Chris gets another good laugh with author Kevin Kling, who says of Chris, his book illustrator, “She is a mentor, a muse, a mystery. She subverts my subversion.”
The tow-headed boy, a few inches too young to peer over the pub table, boldly thrusts a children’s book up at the woman sipping coffee and delivers a polite – obviously coached – demand: “I would like it signed.”
“What’s your name?” smiles the author, preparing to put her signature on Monkey with a Tool Belt.
“Moses,” he replies. “What’s your name?”
“Chris Monroe. My actual name is Christine.”
Moses just giggles.
After a chat with his mother, Jacqualyn Hoffman, and a mom-prompted “Thank you,” they head outside with Moses pestering, “Will you read this to me, Mom?”
Moses is in for a treat if this is his first encounter with Chico Bon Bon, the skillful, tool-wielding monkey able to avert any pending disaster with wit and a wrench. Even better that he and his mom just bought the book at the business next door to the Amity Coffee shop in Duluth.
Marshall Hardware, a mainstay in the Lakeside neighborhood where Chris Monroe grew up, inspired Chico and his tool belt. Chris used to work there as a clerk.
“When I first started working for Marshall Hardware, I didn’t really know a nut from a bolt … but after 10 years, you just absorb handy-ness because you don’t want to be the dumb person that nobody wants to talk to in there. … Every person who comes in has a problem to solve. It was just these vignettes of problem-solving, and it was great.”
Chris’ foray from hardware clerk to author has a storybook feel. Born in Duluth, she is the second of three sisters. Her dad was a court reporter, and her mom volunteered at Planned Parenthood and at the school library, later owning several businesses before becoming a paralegal.
After East High School, she headed south, graduating from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Her art display at the Minnesota State Fair attracted the attention of Jill Braithwaite, an editor for Lerner Publishing Group, who hired Chris to illustrate Janice Levy’s Totally Uncool, a daughter’s view of her divorced dad’s girlfriend.
She lived in the Twin Cities for 18 years, doing art and working at Seward Community Co-op. She began drawing her cartoon, “Violet Days,” an offbeat look at today’s society. “I like to talk about things without being insulting. I hope it doesn’t come across that I’m disrespecting things.”
Returning to Duluth in 1998, Chris continued to do her cartoon – picked up by the Duluth News Tribune and the Minneapolis Star Tribune – and got work at the neighborhood hardware store. A collection of her cartoons, Ultra Violet – 10 Years of Violet Days, was published by X-Communications in Duluth.
Then came an opportunity, says Chris, “when what seems to be a bad situation turns good.” A woman asked to display her art in a new club in Minneapolis’ warehouse district, wooing Chris with the promise of “promoting the heck” out of it. “It sounded like this amazing promotional machine was going to kick in, and I said, ‘Great!’”
Chris took time off, drove to Minneapolis and began hanging her art in the club. She got a sinking feeling when she saw the club owners photocopying small flyers to tape in their window – the only promotion being done.
Mortified that her exhibit would be a complete bust, Chris started calling anyone she knew in Minneapolis. One was that editor at Lerner, the office being only a block from the club. The editor arrived with co-workers, including the new president/publisher, Adam Lerner, who was taking over from his father, Harry, the company founder. “He bought some illustrations from Totally Uncool,” says Chris. “When the show was over, I brought them to his office.”
Adam had enjoyed Chris’ work since Totally Uncool. “It’s actually one of my very favorite books,” he says. “Chris brought a verve to it.”
Chris was flabbergasted when Adam asked if she’d thought about writing a book, saying “If you do, bring it to me. Send it to me directly, and we’ll go from there.”
Says Chris, “To be invited by the publisher, the owner of the company, was just too good of an opportunity.”
All she needed was a story.
From being the toy buyer at the hardware store, she knew kids love tools, sparking an idea that gelled with her then-teenaged son. “Mickey and I really came up with the character together. We loved Sponge Bob and Rugrats. We wanted to create a character that could someday be animated. I had the whole tool idea because of my job, and I said, ‘What about Monkey with a Tool Belt?’ and we just thought it sounded great.”
