Mac Barnett likes to break the rules in picture books, such as in 2009’s warped guessing-game book, Guess Again! In his latest picture book, Count the Monkeys, he turns your typical counting book for young children on its head, and the results are terrifically fun.
Barnett and illustrator Kevin Cornell, who both nail the compelling page turn in this book, get right to work on the title page: “Hey, kids! Time to count the monkeys! It’s fun. It’s easy. All you have to do is turn the page. . .” Don’t hold your breath, though: On the first spread, one king cobra has scared off the monkeys, and we see only monkey tails to the right, as the creatures flee. This continues, as we see crocodiles, grizzly bears, bee swarms, lumberjacks, and much more. To be sure, we readers count on each successive spread—up to “ten polka-dotted rhinoceroses with bagpipes and bad breath,” no less. But we count without any actual monkeys. Welcome to Mac’s world: Things are never what you expect.
A book filled with abundant humor and lots of visual treats for children, this one was clearly created as a read-aloud. Barnett invites child readers to participate—move their hands in a zig-zag fashion to confuse the crocodiles, say “thank you” six times to the six sweet old beekeepers, cover their eyes to avoid the seven wolves, and even give each of the eight lumberjacks a high-five—and it’s a thrilling storytime romp, perfect for groups of children at one sitting. Best of all, Barnett is clever and quick-witted, his comic pacing just right: On the mongoose spread, he’s just about to celebrate the disappearance of the king cobra but sidetracks himself: “Look! 2 mongooses have chased away that cobra! Or is that 2 mongeese? I am pretty sure it is 2 mongooses.” Naturally, he asks readers for a vote.
Cornell’s dry-humored, brightly colored cartoon art is the perfect fit here. He places the reader right in the center of the action—don’t be afraid of that dizzy bee swarm, and be sure not to lock eyes with that wolf right in front of you—and his characters are exaggerated, their facial expressions particularly entertaining. He expertly builds the book’s tension as each spread gets more crowded.
Despite the hand-wringing at the close (“This is terrible! We made it to the end and there are 0 MONKEYS in this book”), this is a book that makes clever use of the endpapers. There may be a last-minute monkey sighting after all, but even if there never were, children would surely enjoy the ride.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.