Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Maniac Muffins has been on bookstore shelves for a whole week now–have you seen it yet? This picture book starring the crafty, tool-wielding monkey Chico Bon Bon features adventures in the kitchen… and beyond, if those muffins have anything to say about it!
I recently chatted with Chris Monroe, creator of the Monkey with a Tool Belt books, about Chico Bon Bon’s fourth installment, which Publishers Weekly calls “his funniest yet.”
How did the plot for Chico’s latest adventure come about?
The whole series started when I had worked part-time at a family hardware store in Duluth for a long time, as the toy buyer for a large toy department there. I wanted to create a fun character that used tools–I used what I knew and put a creative spin on it. “Monkey with a Tool Belt” stuck in my head as a great title, and a monkey worked well as the character because a monkey has good technical skills! Chico Bon Bon was one of the first names I came up with, too, out of hundreds. It just all made sense.
I had illustrated Totally Uncool (a Carolrhoda Picture Book), and the editor of that book introduced me to Adam Lerner, who was interested in my Chico Bon Bon story.
In drafts of the very first book, Monkey with a Tool Belt,
there was a section where Chico cooked, and there were lots of cooking references. But the editor thought that was a whole other book–it was quite long–so that part was pulled out of the first story. Then it was always in the back of my mind to bring back the cooking plot! I had an image of Clark making all these mistakes, with the bottom line being that mistakes could be a good thing in the end, especially with Chico’s help. I wanted it to show that a mistake doesn’t have to be terrible. It can sometimes save the day.
Chico’s friend Clark has another costarring role in this adventure. Can you tell us more about their friendship?
I always think a good hero needs a good sidekick. Clark has been kind of a goofy bumbler, so I wanted to let Clark bumble but have his creative mayhem actually help to save the day. He’s kind of an innocent, whereas Chico is more unflappable, the calm hero. I think Chico is balanced out by Clark being less disciplined. And once you’ve had a friend stuck in your laundry chute,
that’s a lifelong commitment.
What media/tools do you use to create the artwork? What is your process like?
I’m pretty old-school. I draw in pencil on illustration board, I paint with gouache, and I use India ink for all my lines. All of that gets scanned in, in the end, but it starts out very hands-on. I love the fluidity of gouache, which is kind of a less-transparent watercolor. I like that gouache and watercolor do some surprising things that I can’t control one hundred percent, which is something you don’t get with digital media. I also save details such as patterns on clothing for the painting stage, which allows for more creativity.
It’s always a little daunting to start with the painting, with a big, blank page. But it becomes fun as you get into it. There’s really no mistake in art that can’t be fixed somehow.
If you weren’t an author/illustrator, what would you be doing?
Believe it or not, I probably would have been a lawyer. I love to debate, and I enjoy applying logic and rules as part of that. Or maybe I would’ve been a journalist. I was a kid that loved school, so I was motivated [in many areas], but art always inspired me more than the other pursuits. Even from a young age, I had my eyes on attending art school.
Do you like to cook or bake? Have you ever made something that turned out to be maniacal?
I love to cook and bake! For the most part, things I make are not maniacal. I can’t think of anything that has gone so terrifyingly bad, which is good.
Does Chico Bon Bon have more adventures in the works?
Yes, Chico’s next adventure is in the works. He’ll be solving a mystery in a familiar setting… with an unfamiliar set of issues. Stay tuned!