In 1940, a young artist who was a rising star in the abstract art world of New York City assumed a leading role on another stage, with the publication of Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business, written and illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina. Seventy-five years later, HarperCollins is publishing a sequel to that bestseller and storytime staple, More Caps for Sale: Another Tale of Mischievous Monkeys, penned by Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer and illustrated with art that Slobodkina created before her death in 2002. The publisher is also releasing a 75th-anniversary edition of Caps for Sale to commemorate this milestone.
Born in the Siberian town of Chelyabinsk in 1908, Slobodkina grew up in Manchuria and studied art in Russia and China before immigrating to the U.S. in 1928. She attended the National Academy of Design in New York City and went on to become a celebrated abstract artist and a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group, which debuted in 1936 to promote understanding of abstract and non-objective art.
Slobodkina launched her book career in 1937, when she met Margaret Wise Brown, who worked at publisher W.R. Scott. Brown invited Slobodkina to share her portfolio, which included a picture book, Mary and the Poodies, which she had written and illustrated. Impressed with Slobodkina’s avant-garde abstract collage art, Brown agreed to publish the book, and also hired her to illustrate a book that Brown had written, The Little Fireman. Brown encouraged Slobodkina to write more of her own books, and she wrote and illustrated The Wonderful Feast soon thereafter, but it wasn’t published until 1955.
In 1940, W.R. Scott published Slobodkina’s third solo effort, Caps for Sale, which Harper & Brothers picked up and reissued in 1947. That book, centering on a peddler who wakes up from a nap to discover a tree full of pesky monkeys wearing his caps, has been translated into six languages and has sold more than three million copies in North America alone. The picture book received a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958 and was elected to the ABA Picture Book Hall of Fame in 2013.
While continuing to create paintings, Slobodkina wrote and illustrated a roster of additional picture books – 22 in total – and in 1958 followed up Caps for Sale with Pezzo the Peddler and the Circus Elephant, which HarperCollins reissued as Circus Caps for Sale in 2002. The writing of More Caps for Sale: Another Tale of Mischievous Monkeys, which picks up the storyline of Caps for Sale, was inspired by the friendship that began between Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer in 1995, when the latter was a student at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Conn.
A New Chapter Opens
“At the time, Esphyr was also in West Hartford, and had built the Esphyr Slobodkina Urquhart Children’s Reading Room at the University of Hartford in 1991, in honor of her late husband, William Urquhart, who was an alumnus of the school,” explained Sayer, now president of the Slobodkina Foundation, which is dedicated to showcasing and preserving the artist’s work and legacy. “Esphyr decided she wanted to hire someone to make musicals based on her books, and I auditioned and got the job.”
Sayer, who lived with Slobodkina for a while on Long Island after graduating from Hartt in 1998, recalled asking the author why she hadn’t done a sequel to Caps for Sale. “In truth, Esphyr never had a lot of spare time,” she said. “She started doing children’s books as a way to survive, but she began to shine as an abstract artist and took a break from writing for a period of years. I’ve performed the musical adaptations of her books since 2000, and I started pondering, ‘What happens next to the monkeys?’ ”
When Sayer’s curiosity enticed her to write More Caps for Sale after Slobodkina’s death, she pored over her published and unpublished writings and her visual archives, which include some 2,000 pieces of art. Her collaborative experience with her mentor was a big help, said Sayer. “Having known Esphyr so well, I was aware of certain things, like she was quite heavy-handed about how she wanted the characters to be presented, emotionally and dramatically, and that was useful as I did the sequel.”
Sayer culled from Slobodkina’s abstract art as well as her children’s book illustration to select pictures for More Caps for Sale. “Her abstract paintings are very much part of her children’s books,” said Sayer. “If you look at Caps for Sale, for example, you’ll find many angular shapes. Esphyr’s houses and churches are not typical – they’re a bit off-kilter, and that’s what makes her art so interesting.”
Staying True to the Original
Sayer carefully developed each page layout for the sequel the way she believed the artist would have done it. “I scanned the original art,” she explained, “extracting and manipulating images to create desired scenes using Photoshop – stacking objects such as trees, chairs, buildings, caps, and monkeys in a layered, digitized format, which is, in reality, a modern version of Slobodkina’s collage technique.”
Agent Kirsten Hall of Catbird Productions was thrilled when Sayer approached her on behalf of Slobodkina’s estate, to broker the sequel deal with HarperCollins. “Caps for Sale has been one of my absolute favorite books for as long as I can remember,” she said. “It’s such a perfect read-aloud – resplendent in mimicry and fun. The art has a timeless appeal, with its unique palette and quirky characters, and I was delighted by how meticulously Ann Marie handled the art for the sequel. It was clear she was genuinely carrying forward Esphyr’s vision and style, and I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of the process.”
Similarly, senior editor Alyson Day, who worked with Sayer on More Caps for Sale, noted that she was both impressed and inspired by the author’s passion for the project, saying that she and Sayer were both committed to honoring Slobodkina’s “voice and style” in More Caps for Sale, which includes an About the Authors afterword recounting the friendship between Sayer and Slobodkina.
Due out on September 1 with a 75,000-copy printing, the anniversary edition of Caps for Sale features a commemorative burst on the cover and showcases Slobodkina’s original art. “To honor the original book, we rescanned Esphyr’s Caps for Sale art,” said Day. “And some people in our production department had worked with Esphyr for so long, they knew exactly how she liked her colors. I’d say this was a true labor of love for us all.”
HarperCollins is planning online advertisements touting 75 years of Caps for Sale and the October 27 release of More Caps for Sale, which has a 60,000-copy first printing, as well as digital promotion and social media outreach tapping into the nostalgia of parents and educators who read Caps for Sale as children. The publisher also created a commemorative anniversary poster with activities for parents and kids, for distribution to retailers and at school and library conferences.
“Caps for Sale is what a classic is all about: it has warmth and humor – and it’s a great read-aloud,” Day said. “I am thrilled to have the chance to help introduce this book to a new generation of children, teachers, and librarians – and to have had the chance to work on its sequel. The books are well timed to celebrate Esphyr Slobodkina’s birthday on September 22 – she would be turning 107.”
Caps for Sale 75th Anniversary Edition by Esphyr Slobodkina. HarperCollins, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-201-09147-2
More Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina and Ann Marie Mulhearn Sayer. HarperCollins, $18.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-06-240545-6