The story came to her on a long drive, but unlike Chico Bon Bon, Chris had no tools. “I ended up writing the draft of my story on the pay stub of my check from Marshall.”
The result, Monkey with a Tool Belt, was a hit, winning national and regional awards such as ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year, Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and New York Public Library’s Children’s Books: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.
Her books help the Lerner imprint, Carolrhoda Books, Adam says. “Our picture book program has really blossomed, and it’s on par now with a lot of New York houses. Chris is a very important part of that; she’s beloved here in the company and around the state.”
Chris, in turn, admires her little monkey.
No matter the challenge, Chico Bon Bon masters it. “He always remains calm. There’s nothing that ruffles him. He sometimes get a quizzical expression, but I always try to make his expression not too alarmed, even when things are bad. … He’s pleasant when he’s fixing things; things don’t make him angry. That’s important, I always try to portray his character in that sense.”
She faced a challenge when her weekly cartoon, book writing and freelance illustrating overwhelmed her hardware clerk time. When she called in sick to meet a deadline, she knew a change was in order.
A wise woman gave her the final push. “My mom said, ‘Well, what do you want to do with your life? Do you want to work in a hardware store all of your life, or do you want to follow your dream? I think the answer is obvious.’”
How to break the news at Marshall Hardware, though, wasn’t obvious. Chris handled it in a Chico Bon Bon way. She bought a cake and decorated during lunch with “I quit.”
“I wanted it to say, ‘I’m giving two weeks notice.’ It seemed more polite, but it was just too long for the size of the cake.”
The owners understood. Now the store hosts Monkey with a Tool Belt celebrations with food and musicians. Chris’ books are on the toy shelves by a framed photo and articles.
Chris Monroe’s books join watering cans and a tractor windchime at Marshall Hardware.
Since her first Chico Bon Bon book, she has completed three more in that series, done three other children’s books and illustrated one book by Jane Yolen and two by Minnesota storyteller Kevin Kling.
Kevin may be her literary soulmate. “Kevin was more of my brother from another mother,” Chris says.
Kevin feels it, too, declaring her “Sister with a tool belt.”
For his Big Little Brother, the publisher suggested several artists. “As soon as we saw Chris’ work, that was it. I remember thinking, ‘Now she has to do it because I will never see it any other way.’ It would be dishonest to say it was just how I imagined it because truth is, it was way better. … Our first book signing we sat and laughed and laughed. … Turns out she is as funny and subversive and heartfelt as all of her drawings. They each really are her, crawling out through a brush.”
The artist business is good, Chris would agree. She does children’s workshops, and a play based on her books was performed at The Underground in Duluth. She’s working on another book, did animation for an Emmy-winning documentary with Kevin and may animate Chico Bon Bon.
She also has picked up a one-day-a-week job, “serving gin” at Vilkre Distillery. Couples at the bar occasionally recognize her and ask, “Are you Chris Monroe? We just read our kid your book before we came out on date night!”
“He’s always working for me,” Chris muses of Chico Bon Bon. Good thing she gave him a useful tool belt.
By Chris Monroe
Ultra Violet – 10 Years of Violet Days (2004, X-Communications)
Monkey with a Tool Belt (2008, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Noisy Problem (2009, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Sneaky Sheep (2010, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Seaside Shenanigans (2011, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Cookie, the Walker (2013, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Bug on a Bike (2014, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Monkey with a Tool Belt and the Maniac Muffins (2016, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group)
Totally Uncool (1999, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group) story by Janice Levy
Big Little Brother (2011, Minnesota Historical Society Press) story by Kevin Kling
Big Little Mother (2013, Minnesota Historical Society Press) story by Kevin Kling
Trash Mountain (2015, Carolrhoda Books/Lerner Publishing Group) story by Jane Yolen