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Brian Selznick. Photo: Slimane Lalami.
At only 192 pages, Baby Monkey, Private Eye is modest by Brian Selznick’s standards, but probably the biggest beginning-reader book you’ve ever seen. Written with his husband David Serlin, Baby Monkey, Private Eye is yet another challenge by Selznick to the limitations of genre.
Roger Sutton: Brian, this is a very young book for you. And, of course, David, it’s a very young book for you, as it is the first time you’ve written for children. I’m wondering where it started?
BS: Early on in our relationship, twenty years ago or so, I noticed that when David is tired, he looks very much like a baby monkey. For a long time we’ve had a joke about it, and at some point we started talking about what types of jobs would be funniest for a baby monkey to have. We settled on private eye. After I finished The Marvels, I was talking to Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, and she asked what I wanted to do next. I already had an idea for one of my “big books,” as David says — another six-hundred-page illustrated novel. Tracy asked, “Do you maybe have anything that’s a little shorter or for younger kids? Something a little different?” It takes Tracy and me around three years to make these big books, and I thought to myself, “Tracy wants a bit of a break.” Again, as a joke — because I didn’t have any other ideas — I said, “Well, David and I have this little character we call Baby Monkey, Private Eye…” Her eyes lit up, and she said, “I want that book.”
DS: We thought it would be funny if Baby Monkey was a genius at solving crimes, but there were certain things he just did not know how to do. He would solve a jewel heist, but he could barely climb a wall. Or he was able to crack a code, but he didn’t know how to get from the ground into a tree. The through line that seemed to make us laugh the most was the idea that he could solve any crime, but he had a hard time putting on his pants.
RS: Little kids are going to adore that. The mysteries, too, in this book are young. There’s no detection. He sort of looks at the footprints, and aha!, there it is. There’s the zebra all trussed up.
DS: Luckily, all the criminals happen to be right outside his office. We wanted to focus more on the idea that he just can’t get his pants on. For him, the solving of the crimes was super-easy.
BS: And then we started thinking about beginning readers and repetition. Kids can sound out a word the first time, and by the second, third, fourth time, they know what the word is and feel like they’re mastering the reading. This is an almost-two-hundred-page beginning reader with very few words! And we’re trying to tell the story with the pictures as well, in a way that grows out of some of the stuff I’ve been doing with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck and The Marvels. The first three stories in Baby Monkey have the exact same repetition; then we break the pattern with the fourth story, and wrap it up with the fifth story. The book feels like it has a satisfying arc.
RS: It almost feels sculptural to me. There’s so much repetition, not just in the language, but in the events. Kids can predict most things before they turn the page. It’s like watching a pattern or a dance.
DS: Seeing those repeated patterns makes us laugh, but it also offers a comfortable familiarity. If that can be translated into the experience of reading, then it’s a great accomplishment for a kid. The book is pleasurable, but at the same time it has a certain — I don’t want to say didactic — a quality of teaching kids something about the process of reading and experiencing art.
BS: Using repetition also allowed us to incorporate the element of surprise in big and little ways. You know by the second or third story that Baby Monkey is going to have another snack, but you don’t know what the snack is going to be. And there’s the surprise of the pattern breaking, which means you recognized there was a pattern in the first place.
RS: And Baby Monkey gets better at putting his pants on.
BS: Practice makes perfect.
DS: The first time it takes about eight pages, and by the end it takes only about four.
BS: David posed for every single one of the characters in the book, so if you ever need any blackmail material, I have pictures of him trying to put on his pants in all of those positions. He’s also the opera singer, the pizza chef, the astronaut…
DS: The clown.
BS: And Mother Monkey.
RS: To me, Else Minarik and Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear is all over Baby Monkey, Private Eye. Am I wrong?
BS: No. Little Bear is a very big influence. Maurice Sendak has been a huge influence on all of my books. Every children’s book that was made after Where the Wild Things Are owes a debt of gratitude to it. The mother at the end of Baby Monkey is very consciously designed after the mother in Little Bear. I felt like I had no choice but to go to Little Bear and hold hands with Maurice across time with the mother.
RS: For Little Bear — the first I Can Read book — Ursula Nordstrom thought it was important that a beginning reader had chapters, that it should be as much like a “real” book as possible. And all the stuff that you included at the end—notes, bibliography, index—adds to this idea.
DS: One of my frames of reference was the scholarly books that I do in my professional life. [David is an associate professor of communication and science studies at UC San Diego.] Baby Monkey is reading a book in each of the five scenarios — books like Famous Babies I Have Known and Famous Pizza Crimes — and at some point we said, “Let’s make a bibliography.” From there it was like, well, if we’re going to have a bibliography, then we should have an index.
