March 01, 2018


Baby Monkey, Private Eye. By Brian Selznick and David Serlin. Pictures by Brian Selznick. Scholastic. $16.99.

Little Critter Bedtime Story Boxed Set. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $11.99.

Beat Bugs: Honey Pie. Adapted by Cari Meister from a story by Michael Stokes. HarperFestival. $3.99.

     There is adorable, and then there is adorable, and then there is Baby Monkey. The first very-young-children’s book by Brian Selznick, best known for his remarkable conflation of narrative and illustration in works such as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is a very simple story, co-written with David Serlin, that gains inordinate depth and fascination through Selznick’s meticulous illustrations. The shading, the lighting, the black-and-white pictures that seem more colorful than most colored ones, are pure Selznick; so is the book’s overall structure, which is not quite illustrated easy reader, not quite graphic novel, not quite anything like other books for young (or very young) readers. The word level here is the simplest possible: “Who is Baby Monkey? He is a baby. He is a monkey.” And he is wide-eyed and huge-eyed, small-bodied and big-headed, with the fur on his head coming to a kind of pointed topknot. He is scrumptiously cuddleable – but that proves important only in the last of the book’s five chapters, a sweet finale called “Baby Monkey’s Last Case!” Prior to that, Baby Monkey is seen in the traditional noir detective setting, repeatedly solving improbable case after improbable case, one involving jewels, one involving a pizza, one involving a clown’s red nose, and one involving a spaceship. Yes, the cases become increasingly ridiculous throughout the book, and all proceed the same way: Baby Monkey sits in his office reading a relevant book (Famous Jewel Crimes, Famous Pizza Crimes, and so on), a distraught person comes in to report a theft, and Baby Monkey writes notes, studies footprints, and solves each case. Oh, yes, the pants. He also struggles in each case with putting on his pants – this proves harder than finding the bad guys, and every bit as funny. Those “bad guys” are animals decked out with traditional burglar’s masks, and seeing tiny Baby Monkey standing triumphantly on tied-up Zebra is hilarious – but no more so than trying to imagine how tiny Mouse stole a gigantic spaceship. The hilarity here is multifaceted and also has considerable depth: each “setup” scene at the start of a case shows different items on the walls and elsewhere in Baby Monkey’s detective office, and all those items relate directly to the case and to real-world people and events – there is a key to everything at the back of the book. This element of Baby Monkey, Private Eye will enthrall older children and delight adults, even as the extreme simplicity of the story and the tremendous cuteness of Baby Monkey will captivate the youngest readers, and even pre-readers. This is an exceptional book on many levels, very different from most that are intended for young children, and it is also a book that is exceptionally clever – for example, in the case of the clown’s missing nose, Selznick’s illustrations of the clown use positions and angles that make it impossible to tell whether the clown even has a nose (a real one); it is only after recovery of the missing item, when the bright red clown nose is firmly in place, that Selznick shows the clown fully facing the reader. Baby Monkey, Private Eye is permeated with this sort of attention to detail and, as a result, is uniquely engaging – uniquely, that is, until and unless Selznick (with or without Serlin) should decide to produce another book for the youngest children.

     Mercer Mayer has been producing stories of the cutely fuzzy something-or-other known as Little Critter for more than 40 years; there are now more than 100 of the books. The small adventures of the vaguely rodent-like, plump, big-eyed Little Critter, many in books whose titles start with the word “Just,” are easy to read and also fun for reading to young children. Five paperbacks have now been collected into a package called Little Critter Bedtime Storybook Boxed Set, but in fact the books here are not specifically bedtime-focused and are fine to read anytime. They are The Lost Dinosaur Bone (originally published in 2007), Just Big Enough (2004), Just One More Pet (2013), Just My Lost Treasure (2014), and Just Fishing with Grandma (2003, co-created by Gina Mayer). The first of these books involves a closed museum exhibit that reopens when Little Critter finds a misplaced dinosaur bone; the second has Little Critter wanting to grow faster but discovering that being small is all right; the third involves a lost dog temporarily adopted by Little Critter; the fourth has Little Critter walking around the neighborhood, picking up all sorts of things he has misplaced; and the fifth is about a fishing trip that does not go as planned but proves to be fun anyway. In fact, many Little Critter books are about things that turn out just fine even though they do not work out as originally intended. The books are somewhat formulaic and the characters’ personalities simple, but Mayer comes up with enough variations on the homespun themes to keep these mild adventures amusing as well as family-focused – whether the books are read at bedtime, first thing in the morning, or at any other time.

     A strength of Mayer’s work is that its cute elements seem to flow naturally from its characters and the situations in which Mayer places them. Other attempts at cuteness in books for kids seem more forced and are, as a result, less successful. The (+++) Beat Bugs books, based on an animated TV series that in turn is inspired very, very loosely by Beatles songs, are examples. Beat Bugs: Honey Pie is a typical one. The lyrics of the original Lennon/McCartney song, given on the last page, have nothing to do with bee-made honey and nothing to do with baking pies. But the book simply uses the song’s title as a jumping-off point for a story about Granny Bee wanting to make her once-famous honey pie but being unable to remember one special ingredient. She and the other anthropomorphic insects are not really bug-like at all – they look like children dressed in bug costumes, although in fact they are simply computer-animated creations. The mild problem to be solved here is tackled by the Beat Bugs with their usual simplistic enthusiasm, as they build a make-believe TV-show set intended to remind Granny Bee of the set on which she used to do a cooking show featuring the honey pie. The approach does not work, but it does lead to a food fight – during which Granny Bee accidentally gets splattered with a glop of jam, reminding her that jam is the missing ingredient in her special pie, which she is then able to bake and share with everyone. This and the other Beat Bugs books are strictly for existing fans of the TV series – neither the characters nor the plots will likely appeal to kids who are not already aware of and pleased by the shows and concepts. Although there is a certain level of cuteness in the characters and stories, it tends to seem contrived and layered-on, making the Beat Bugs books suitable only for children who just cannot get enough of these particular characters on TV and want to read books that are, in effect, souvenirs of the animated programs.

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