Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Of Hateful Hippos and Hissing Cobras

Never Smile at a Monkey
by Steve Jenkins

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2009

If legendary children's author Eric Carle ever developed a grumpy side, he would have written something similar to Steve Jenkins' misanthropic animal book, Never Smile at a Monkey, a compendium of some of the world's most malicious and dangerous animals.

This book is for the more skeptical child, who recognizes that, behind all the soft fur and cute noises, most of our world's most adorable animals are also brimming with spite. Steve Jenkins pulls no punches, and writes with the sort of brutal honesty a growing child needs; after all, in a world that contains such horrors as the duckbill platypus, we should always remember to stay on our guard. In addition to the brief descriptions of the horrifying reality of each animal's life, Jenkins helpfully includes an appendix which tells you where not to go if you want to avoid these malevolent creatures, plus additional information in case your first encounter didn't quite convince you.

A sort of anti-Brown Bear, Brown Bear, the creatures in Never Smile at a Monkey could have been created by Bill Martin Jr.'s evil alter ego; they aren't quite bathed in blood and vitriol, but some of them wear expressions that tell you they soon might be. My personal favorite is the hippo, whose brown, hateful eyes make it look like an angry drunk on a bender, though the spitting cobra is clearly having none of it. Even the stingray, whose eyes are beguilingly innocent, resonates with danger. These illustrations are hilarious in their sincerity, as if they are daring you to laugh. It's hard to look at that glaring monkey face and not laugh, and therein lies the true danger of this book. Because, really, you shouldn't ever smile at a monkey.

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