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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Review of the Day: Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember
By Steve Jenkins
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
ISBN: 978-0-618-96620-2
Ages 4-9
On shelves October 19, 2009

Ladies and gentlemen do you know what your children desire? What they really want and so often are unable to attain? Practical advice. I don’t mean the kind of standard parlor fare they hear so often every day (“Don’t chew with your mouth open”, “Don’t poke the baby”, “Don’t attempt asbestos removal on your own”, etc.). I’m talking about practical advice for surviving in the wild. Here’s an example. You’re in a boat, floating down the Nile, and you suddenly find yourself facing a hippo. What, in this particular situation, should you NOT do? Hm? Any ideas? Or what if there’s a particularly charming Humboldt squid in the neighborhood and it invites you out for a leisurely swim. What should be your response? Kids are being told what not to do all the time, but it might make for a nice change of pace if they knew that if they did one thing or another they could potentially DIE a horrid and painful death. Steve Jenkins taps into the faux pas of the natural world giving us his standard cut paper lusciousness alongside a text that is funny, furious, and furry all at once. As good advice goes, Never Smile at a Monkey turns out to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Using eighteen examples, Steve Jenkins enters the natural world and tells it like it is. First off, "NEVER pet a platypus". Simple text explains that as cute as they are, "the platypus…is the only poisonous mammal." The book continues in this manner, beginning each spread with instruction on on what NEVER to do, and following it up with the explanation why. Cut paper illustrations of fish and fowl, insects and mammals dot the text. At the end further information is given about each creature, and a Bibliography for further reading is included. So don’t let that big-eyed cassowary fool you. She’ll kick you in the chest soon as look at you if she has half a mind to.

I get parents and kids in my library all the time looking for non-fiction books with words easy enough for a beginning reader. And sure, we have some leveled stuff, but when their eyes turn longingly to some of the more artistic titles you know you have to find them something ANYTHING that’s written for smaller tykes. Jenkins is careful to make the text in this book something a dedicated seven or eight-year-old might be able to read on their own. And think of all the cool new words they’ll learn! “Lethal”. “Unpredictable”. “Venomous”.

The great thing about Never Smile at a Monkey (aside from the title) is that the concept instantly grabs you. I fully intend to booktalk this to the classes of kids that come into my library by telling them, “This book could save your life!” I’ll then follow it up with, “Why should you never squeeze a cane toad? Any ideas? How about the blue ringed octopus? Can you tell me why this books says to, ‘NEVER bother a blue-ringed octopus’?” And yes, the descriptions of what can happen to you if you do not follow this book’s advice can be a little gory. But Jenkins doesn’t actually show a cassowary delivering lethal kicks to an unsuspecting person or a spitting cobra making contact with a pair of eyeballs. Kids love hearing about gory stuff anyway. When you tell them that a box jellyfish can wrap you up in its tentacles after spotting you with its twenty-four eyes and kill you instantly, they’ll be horrified and delighted all at once. You can even flip to the back of the book and see all the animals in their various attack modes, sans victims. You may never look at a platypus the same way again.

Of course, if you’ve ever seen one of Jenkins’ books then you know what to expect with this one. He makes cut paper lift off the page without the need of pop-ups (though, admittedly, I’m convinced that someday he’ll do a project with pop-up artist Robert Sabuda and then the world will gasp for the glory of it all). Essentially Jenkins has mastered (and I don’t think he really gets enough credit for this) the art of making paper fibers look like fur. Look at the cover if you don’t believe me. The rhesus monkey staring intently at you has a soft brown coat that tufts up around its ears and mouth just as real fur would. Jenkins has even found a way to distinguish this fluffy fur-like paper fiber from the equally pulled apart but not fluffy at all fibers found in the monkey’s great green irises. Turn the book to the back and there’s the monkey again, only this time his teeth are on sharp, horrid display. You’d be forgiven for hastily removing your hand from the book after looking at this.

I suppose that in a lot of ways the book this bears the most similarities to in my mind is another Jenkins title called Actual Size. He’s not really a gimmicky author, but the spin on that book was that all the images inside were the same size as they were in real life. And in both cases the cover shows a primate staring at the reader. In Actual Size the primate is small and adorable. Here, you get the distinct impression that this monkey has got your number, and he doesn’t like what he sees one bit. Kids, on the other hand, will take one look at this title and cover and find themselves irresistibly drawn to a book that instructs them in nature’s fickle ways. Another gorgeous Jenkins creation for the kids who like the thought of living life on the edge.

On shelves October 19th.

Copy: ARC from fellow librarian.

Other Reviews:
A star from School Library Journal

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Interesting factoid: (see Roger Sutton’s blog, Read Roger, for the definition of factoid) Jenkins illustrated the book I reviewed today, too. And I made the same observation about his ability to make paper look textured — only you said it much better. -wendieold

  2. I love Steve’s DOWN DOWN DOWN. The illustrations of all the sea creatures are amazing.