November 19, 2015

(++++) OH, THOSE HATS!

Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business. By Esphyr Slobodkina. HarperCollins. $17.99.

More Caps for Sale: Another Tale of Mischievous Monkeys. By Esphyr Slobodkina with Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. Harper. $18.99.

     Seventy-five years ago, Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002) created an amusing little book about a stereotypical peddler, complete with mustache and slicked-down hair parted in the middle, who sold hats by piling them atop his head and walking around town calling “Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!” The streets where he peddled his wares were clearly European, but for some reason they were populated by an entire troop of monkeys – 16 of them, in fact – and the monkeys just happened to love caps, snatching them off the peddler’s head as he napped beneath a tree and wearing them sportily in the tree branches. This simple and highly amusing tale – it is hard to remember that it was written during World War II – continues as the peddler yells at the monkeys, who in the best “monkey see, monkey do” tradition imitate his gestures and yell “tsz, tsz, tsz” right back at him. The angrier the peddler gets, the more he gestures and stamps his feet and acts out, the more amusing the book becomes as the monkeys imitate everything he does – until, with impeccable logic, Slobodkina has the furious peddler throw down his own cap in disgust, with the result that the monkeys thrown all their caps down as well, and the peddler gathers all of them up and is able to resume his hat-selling day. Highly stylized, very amusing drawings, wonderfully colored caps (gray, brown, blue and red, plus the peddler’s own black-and-white one), and delightfully mischievous monkeys that, except for their smiles, are drawn quite realistically, combine to produce a gentle fable with no particular point except to amuse young readers (ages 4-8) and delight their parents. The handsome 75th-anniversary edition of Caps for Sale offers a wonderful opportunity to rediscover a genuine classic, or encounter it for the first time and find out why it is a classic. Except for the fact that the blue caps are closer to green, the illustrations have stood the test of time marvelously, and so has a story that nowadays seems like pure fantasy (elegantly dressed street peddlers?) but that retains all the simplicity and charm that have helped it endure generation after generation.

     And now there is a sequel. Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer, president of the Slobodkina Foundation and the author’s friend and business associate for the last six years of Slobodkina’s life, incorporates original Slobodkina art (from multiple sources) and follows a story arc that, although created by Sayer, hews closely to what Slobodkina might have written if she had wanted to continue the tale of the peddler and the monkeys. For that is what More Caps for Sale does: it picks up where the classic story leaves off, as the peddler heads home in frustration – since the adventure with the monkeys kept him from making any sales. However, the monkeys, it turns out, are not finished with him: they follow him home, arrange themselves in a tree outside his house, and continue to make mischief. But not much mischief, really. Yes, they eat bananas in the tree while the peddler has his own supper; but when the peddler picks up a banana peel and throws it in the trash, they follow suit and clean up everything else. Yes, they insist on staying in the tree despite the peddler’s demand that they go home (wherever that might be); but that turns out well, because when the peddler is restless and cannot sleep, he looks out at the tree and sees the peacefully sleeping monkeys – a sight that helps him get to sleep as well. And then, the next day, as the peddler sets out again to try to sell his caps (the blue ones really looking blue this time), he focuses on keeping the caps balanced atop his head, not noticing all the monkeys following him. Sayer goes out of her way to include pictures showing a multicultural, multi-ethnic town, which does not fit with the ethos of the original book, but otherwise she moves the story ahead neatly, as the monkey parade so amuses the townspeople that they buy every hat the peddler is carrying – with him being all the while unaware of the monkeys walking along directly behind him. The book’s ending is a trifle disappointing: the peddler at last notices all the monkeys following him, but instead of appreciating their unwitting help, he again shakes his finger at them and again demands they go home. They do not, though – or maybe they do, since it looks at the book’s end as if the peddler’s home is going to be their home as well, whether he likes it or not. Today’s young readers will likely wonder why the peddler is not friendlier to the monkeys, especially after they help him sell all his caps, and parents may want to try to figure that out before reading the book to or with their children, since it really does not make much sense. The rest of More Caps for Sale, though, is a worthy successor to its wonderful predecessor: it stands as a fine tribute to Slobodkina as well as an attractive bit of picture-book amusement in its own right.

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