit in with the pictures – more often than the other way around.

OK, so I hosted a little focus group on the Mr. Monkey series, with my 4-year-old and my 7-year-old. And they love the books, but they do have a couple of questions for you.

OK. Alright. Let's hear them.

In "Mr. Monkey Bakes a Cake," the real stars of the book are bananas. So the question here from my kids: Do you like bananas?

I don't like bananas. They give me a stomach ache. I can't eat them. I think they're hilarious – they're the funniest fruit in the world. But I can't eat them.

There are probably hundreds or maybe thousands of bananas in that book that you had to draw.

Yes, that's true. There are a lot of bananas in there. I love drawing them, but I can't eat them.

Question number two: Juggling is a big part of "Mr. Monkey Visits a School," and my kids want to know if you juggle.

Yes, I do. I know how to juggle a little bit. I learned how to juggle using croquet balls and it's really bizarre. I would have been at my aunt's house when I was probably in middle school. They would have had a croquet set, and that's where I learned to juggle. And I found that lighter objects – I couldn't quite get the timing. But they were heavier, so they had more weight, and for some reason that helped me get the pattern down. And that's what I learned to juggle on.

I guess if you dropped them, it could also hurt a lot more.

Yes, you want to wear shoes when you juggle those. Definitely.

Catch up with the back-to-school book series on NEPR.