BS: I thought David’s idea to have academic back matter for a beginning reader called Baby Monkey, Private Eye was hilarious. The more he came up with, the more there was to make up — it wasn’t just the book titles, it was the authors and the publishers, too. And if you go to the Baby Monkey website, David has written biographies for each of these authors, who have names like Melissa Eyelash and Barbara Bathtowel. It was just fun to treat this as if it were a nonfiction title. David thought we needed a key to the drawings, because the office of Baby Monkey’s detective agency subtly changes from case to case; the art on the wall and the book he’s reading reflect the case he’s about to undertake.
DS: I really like the idea that the key, the index, and the bibliography give the book a sense of gravitas.
RS: It’s also fun to have a beginning reader that’s big.
BS: We wanted to leave kids with that sense of accomplishment. A new reader can walk around with a two-hundred-page chapter book. It’s hardcover and the paper is really thick, so the book is properly heavy.
One of the things I love about something like Sendak’s Nutshell Library is that you get this little box, and you look at all of the details on the box and each of those individual little books. So much obvious care and time have gone into the design. That’s definitely been something that has always been on my mind, the consciousness that time and love and care have gone into making this book for you, the reader. We do want you to laugh. But it’s hard work to be funny, and we want you to know that we’ve taken it all very seriously.
RS: Well, reading is hard work. Brian, when I think of your last three books, plus this one, each in a different way teaches us how to read it as we go. I remember when I started Wonderstruck, I thought, “All right, this is going to work like Hugo Cabret.” But not really — sure, in some ways it’s like Hugo Cabret, but in other important ways it’s different. It seems to me that with every book — particularly for a child learning to read — you’re learning the rules as you go. The rules are going to change, but there are some constants across an artist’s oeuvre — or even across every book a person reads.
BS: Hugo Cabret started as a 190-page chapter book, and while I was working on it I got the idea to replace some of the text with picture sequences, which is why the book got longer and longer. Because I had never seen a book do anything quite like that in the form of a novel, I opened Hugo with a page that’s part of the story, but it’s actually directions for how to read the book. The first page essentially says welcome to this book. What you’re going to see is the story of this boy. You’re going to see a train station. You’re going to find a boy. Follow him. This is Hugo Cabret, and this is his story. That opening made me feel confident that readers would feel comfortable with the format as they moved into the book.
By the time I did Wonderstruck, it became clear that readers were comfortable jumping into the story, so I started right from the beginning going back and forth between pictures and text. As you pointed out, Wonderstruck is doing something entirely different from what Hugo was doing, and then The Marvels, again, is something conceptually different. But they’re all created with the idea that the pictures are needed to help tell that particular story. It’s about finding out why you need the pictures and what the pictures are doing.
DS: It also treats the book like a kind of technology that teaches you how to use it as you use it.
BS: Right. And with Baby Monkey, Private Eye you open the book to an entire double-page spread that just says “WAIT!” We thought that would be a great way to begin the book — you see a word that’s really big, and then you get a series of questions (“Who is Baby Monkey?”) to lead you into the book. I love the idea that every book teaches you how to read it. Sometimes there are hints, like in Hugo Cabret, and sometimes you just open the book and it does its work. Hopefully that’s part of the pleasurable experience of a book, figuring out how to interact with it.
DS: This book, had it been created by someone else, might have treated everything as a kind of ironic wink. I think irony — certain kinds of irony and certain kinds of winking — is too easy. We’re trying to take seriously the experience of kids who are learning how to read with their parents, their librarians, people in their lives. We’re not just making fun of the genre because we are making Baby Monkey into a little film-noir monkey; we actually care about what it means to read and also to explore a book. Having a book that you hold in your hand as opposed to a Kindle, something that you want to return to over and over again — we’re treating this book as an object that you play with, you grow with, you spend time with. That’s how people often respond to Brian’s books. It’s not just: I read it, I put it back on the shelf. There’s this eagerness to return to it and take a look, and oh, I totally forgot about that, or I don’t remember if I learned that through words or through images. It might seem like a wink to have put in the index and the bibliography, but it’s actually the opposite.
RS: The only thing that felt like a wink to me — but I could be convinced it’s just me — is that the drawing of the zebra looks kind of kinky.
BS: It’s just you, Roger. It’s just you.
DS: Roger, I have no idea what you’re talking about.
I will say this: Baby Monkey in all of the pants sequences and all of the victims of the various crimes are based on me, but the snake, I think, looks like Brian. Especially the page showing the newspaper with the headline “SNAKE GUILTY” — there’s something about that picture that makes me think, “Brian has done a little self-portrait.”
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