Cartoonist and author Chris Monroe found inspiration for her picture books while toiling in a hardware store. Now she's working with Kevin Kling on a tale about sibling rivalry and love.
Cartoonist and Duluth native Chris Monroe painted the front window of the Red Balloon Bookstore in St. Paul with the image of Chico Bon Bon, her "Monkey with a Tool Belt." Monroe recently teamed up with storyteller Kevin Kling on "Big Little Brother," published by Borealis Books.
When Kevin Kling heard that Chris Monroe would be illustrating his new picture book, he hightailed it over to Wild Rumpus Bookstore to check out her work. A bookseller pulled out Monroe's "Monkey With a Tool Belt," and handed it over.
"And I just about split a gut!" Kling said. "I just laughed so hard."
Right around the same time -- possibly the very same day -- Monroe hightailed it over to the Duluth Public Library to check out Kling's work. She dug out his memoirs, "The Dog Says How" and "Holiday Inn," from the stacks.
"His writing is so charming that the more I read it, the more meaningful it became," she said. "It got funnier and funnier as I read."
The collaboration of Kling and Monroe seems, in retrospect, inevitable.
Both plumb their 1970s Minnesota childhoods for poignant and funny stories, which they spin into art. Kling, 54, grew up in Osseo, and Monroe, 49, in Duluth. "When they matched Kevin and me up, I thought that we were very similar," Monroe said. "We love Minnesota; our work is here, you know? If it goes beyond here, well, so be it, but I think he and I are both happy in the community here."
Their new picture book, "Big Little Brother," published this month by Borealis Books, is a sweet story of sibling rivalry and loyalty, featuring a bespectacled boy (much like Kling) whose younger brother is taller and heavier and stronger than he is (much like Kling's brother, Steven).
"It's a true story," Kling said. "We fought our whole lives, but when the world turned on us, there he was at my side. And I knew if he did to the world what he did to me, the world didn't stand a chance."
Monroe's illustrations, he said, were just right. "She just knocks me out. She has a similar sense of subversion."
Capturing a childhood
That subversion springs from Monroe's dry, sly sense of humor. Like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, her books make children laugh, but they make adults laugh harder.
"I love going back to her books," said Andrew Karre, editorial director of Carolrhoda Books, which has published five of them. "Her work is really multi-layered. She has a comic timing that works well in picture books."
In "Monkey With a Tool Belt," monkey hero Chico Bon Bon shows off his tools: A squeegee and a Ouija; a monkey wrench, a turkey wrench and a donkey wrench; a claw hammer, a tack hammer, a pajama hammer and a banana hammer.
In "Big Little Brother," Monroe's illustrations capture the essence of growing up in the '70s. The characters are surrounded by toys -- army men, Etch-A-Sketches, Matchbox cars, Tinkertoys and a special-edition bearded G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.
"It was almost like she was reading my mind," Kling said. "I was like, hey, there's the bearded G.I. Joe! I cannot even believe it! It was uncanny."
Not uncanny, Monroe said. She and her sisters had that same toy.
"My sister had tons and tons of Barbies, and she got a G.I. Joe because Ken just wasn't cutting it in the dating pool," she said. "Our dog chewed his feet, so he had, like, flipper feet."
Monroe's distinctive style -- highly detailed, wistful ink drawings of big-headed people -- is instantly recognizable. (Publishers Weekly says her illustrations walk "an assured line between the childlike and the sophisticated.")
The faces of her characters are deadpan, revealing emotion through slight smiles, or sideways glances.
"It's harder than it looks," she said. "I'll redraw a face 20 times to get just the right turn of the eyes, or the smile, or the look of surprise. It's all in micro-millimeters. If an eyeball is in the wrong spot, it changes everything."
Monroe grew up in Duluth's Lakeside-Lester Park neighborhood, the second of three girls. After graduating from Duluth East High School, she moved to the Cities to attend the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
After graduation, she drew ads for retailer Global Village and then landed an internship at City Pages, illustrating restaurant reviews. She created a comic strip called "Invisible Fence," ironic adventures of hipsters, which eventually morphed into "Violet Days," poignant tales of Monroe's childhood. It has run weekly in the Star Tribune for nine years.
"I dropped the title 'Invisible Fence,' because I was thinking if it ever gets really popular I'll get sued by the Invisible Fence people and they will win," Monroe said. "They will definitely win. Because they've got a lot more money than me."
Back to Duluth
For years, Monroe lived the artist life in the Twin Cities -- waiting tables and working at co-ops while fitting in art, including illustrating "Totally Uncool," a picture book about divorce, published by Carolrhoda.
She had a son, and they moved to Duluth in 1998, where Monroe took a job at Marshall Hardware in her old Lakeside neighborhood. "I thought my career would go into hibernation up here, but it didn't," she said. "It progressed."
She designed posters, CD covers and T-shirts. (Bob Dylan reportedly bought two stacks of her Bob Dylan shirts. "First they thought he was a homeless person," she said. "And then it was like, 'Oh my God, it's Bob Dylan.'") She held exhibits and shows.
"Monkey with a Tool Belt" came in 2007, inspired by hours every day spent in a hardware store. It was followed by two more Chico Bon Bon books and "Sneaky Sheep," about two sheep whose repeated attempts at escape are thwarted by a Border Collie.
The Chico books launched at Marshall Hardware. "I had Monkey Days," she said. "I sold a lot of books. People lined up outside to get autographs. Local girl done good."
But something had to give, and she gave up the world of hardware last year. "Over the years I was cutting back, cutting back. One time I called in sick so I could work on my book, and my mom said, 'Do you want to work in a hardware store all your life, or be an author?' Once your mom says that, it's like, well, I guess I'd better."
The Kling book fell into her lap rather abruptly last spring, and the deadlines were brutal, to get the book ready for fall publication. Kling wrote the story in two weeks, and then art director Dan Leary began looking around for an illustrator. "It all came together kind of insanely fast," Leary said. "You really need someone who's going to be on board right away and go over and above the normal illustrator schedule."
There was no time to second-guess herself, Monroe said, "Which I think was good. I had four days from the day I agreed to do this job to send in the cover art. Four days."
She then had a month to sketch out the illustrations, and a month to paint them and ink them. "I did that book in 64 days. Forty-four illustrations. So I had to do at least one a day, usually two," she said.
"I think I was the only illustrator who would agree to this crazy deadline. But it's just basically I really love Kevin Kling and I feel very honored to have been able to work with him. He's a superstar."
The book also has an iPad app -- the words are read aloud by Kling, with Monroe's illustrations coming to life when you tap the screen. Plastic army men speak, characters leap and tumble, doughnut crumbs fall, with a rippling of music, from a sleeping boy's hand.
Monroe's next book is already in the works. "Cookie the Walker," to be published by Carolrhoda in 2012, is about a dog who stands up and starts walking around on her hind legs.
"You've seen Chris' stuff," Karre chuckled. "You can imagine what will happen."