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Top 100 Picture Books #14: Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

#14 Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina (1947)
78 points

What I REALLY love about this book is that it is possibly the most fun book to read aloud to a kid (or many kids) ever. I can’t separate my feelings for the book itself from the experience of reading it interactively. What kid doesn’t make a great monkey? – Amy M. Weir

As a first-grade student of mine once whispered of this book in great anticipation, “It has monkeys!” Children are natural pranksters, and the disappearance of the caps delights them almost as much as the reason for that disappearance. Then the peddler has a little tantrum—just like they do! The monkeys copy him, which is even more funny, and then he throws his cap on the ground, so of course we get both a happy solution and a nice little twist. Carefully, the peddler puts his caps on his head once more, framing the narrative with tall stacks of colors. Like the third bowl of porridge Goldilocks ate, it’s just right. – Kate Coombs

By rights I should probably call this book by its proper title.  Not merely a simple “Caps for Sale” the name of this book is actually Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business.  *deep gasp of air*  It’s a mouthful.  A mouthful and one of the best readaloud picture books of all time.  Of course, I’ve always been a little torn on how to pronounce the “tsz tsz tsz” that the monkeys are always saying.  Any librarians out there have any Caps for Sale readaloud tips or tricks they’d like to share?  Cause that part always kind of throws me for a loop.  But if you stand in front of a group of kids and announce that you are going to read this book, inevitably hands will shoot into the air and the kids will start telling you how they love that book / have that book / have read that book / etc.  It’s very rewarding.

The B&N encapsulation of the plot reads, “A cap peddler wakes from a nap to find all his caps are gone – a bunch of naughty monkeys have taken them up a tree. Angrily shaking his finger at the monkeys, the peddler demands his caps back, but the monkeys only shake their fingers and say ‘Tsz, tsz, tsz.’ No matter what the peddler does, the monkeys only imitate him. Finally, the peddler is so enraged he throws his cap on the ground-and all the monkeys follow suit!”

According to 100 Best Picture Books for Children, Slobodkina was a Russian immigrant to America who was part of the American Abstract Artists (some reports say she started it) and showed her work alongside Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, and Piet Mondrian.  Picture books supplemented her income and when she decided to illustrate her own tale, this was one of the ones she settled on.  Says 100 Best Picture Books, “The artwork for the first edition used only three primary colors.  But in 1947 Slobodkina revised the book, adding in ocher, red, and robin’s-egg blue.  Both the colors and the style of the art had been inspired by the work of the primitive painter Henri Rousseau.”

This 1947 construct should undoubtedly have dated itself by this point.  So why hasn’t it?  Maybe it has something to do with the construct.  As Literature and the Child by Cullinan and Galda (5th edition) puts it, “the popular old favorite, Caps for Sale, has a cumulative sequence.  Rhyme and rhythm help children predict through sound – the rhyming of words in a regular beat, or rhythm.”  Doesn’t hurt matters any that the book’s a hoot to boot.

Caps for Sale?  Unequivocal success.  The sequel Circus Caps for Sale?  Well, at least one reader recently sent me a note in which they described Circus Caps for Sale (“formerly known as Pezzo the Peddler and the Circus Elephant“) as an unnecessary sequel.  It may have its defenders, but I’ll tell you right now that nobody but nobody put it on their Top 10 Picture Books lists that they sent me.

If you are interested in seeing other books by this author/illustrator, high thee henceward to the Slobodkina Foundation where there is a lovely list of titles, thumbnails of all the covers included.  There are also more than a few Caps for Sale activity pages available for downloading.  Go hog wild with ‘em.

Want the original art?  The site goes on to say that, “At age 90, she designed a mini-museum in Glen Head, Long Island as a place where guests can view more than 500 works of art, handmade dolls and jewelry, and the complete collection of Slobodkina’s children’s books, including some original illustrations. Functioning both as a museum and a reading room for children, the charitable Slobodkina Foundation actively preserves the legacy of Esphyr Slobodkina’s prolific, multifaceted career.”  Long Island!  Who knew?

The New York Times said of it, “From an old folk tale [the author] has fashioned this bright picture book, infusing it with a humor which seems to have sprung from her own hearty enjoyment of the troubles of a peddler with a band of monkeys.”

In terms of pronouncing the author/illustrator’s name, perhaps this next video can be of some use:

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. My “tsz tsz tsz” is a sort of hissy thing through your teeth that sounds vaguely like a whole treeful of little monkeys… or maybe it sounds more like tree frogs… well, it sounds somewhat like a Tropics room at a zoo, anyway. I always start by, before I show the book, saying that I’d like the audience to play a part in this story, but I’m not going to tell them what it is yet so it’s a surprise for the people who don’t know the book. And I say “SO KEEP IT A SECRET.” Most of the time when I DID show the book then, the kids who knew it WOULD exclaim happily but would play along and not tell the others, though occasionally there were immediate shouts of “IT WAS THE MONKEYS!” Either way, when we get to “…and what do you think he saw?” the shouts are enthusiastic. Then I have the audience do whatever the monkeys do. And when they figure out the pattern by the end, they just light up.

    Like I said, it’s just so fun. Still my first go-to emergency story time book.

  2. The limited palette is so deeply embedded in my consciousness that I get a tangible feeling of being young again when I see those caps. Amazing – like Lynda Barry was saying at ICON7 this evening, how illustration really does connect us to things emotionally like nothing else, especially those made by hand.

  3. I pronounce it “chi chi chi” or “chee chee chee.” Not quite accurate? Then sue me. It sounds more like monkeys–or the idea of what monkey should sound like. This book never fails to get lots of laughs. I remember when Captain Kangaroo would read this book on the air. And Virgina Burton books. Ah, the glory days of kids TV!

  4. Meredith says:

    We always blow raspberries for the monkey sound. I’m sure that’s not what it’s supposed to sound like, but it’s funny, and the kids sure like doing it.