Interview with Eileen Christelow, Author of the Five Little Monkey Series

Tickets on sale NOW: Five Little Monkeys
August 30-September 7
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Recommended for ages 2-7

Mischievous anthropomorphic monkeys come to life on stage in Five Little Monkeys, kicking off the second season of the wildly popular Theater Series for Young Audiences at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. The play is based on the series of books by Eileen Christelow which stars 5 silly siblings who like to do things their way and get into mischief in the process. I am extremely excited to share an exclusive interview with the award winning author and illustrator of Five Little Monkeys, Eileen Christelow.

Q. The play is a culmination of a number of your books (the antics when they make a birthday cake for Mama, meet up with a crocodile, disappear in the store and jumping!) Why was it decided to write the play that way? 

The play was written in rhyme by Ernie Nolan, although not all the books in my Five Little Monkeys series are in rhyme. The first two books in the series are my interpretations of old public domain jump rope rhymes. The other eight are my own stories based on those characters. I felt some of the stories wanted to be in rhyme and some just didn’t. However, all of them have repetitive phrases which the readers pick up on.

When Ernie Nolan took on the task of writing the monkey play, he chose plot lines from four of my ten monkey books and melded them together in rhyme. His adaptation, unlike my books, has also given the monkeys different personalities and ages.

Q. I love the way children’s theater connects the importance of reading for children. To see a live play of a beloved story jumping off the pages and coming to life is magic. Were you involved in writing the play or have any input on set design, costumes, and character development?

As an author and illustrator of these stories I have a firmly fixed picture of how the monkeys look and act. When the stories are adapted to a different  format you inevitably get someone else’s interpretation.

I did sit in when the first cast was running the lines but I was not sure how well it would work.  I went feeling skeptical about how adult  actors could become 5-year old monkeys.

Working with Ernie was a good experience – he was open to listening to my concerns and accommodating them. However as an author, if I give permission to do a play, I also have to let go—to some degree. I move characters around pages of a book. He moves them around on stage.

I’m happy with the play; especially after seeing it at Adventure Theatre, in Washington DC, with an audience of a hundred preschoolers! For 45 minutes those 3 and 4-year olds were completely rapt!

Q. How does it feel to see your books come to life on stage?

Unnerving. Exciting. I’m happy that people care enough about these characters that they want to see them on stage.

Q. What is the most challenging part of writing for children? How do you create a believable child’s (or monkey’s) voice?

The first monkey book was from the song about monkeys jumping on the bed; it was a rhyme that was around for a long time. My daughter brought it home from preschool. I was a wannabe children’s book author/illustrator at the time and I thought it would make a fun book. However, I didn’t do anything with it and wrote some other books. By the time she was in high school I looked into creating the Monkeys book series and luckily no one had done that. That meant I could do other books about monkeys.  The outcome of the song didn’t appeal to me but I knew I could work it so they are still sitting in the tree and you know Mr. Alligator isn’t getting them. Then it branched out to their other adventures of making a cake, with nothing to do, go shopping, etc.

So, I would think about a child’s way of looking at things, sometimes it was my own memories of being a child and sometimes it’s from having a child. My daughter and I talked a lot so I knew what was going on in her head and her friends.

Regarding the character’s voice, if you have a character that you know, you hear their voice and if you don’t you’re in trouble because you need that. I don’t know any tricks. It is just creating characters, some work and some don’t and you sort of know. If it is an excruciating process to make work you should probably stop.

Q. When you are writing, how do you like to have children interact with the characters? What do you want to the kids to take from the books? How about adults?

I do not write with a message in mind. I just want to create a good story.

Q. So many writers have illustrators for their books. Why did you choose to be your own illustrator?

Being able to illustrate my own words makes the process complete. I’m lucky I can do it.

Q.  How did you choose the various tools to illustrate with?

Jumping on the Bed was a night time scene so I wanted it to be soft. I used colored pencils and watercolor crayons and kept the lines sketchier. With the second book, Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree, I wanted brighter colors and used watercolor crayon. Several books were done in gouache and the last few were done on a computer, using Photoshop. I have switched to drawing on the computer because it’s such a great editing tool. I can move characters around, make them larger or smaller, change colors  without having to redraw the picture every time I want to make a change.

Q. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Who are authors that inspired you to write children’s books?

Ever since I was a kid I loved to read and draw. A book that stands out that I read as a kid is the Madeline by Bemelmans. When my daughter was little we’d go to the library and read a lot of picture books. We loved books like Clyde and Wendy Watson’s Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes  or Mr. Gumpy’s Outing by John Burningham.

Q. Self-publishing is having a big impact on writers of children’s books. What do you see as the positives/negatives of self-publishing?

How books are are sold and produced has changed. The publishing world is still finding it’s way.

Self-publishing is much cheaper now. But a good editor is invaluable. They are the most important part of the process! The other advantage to working with a publisher are their sales people who introduce books to bookstores around the country.  Of course promoting an ebook is a different process.

Q. What advice would you give to others interested in writing children’s books? 

When I was living in California, UC Berkeley Extension offered several courses and seminars for people interested in writing for kids. I had already started writing and illustrating—and collecting rejections.  I took a course with Betty Bacon who had been an editor at Harper and wrote non-fiction for kids. She was a terrific teacher. After the course, several enthusiastic students, including me, continued to meet with her every few weeks to work on our manuscripts—a sort of writer’s group.

Also, visiting the children’s section of the library and reading with my daughter was an invaluable part of my education.

The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an indispensable resource for information about conferences and locating other writers groups in your area. They host an annual conference  in Los Angeles every summer—a good place for anyone wanting to write children’s books to meet authors, editors and agents.

For anyone interested in becoming a writer or illustrator, I have an extensive links page on my website at

This is not the children’s theater of past. It’s a fresh fun approach to high quality performances designed for children. This year, the Marin Theatre Company invites families to enjoy the second season of theatrical adventures of Five Little Monkeys, James and the Giant Peach, Three Little Birds and Fancy Nancy, the Musical! and Around the World in 80 Days. Tickets are on sale NOW at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Check out their website at or call 388-5208 for ticket information.