Quick Pick: Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin
By Christine Brovelli-O’Brien, Ph.D., Content Contributor
“Curiosity has its own reason for existing” – Albert Einstein
When physicist Albert Einstein spoke these words to a Life magazine reporter in 1955, he may not have been thinking about a graphic novel aimed at beginning readers (or that there would one day be a graphic novel about him), but his emphasis on living a life of inquiry is a driving force in the sciences and humanities (and in most everything we do, if we’re being honest!).
In Baby Monkey, Private Eye, Brian Selznick and David Serlin intersect inquiry and imagination with a darling little creature who excels at daydreaming and investigatory work but isn’t so great at putting on his pants. Award-winning author Selznick, author of Wonderstruck, uses light and shade in his black-and-white drawings (punctuated with a bit of red here and there) to illustrate the world in which the little guy imagines his capacity for greatness. Paired with Serlin’s uncomplicated text, Baby Monkey is part graphic novel, part easy reader, and a whole lot of fun.
Take this book into the classroom and run with it! Have students write their own science mystery, either in a graphic novel style or as a chapter book or both, using their favorite animal as the main character. They’ll need to include what the case is, what the office looks like, and how the character goes about the research and investigation process. As best as possible, they should try to follow Baby Monkey’s step-by-step process of investigation: 1) look for clues; 2) write down ideas; 3) eat a healthy snack (or, you know, nap); and 4) put on pants and go out into the world armed with knowledge.
In addition to the structure of the scientific investigation process, you can draw their attention to the more subtle aspects of the text, like how Baby Monkey’s office decor changes with each case that he’s asked to solve. Map of Italy for the case of a missing pizza? Check. Portrait of Galileo for the case of a missing spaceship? You bet. How do the office decorations in their own story reflect the mystery? How do they enhance the research process?
Another idea that promotes collaboration in the classroom is to make a Chain of Clues that lead up to solving the mystery. As a class, decide on a science mystery, maybe The Case of the Missing Caterpillar. Let the kids come up with the research and clues (where could the caterpillar be? What is this hard shell on the tree branch?), each of which you write down on a slip of colored construction paper. When you’re done, link the strips of paper together, showing the kids a visual representation of how asking questions and looking for answers – including bouncing ideas off one another – leads to a discovery.
Reading Baby Monkey, Private Eye will boost the confidence of emerging readers with its integration of chapters into a picture book: It’s a “big kid” book but with neat illustrations that visually tell the story, allowing even non-readers to follow along. Pardon my potential overuse of Einstein (the guy knew a thing or two about science and the imagination), but his recommendation to never lose our “childlike wonder” is applicable to Selznick and Serlin’s book because readers of all ages can immerse themselves in it.