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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Caps for Sale: Tsz, tsz, tsz!

Caps for sale. A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and their Monkey Business
By Esphyr Slobodkina, 1940. 
Our edition: HarperCollings Publishers. Reading Rainbow Book. 

Click above to listed to the way we read Caps for Sale. 

A retelling of a folktale, Caps for Sale brings us a perfectly circular story with repetition, chanting, funny noises, humorous body movements to go with the noises and... monkeys! Lots and lots of naughty monkeys! What more can you ask for?

Well, the idea of a nice nap in the middle of the day, anger and frustration one can identify with, humour and a bit of good old counting thrown in. Caps for Sale has it all!

The Story
A fabulously dapper peddler* with a wonderful moustache walks up and down a one-street village, with a tower of coloured caps for sale piled high on his head shouting 'Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!' Nobody seems to be interested in buying a cap though, so he decides to go for a walk, making his way out of town very very carefully so as not to upset the caps.

He eventually finds a large tree and decides to have a nap. He sits down and slowly slowly leans back onto the trunk. Then he checks all his caps are still there before drifting off to sleep. When he wakes up, he feels for his caps but they are all gone, except his own checked cap. He looks everywhere, but can't find them, until at last he looks up into the tree and what does he see? Sixteen cheeky monkeys wearing sixteen coloured caps smiling down at him.

In his attempt to get back his caps, he tries finger wagging (the monkeys wag back and answer "Tsz, tsz, tsz!"), fist shaking (the monkeys shake back and answer "Tsz, tsz, tsz!", and foot stomping (the monkeys stomp back and again say "Tsz, tsz, tsz!").

The peddler is now so desperate and angry that he takes off his checked cap, throws it down on the ground and starts walking away. But then what do the monkeys do? In perfect mimicry, they too throw the caps on the ground, and the relieved peddler recovers his wares, piles them back onto his head and walks slowly, slowly back to the town shouting ''Caps! Caps for sale! Fifty cents a cap!'

*I'm using US spelling 'peddler' here instead of the British 'pedlar' because the book is in US English and I wanted to avoid confusion. 

The Illustrations

Artist and illustrator Esphyr Slobodkina's original paint and paper collage illustrations for Caps for Sale come in a wonderful palette of orangey red, turquoise blue, mustardy green and ochre, with simple lines and figures for the peddler, the monkeys and the landscape.

They are vivid and memorable and the colours are a real visual treat.

Here are some of our favourite illustrations from Caps for Sale: 

The chap himself, his caps, the street. 

Time for a nap

Shaking a finger: "You monkeys, you,
you give me back my caps!"

Stamping a foot
Desperately angry
Caps recovered
Back to town slowly, slowly. 

For us, Esphyr Slobodkina's Peddler has become another character in our house-come-stage.

As an artist, Slobodkina was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) group. As an illustrator, she was the first person to experiment with collage in picture books and is considered to have had a great influence on subsequent picture book authors of such renown as Leo Lionni  and Eric Carle, to name two of the most obvious names. Read more about Slobodkina here.

Reading it Aloud

Reading Caps for Sale is great fun for readers and listeners alike. As I said in the introduction, it simply has it all. It has repetition, both in the circular structure (walking away from and then back to the village), and in phrases and chanting, funny noises and plenty of mimicable body movements that make it all even more hilarious for young children.

It's not only the finger and fist shaking and the foot stamping, it's also all that checking the caps ("then he put up his hand to feel if they were straight- first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then the blue caps, then the red caps on the very top") which is visually great fun, with the reader's hand stretching up and up and up to the top of the pile, or all that looking everywhere for the caps ("he looked to the right of him. No caps. He looked to the left of him. No caps...", and so on).

It's interactive in terms of joining in with the words: "you monkeys, you! You give me back my caps", and then the favourite: the monkeys replying "tsz, tsz tsz". But also interactive in terms of getting up and imitating the peddler, or the monkeys, depending on the mood.

There are also great opportunities to point out colours and to count. It's funny that the peddler is wearing exactly 17 caps including his own and that exactly 16 monkeys appear to pinch all except his.

All the "slowly, slowly" walking while balancing the hats, is also a great opportunity for fun and acting out.

"Caps! Caps for sale! Fiftly cents a cap!"

We love it!

What we like about Caps for Sale 

The fact that the peddler looks so very very smart adds to the humour of him losing it, with finger shaking, fist shaking and foot stamping included. We like that.

It has anger and frustration one can identify with (I'm talking adults and children here) but then brings out the humour and ridiculousness in getting angry. We like that too.

I particularly like the way Caps for Sale makes children shift who they identify with from the peddler to the monkeys and then back to the peddler. They identify with the peddler's loss first and then get seduced by the monkey's mischievous fun, before going back to identifying with the peddler getting his caps back and making it back to town. The fact that they identify with both peddler and monkeys is why they find it particularly hilarious.

Tsz, tsz, tsz!

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Esphyr Slobodkina, 1940, copyright renewed in 1968.
(c) of the text, Ellen Duthie. By all means, copy or reproduce it, but please be nice and cite your source (author and site). 

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