Well before beginning- and leveled-readers grew into the broad category they are now, a series of learn-to-read books starring a friendly, lanky, purple monster became a sensation with students and teachers in the 1970s and ’80s. The Monster titles—among them Monster Comes to the City and Monster Looks for a Friend—were created by educators and literacy experts Ellen Blance and Ann Cook, in collaboration with New York City schoolchildren, and illustrated by a then-rising British artist named Quentin Blake.
Long out of print in their original format from educational publisher Bowmar/Noble, the Monster stories are back in a new hardcover compilation entitled Meet Monster: The First Big Monster Book (New York Review Children’s Collection). Initially planned as a May release buoyed by an author tour, the pub date was bumped up to March in light of the Covid-19 crisis to keep stock moving out of from the warehouse.
The authors first met in London in the late 1960s, when both were involved in education and literacy research. “It was a period where English primary schools were seen as the example that American schools should look at,” Cook recalled. British primary schools were being praised for their progressive and child-centered approach to education, and American foundations were funding trips for teachers to go and observe them firsthand. Cook and her husband were asked to go, and during one of their early research missions they visited a school in a very poor section of Camberwell where Blance, an England native, was teaching.
“It was just light-years better than anything we had going on in New York,” Cook said, citing the Americans’ reliance on basal readers at the time. “[Ellen’s] became a school that a lot of groups of American educators visited,” she added. When Cook later established a teacher center back home, Blance came over to New York and worked with her there. The pair formed a trans-Atlantic informational pipeline of sorts and both would travel back and forth to London at various times. “It was just a very exciting time in education,” Blance said. “Particularly in teaching reading.”
Drawing from their classroom experience and research, both Blance and Cook were fans of the Breakthrough to Literacy materials that teachers were using to teach reading in U.K. schools. “They were small books put together by several English educators working with a government group called the Schools Council,” Cook said. “They came up with dozens of little books and a word-card tool that allowed kids to structure their own sentences.”
Blance and Cook brought the Breakthrough project’s concepts and its books to the New York City schools where they were working, and the items were a huge hit. But they soon noticed that they didn’t have enough stories for the children to build on as they progressed. “That’s when we said, ‘Let’s see if we can develop some,’ ” Cook said. “All kids play monster games,” Blance noted. “That’s what hooked us on to Monster.” Thus the idea for their book series was hatched.
The two educators put together a few stories with a friendly monster protagonist and noticed that kids really gravitated toward that character. They then enlisted one of their education students at Sarah Lawrence to do some drawings. At that point, their collaboration with kids took root. Blance and Cook asked their elementary students to describe what was happening in the artwork featuring Monster. By studying the vocabulary and cadence of those conversations, Cook said, she and Blance rewrote their texts in language that would appeal to beginning readers.
Armed with those first Monster stories, Cook traveled to London and showed them to the team behind the Breakthrough to Literacy program, including David Mackay at the Reading and Language Centre and Mark Cohen at Longman, the original publisher of the Breakthrough books. As Cook remembered it, both men further encouraged the publishing endeavor. “Mark picked up the phone and called Quentin [Blake] who had been one of the up-and-coming artists he recruited from art school, and he became the illustrator.” On a subsequent trip to London, Blance said, “I went to Longman’s office and met Quentin Blake. We talked about what Monster should look like and even what color he should be. And that’s where it all started. Quentin was at the beginning of his career. It was fascinating.”
The first 12 Monster books by Blance, Cook, and Blake published by educational press Bowmar/Noble, were very successful in U.S. schools, and Cook noted that she and her fellow creators were asked to do a second dozen. “After we did 24, Quentin became the illustrator for Roald Dahl, which was a fulltime job,” Cook said. “We did six more Monster books with illustrator Irene Trivas, who adapted Quentin’s style very well.” Altogether there were 30 Monster titles and they were published in several languages around the world into the 1980s. At the height of the books’ popularity, Cook said she received a call from Cohen at Longman in London. “He said, ‘Well, you’ve arrived. A teacher has phoned us and said that some kid had carved ‘spàgan’ on a desk. That’s Monster in Gaelic. You’ve made it.’ ”
Both authors shared many heartfelt anecdotes about how the Monster books have been well loved by kids, parents, and teachers. “Over the years, these books never actually went away,” Blance said, mentioning numerous sweet notes and letters she received, begging for the out-of-print books. She still gets requests to read the books at schools and did so not long ago at a Harlem elementary school. “When I got to the school, the teacher met me at the door and said, ‘My God, you’re like a rock star!’,” Blance said with a laugh. “When I got inside, there were a lot of old people there. Not only parents, but a few grandparents, and even the custodian was there. They had to see the person who’d written the book they read when they were kids.” Cook has had similar experiences. “People would ask us all the time how they could get copies,” she said. “They went out of print and were on eBay for ridiculous sums of money.”
Monster’s Return to Print
Getting Monster back onto bookshelves has been a bit of a long game, but something Blance and Cook always hoped would happen. In early 2011 Marshall Cavendish released a compilation entitled Meet Monster: Six Stories About the World’s Friendliest Monster and was planning to do more, but then the company was purchased by Amazon later that year and the project fell through. The rights reverted to the authors and they decided to approach New York Review Books Classics. “I noticed they had a very appealing collection of children’s books [the New York Review Children’s Collection series], with titles by people I admire, like Remy Charlip and Maira Kalman,” Cook said. She wrote to NYRB editorial director Edwin Frank and dropped off some books for him to look at in the summer of 2018. “He liked them well enough to give them to [senior editor] Susan Barba, and she got very excited about it,” Cook said.
“Edwin shared the books with me and of course anything illustrated by Quentin Blake is impossible to resist, but in this case the text was the art’s equal: wonderfully voiced, funny, immediate,” Barba recalled. “I had the pleasure of meeting Ann and Ellen soon afterwards and we agreed a collected edition of the first six stories would be perfect for the NYR Children’s Collection.”
According to Barba, one of the things she believes sets the Monster titles apart is that even after many years, they feel fresh in their category. “Early readers, because they depend on repetition for their pedagogical aims, can be tedious,” she explained. “The Monster books are rare exceptions. Ann and Ellen realized that repetition doesn’t have to be monotonous. Children love to repeat things. The Monster stories are told in a child’s voice and so the repetition is utterly natural, and even better—funny.”
Cook agreed, noting that Monster is again coming into his own. “There aren’t many books like this out there, that use children’s language, to help kids become readers, and write stories inspired by the stories they’re reading,” she said. “We’ve got a new generation, it’s true, but we still have some of the people around who remember the books and who are excited by the fact that they’re out again.”
Blake offered his take upon seeing the new NYRB volume, saying, “I am delighted that Monster is out and about again as lively and beautifully colored as ever, and making lots of new friends of all kinds.”
Though a planned tour with the authors has been canceled because of the current pandemic, NYRB is finding new ways to promote Meet Monster’s release. Among those are a YouTube video of a NYRB colleague’s daughter reading from the book, and participation in distributor Penguin Random House’s Open License Online Storytime and Classroom Read-Aloud Videos and live events.
Going forward, Barba hopes the second six Level One Monster stories as well as a set of 12 more advanced Level 2 readers will be published, though no official plans for those projects have been announced.