If an author/illustrator redefines picturebookdom’s understanding of the relationship between monkeys and their tool belts, it’s difficult to predict where they may go next. Chris Monroe is one such puzzle to me. Most picture book author/illustrators that come from other mediums tend to hail from the world of animation. Far fewer, interestingly enough, come from the world of comic strips (and those that do don’t tend to be memorable). That’s where Ms. Monroe is different. When she stepped onto the scene a couple years ago with Chico Bon-Bon, star of Monkey with a Tool Belt (one of the most requested books in my little old children’s room) she made you forget that there even were other children’s book monkeys out there. But after Chico’s sequel (Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem) it seemed clear that there should be somewhere else for Monroe to go. A topic that involved more than simply simians and their acumen with basic mechanical objects. The answer: her newest book. Sneaky Sheep has that same Monroe storytelling. That same Monroe style. It just happens to also have livestock that make poor life choices. Plus it’s a hoot. That doesn’t hurt any.
Rocky and Blossom are not good sheep. They don’t make good decisions. Living, as they do, in a low meadow with 147 other sheep and a sheepdog named Murphy, Rocky and Blossom yearn to gain access to a different meadow. High above on another mountain they can see a meadow of superior charms. One that undoubtedly has supremely succulent clover. Unfortunately for them, Murphy is no fool. The minute they try to escape he’s on their tails, taking them back. One day, however, the sheep get the drop on their guardian. Everything seems to be going fine too, until a hungry wolf takes note of their vulnerability. To their great relief, Murphy comes to their aid and they’ve all learned an important lesson . . . . for a while.
Every author/illustrator has a secret weapon at their disposal. Chris Van Allsburg treads on the edge of photo-realism. Kevin Henkes hits his readers at their emotional core. For Ms. Monroe, her secret weapon is her grasp of the English language. Naming her monkey with a tool belt Chico Bon Bon was a stroke of genius. Similarly, this new book is clever right from the get go. Say the words Sneaky Sheep a couple times to yourself and you’ll instantly realize why there are few cuter things in this world than small children saying the title. Next, look at the names of the characters. The sheep are Rocky and Blossom and the sheepdog is Murphy. I don’t know why I find these names as pleasing as I do, but there it is. Maybe it’s because Monroe is simultaneously meeting and thwarting expectations. A sheep named Blossom makes sense at first, but not a sneaky sheep. A sheep named Rocky, in contrast, doesn’t make any sense at all. And as for the name Murphy, you’d expect to see it on a guy driving a truck cross country and not on a sheepdog that clearly is not getting paid enough to watch these no good sheep.
If you were to hide Chris Monroe’s name on the cover and then hand this book to a class of unsuspecting library students taking a class on children’s literature, I wonder how many would think that the words and the pictures were created by different people. There are a couple spreads in this book where it feels like the author has given the illustrator a lot of leeway to get creative. For example, at one point the text reads, “Murphy knew a few things about Rocky and Blossom. They had been known to make some bad decisions over the years.” These seemingly simple sentences are then surrounded by a montage of terrible choices. You get to see everything from the sheep running with scissors and skateboarding without a helmet running with the bulls and playing poker with strange dogs. After much consideration, a person would have to conclude that the author and illustrator of this book were one and the same, if only because Monroe is so good and making the text funny one moment and the images funny another. She’s an equal opportunity author/illustrator in terms of humor. Not the most common creature in the world.
When one conjures up memories of children’s books where two bad animals try to escape the influence of one good animal, the first thing that comes to mind are the Daniel Pinkwater books about Irving and Muktuk: Two Bad Bears. Indeed, Monroe’s books bear (ha ha) some similarities to Pinkwater’s, if only in terms of premise alone. Like the bears and their penchant for blueberry muffins, Blossom and Rocky’s desires are primarily controlled by their stomachs. So too, for that matter, are the desires of small children. This is a desire that kids understand. That said, these sneaky sheep really find their true predecessors in all the unapologetically “bad” kids and animals that have ever graced the pages of children’s literature. From David to Brer Rabbit to any trickster you can name, their hijinks will always continue to ensue and entertain. Here’s to more Sneaky Sheep books then. Something tells me that their days of making foolish choices are far from over.
On shelves now.
Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.
- Chronicle of an Infant Bibliophile
- Window to My World
- Journey of a Bookseller
- First Star on the Left
- Annie O
Professional Reviews: The Star Tribune
Interviews: Hear a podcast over at Authors On Tour Live with Ms. Monroe about why she wrote this book in the first place. “Yeah, they’re not the brightest bulbs on the string.”
- Get a preview of some of this book by looking at it at Google Books.