Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business is a children’s classic that was published in 1940. Written and illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina, it’s an adaptation of a folk tale about monkeys stealing hats, because humanity’s entertainment situation was DIRE before streaming video.
Slobodkina lived a long and fascinating life: She emigrated from Russia as a child, living in China for years before her family moved to America, where she became a prominent abstract artist and sculptor and feminist who, after meeting Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown, broke into children’s publishing as an author and illustrator. She also didn’t know shit about monkeys.
The protagonist of Caps for Sale is an unnamed and mustachioed peddler who walks around with a stack of hats yelling, “Caps! Caps for sale! 50 cents a cap!”—a line that lands well with an approximation of Conan O’Brien’s old-timey accent. I always do character voices when I read to my children, because (A) children’s books are more entertaining for ME the 37th time I read them if I’m doing voices, and (B) it’s probably good for their brain development or something. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article titled How to Read Aloud to Children:
Whenever you see dialogue, do voices. “How often does a child get the chance to hear their mom or dad using silly voices or strange voices?” says [Jim] Dale, who created 146 distinct characters while recording the “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” audiobook … Neuroimaging research suggests that dialogue in a story activates a part of the brain known as the right temporo-parietal junction, a key region for what’s called theory of mind, or the ability to attribute mental and emotional states to others.
I was shocked to learn that some parents DON’T do character voices while reading aloud. May as well sign your kid up for Sociopath School.
Anyway, Caps for Sale. Our peddler “was not like an ordinary peddler carrying his wares on his back.” He didn’t have a cart of caps pulled by a donkey, or a suitcase he laid out on a sidewalk, or a Lidz franchise in the local mall. He stacked his entire inventory on his head:
First he had on his own checked cap,
then a bunch of gray caps,
then a bunch of brown caps,
then a bunch of blue caps,
and on the very top a bunch of red caps.
The accompanying artwork throughout the book tells a different story.
The brown caps are distinctly yellow, the blue caps are closer to green, and the red caps are flirting heavily with orange. Can I ask, please, what the FUCK? Like, if the lousy ink technology of the mid-20th century couldn’t deliver on brown, then the author should have written “a bunch of yellow caps.” Why was this not noticed by ANYONE who looked at a proof of the book? And how has it not been corrected in the SEVENTY-EIGHT YEARS since it was published? Fix the colors!
Parenting is hard, okay? The other day my daughter, age 3, woke up at 5:00 a.m. with a nightmare, and after I soothed her, I couldn’t fall back asleep. Later that morning, she screamed in my face because I made her sit on the toilet to pee (she was miserable and cranky because she was holding it in, for no reason at all). Then my son, age 2, also screamed in my face for reasons I no longer remember. (It was two days ago, and I can barely recall events from this morning.) My daughter, while flailing her arms to avoid getting dressed, inadvertently punched me in the eyeball, then sulked and refused to apologize for the next hour. My wife and I gave them a consequence: We canceled our plans to take them to a fun new park with a splash pad, which served as a de facto punishment for us, since we had to parent them in a duller environment with fewer things to do. At some point I changed a diaper filled with enriched uranium and souls bound for hell.
What I’m saying is: Color the brown hats fucking BROWN, man! Throw me a bone! Until recently, my son was so bad at identifying colors that, when we took him in for his two-year check-up, our pediatrician had to convince my wife and me that he wasn’t colorblind (just, you know, dumb). Now, is that Esphyr Slobodkina’s fault? No. But she and her HarperCollins cronies didn’t help.
Right, so the peddler is hungry, but no one wants to buy any hats, and he doesn’t have money to buy lunch, so he wanders out of town and falls asleep under a tree.
When he awakens, monkeys have stolen all of the caps except the peddler’s own checked cap. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “the landscape depicted in this book is rolling, cultivated farmland with only intermittent tree cover. That hardly seems like a place monkeys would live! How can you explain that?”
I can’t! My best guess is that the people responsible for this book didn’t really give a shit. It was 1940 and Europe was at war, and everyone in America was like, “How about that Hitler, huh? Think we should, uh, do something about him? What? Monkeys? Yeah sure they live everywhere.”
Are my monkey-related complaints over? THEY ARE NOT. The peddler demands his caps back from the monkeys, and their response infuriates me even now, even after reading the book dozens of times.
“You monkeys, you,” he said, shaking a finger at them, “you give me back my caps.”
But the monkeys only shook their fingers back at him and said, “Tsz, tsz, tsz.”
I have stopped reading that alleged monkey noise as it’s written, because I do not want my children to grow up as monkey-ignorant as Slobodkina clearly did. This is not to disparage her upbringing! Fleeing the Russian Revolution for China and then America displays a hardiness and adaptability worthy of respect. But she clearly never learned anything about monkeys, and then wrote a children’s book about them littered with inaccuracies that would get my children laughed out of preschool. So I read the monkeys’ dialogue as “Oo, oo, oo” or “Ee, ee, ee.” Esphyr can tsz my ass.
Lest I come off too harsh, I want to allow that there may be a cultural basis for Slobodkina’s “Tsz, tsz, tsz” — an internet search for “what did Russian children 100 years ago think monkeys said” proved inconclusive — but even if that’s the case, why didn’t an editor adapt it for an American audience?
Not that I am trying to battle for the supremacy of American animal noises. In French, a pig says, “Gron gron,” and when pronounced with a nasal inflection, it is probably better than our “Oink oink.” In Spanish, roosters say “qui-qui-ri-qui” instead of “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but the music of the phrase is similar enough. I see no such bridge from “Oo-oo-ee-ee” to “Tsz, tsz, tsz.” It’s bad and dumb, and I resent the dead people responsible for it.
At last, the peddler retrieves his caps — he throws his checked cap on the ground in frustration, and the monkeys do the same to mirror him — and he heads back into town calling, “Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!”
He never ate lunch, and still has no money for food. The price of his nap was harassment from wild animals, and he will have to sell monkey-worn caps to non-existent customers in order to avoid starvation. Truly a lovely story for children.
Matt Ufford is a freelance writer and video host. Hire him and/or follow him on Twitter.