title: This Is My Fort (A Monkey & Cake Book)
author: Drew Daywalt
illustrator: Olivier Tallbec
date: Scholastic; February 2019
While attending NCTE, I had the pleasure of attending Scholastic’s annual M. R. Robinson dinner. It’s a very nice holiday dinner that’s been hosted during NCTE for 86 years now. As with most publisher dinners, attendees are given gift bags. The bag I received contained promotional material from the publisher and one book : This Is My Fort: A Monkey and Cake book by Drew Daywalt and Olivier Tallec. It’s scheduled to release in February, 2019. I mentioned receiving the book on Twitter and Facebook as soon as I returned to my hotel room, and then I sat down and read the book. I’ve been trying to get this posted ever since.
Monkey and Cake is a new series from Scholastic. Monkey is a thin, brown character wearing only a red hat. Cake is a slice with pink skin and arms.
This cake is oh! so privileged, particularly next to the thin, brown monkey with no clothes on their back. OK, Cake has no clothes, either but they are thick, two layered slice with frosting and even a cherry on top to add to their symbols of privilege. I perceive them both as gender neutral. Ask yourself who looks more wealthy. More educated. That’s privilege.
The pair are fairly cordial to each other, even when Cake tells Monkey that they’re building a fort and no monkeys are allowed in. Cake sits on their pompous, overstuffed chair and tells Monkey that they know Monkey wants to come in but, Monkey may not enter. No monkeys allowed.
Doesn’t that echo real life?
Well, this Monkey doesn’t display the temperament of most anthropomorphic monkeys. They sit patiently, observing Cake, waiting for them to finish. When Cake says they’re done, Monkey then says “Good! Then I am done, too.” Of course Cake says, “I see no fort. You are a fortless monkey.”
This Monkey says “I am a fortfull Monkey. My fort is the whole world except for your fort.” They point out the wall and state, “The wall to your little fort is also the wall to my ‘rest of the world’ fort.” Oh, those pesky walls.
How do you think Cake feels now? And Monkey? Who’s been empowered?
Things got flipped didn’t they, on me and on Cake.
Daywalt developed the Monkey & Cake book series to address deep, philosophical questions with young children. I don’t know how he chose to pair a cake and a monkey for the series, but in this particular book with these particular images, he’s hitting on really big, really important questions that we all tend to avoid. Issues of sharing, friendship and power are obvious, but he also manages to touch on racism, privilege and imperialism. Forts are perfect examples of imperialism. I like that Monkey isn’t burdened with the racist overtones of most anthropomorphic monkeys; that they don’t have any of the stereotypical tropes that these characters often display and, I’m glad that they clearly out maneuver Cake. Yet, there’s enough offered through the images to bring race into the story and blacks are still equated with monkeys.
Can the centuries old concept of equating blacks with monkeys be eradicated through children’s books? Monkey and Cake comes so very close. The problem remains that when you look at the Cake you see a privileged white person and when you look at Monkey, you see disadvantage and… you see a monkey and that monkey is seen as a black person. How could the story be told without the monkey, because it’s otherwise a very powerful story. This is the same dilemma that exists with Voices in the Park (by Anthony Brown) that teaches a powerful message but with anthropomorphic apes. Or, do we just talk about the monkey in the fort?