January 17, 2019
(++++) INSIDE OUT
This Is MY Fort! A Monkey & Cake Book. By Drew Daywalt. Illustrated by Olivier Tallec. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
Drew Daywalt and Olivier Tallec have created one of the most improbable among a great many improbable pairings of best friends in children’s books. A talking, cap-wearing simian named Monkey is not really anything new or anything particularly special, but pairing him with a big, jolly, pink-faced, pink-armed, pink-legged, cherry-topped talking baked good – that would be Cake – is a stroke of something beyond absurdity. Daywalt and Tallec never explain how something like Cake could possibly exist or become friends with Monkey– these are children’s books, after all, and in that realm, Cake is not really much more outré than Monkey. And the point of the Monkey & Cake books is not really the characters, as offbeat as they are. The point is the way the characters interact, the sorts of disputes they get into, and the way they resolve their differences.
There is considerable intellectual underpinning here. These are not little arguments along the lines of who gets to play with a toy (typical decisions: share it or take turns). The Daywalt/Tallec books are based on arguments grounded in philosophical concepts, never stated directly but foundational to the stories. Thus, the question of inclusiveness and how to define it is the basis of This Is MY Fort! The tale starts simply enough, with Cake building himself a make-believe fort that includes a comfortable chair with a blanket draped over it, a reading lamp, a broom, an umbrella, some books, and a few odds-and-ends. “I am making a fort to keep out Monkeys,” says Cake – never explaining why, just announcing his plan. Monkey, of course, is distressed to be told, “No Monkeys are allowed in my fort.” Monkey explains that he likes forts, and Cake says he knows, but this fort is for Cakes only.
In other children’s books, the rejected character might get angry and upset, might cry, might even complain to an adult. Not here. Monkey looks a bit dejected and then simply sits on the floor looking at what cake is doing – being thoughtful. The wordless two-page illustration showing him intently watching Cake complete the fort by rolling up the edge of a piece of carpet to mark the fort’s perimeter is key to what happens next and is beautifully done. After this scene, Monkey asks Cake if the fort is done; and Cake, sitting in the chair with the blanket almost covering him, say yes, he is finished. That means, says Monkey, that he is finished, too. Confused, Cake asks just what Monkey is finished doing. And Monkey says his fort is now finished. Impossible, says Cake: “You are a fortless Monkey!” Not so, declares Monkey. The wall that marks the edge of Cake’s fort – that is, the rolled-up part of the piece of carpet – also marks the wall of Monkey’s fort, which consists of “the whole rest of the world.”
“My fort is big. It is huge,” Monkey states, and “your fort is small.” And Cake realizes that his fort is small. Not just that, says Monkey: “Your fort is a trap! …Your fort is a cage. You are in a cage, Cake!” Now Cake is upset, saying he does not want to be in a cage – he wants to be free! Can he please leave his fort and go into Monkey’s fort – that is, into the world outside the Cake fort? No way, says Monkey – until, after teasing Cake a little, he says that of course Cake can come into the rest of the world: “This fort is for Cakes and Monkeys and everyone.”
Lesson learned, Cake happily leaves his little fort and moves into Monkey’s huge rest-of-the-world fort, and the two friends join hands and dash off to eat pie, because – well, why not? The point here is an unusually clever one for a book for young children: the very youngest readers of the book will enjoy the silliness of the characters, the brightness of the drawings, and the easy progress of the story, while older-but-still-young kids will get more out of This Is MY Fort! Yes, it is a book about friendship, but it is also one about boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise – and about the way in which a redefinition (Monkey’s clever assertion that Cake’s fort’s wall is also the wall of his fort: the rest of the world) can change people’s (and Monkeys’ and Cakes’) perception of a situation and produce a breakthrough in understanding. This is in fact a very adult theme, and one that grown-ups can and do find enormously useful when dealing with intractable problems of all sorts. Finding this redefine-to-change-perception message used so effectively and humorously in a book for young children is highly unusual, and turns this book and this pair of most-unlikely friends into something significantly more interesting and useful than will be found in the great mass of pleasant but far more ordinary picture books.