Animals Inspire Brooklyn Author's Children's Books

DuQuette's 'Little Monkey Lost' Tells of Lost Primate's Adventures

By Beth C. Aplin
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

PROSPECT HEIGHTS - When Keith DuQuette was a kid growing up on Long Island, he had a lot of pets. The "little menagerie" in his room included parakeets, lizards, turtles, freshwater fish, frogs, gerbils, hamsters and mice. When he saw a monkey for the first time at a local nursery, it was only natural that he begged his parents to buy him one.

They said no, of course, and DuQuette, now 46, concedes that it was a wise decision. "I'm sure it would have been a nightmare in terms of its behavior and the state of my room," he says.

Those squirrel monkeys he first saw in a cage as a young boy have come to life in the pages of DuQuette's seventh children's book, "Little Monkey Lost," released this month by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Duquette's lush paintings and playful narrative tell the story of a young monkey in a tropical jungle who accidentally gets separated from his family.

Before he reunites with them, he encounters many different types of monkeys who teach him new things and in turn, teach him more about himself. At the end of the book is an educational supplement, with factual information about each species of monkey depicted in the book.

Kirkus Reviews has praised "Little Monkey Lost," calling it "a lovely tale on its own" and highlighting "animals that look like they will pop off the pages, and foliage so lush one can almost feel the humidity."

DuQuette, a thin man with a tousled graying hair, seems shy at first. But talking about the inspiration for his books — like the habits of blind river dolphins or the scale of Persian miniatures — reveals his endless curiosity of and excitement for the world we live in.

His research is the launching pad for his stories, but it's his imagination that makes them so appealing. He's won numerous awards, the most recent being a Junior Library Guild Children's Choice Award in 2005 for his last book, "Cock-A-Doodle Mooo: A Mixed-Up Menagerie." His 1994 book, "Hotel Animal," perhaps his most popular, won the same award and was featured on the television show, Reading Rainbow.

It's rare to have a conversation with an adult whose imagination is as consistently active as a gifted child's. "I don't think I'm unique, but I think I'm really lucky," he says, adding, "I do feel it's such a valuable thing. I feel like it saved me. It's fulfilled me, and continues to do so."

Works at Brooklyn Museum

DuQuette moved to Brooklyn in 1983. He and his wife, Virginia, live in Prospect Heights, where DuQuette has worked part-time as a library preservationist at the Brooklyn Museum for 20 years. He helps archive and display the hundreds of thousands of documents in the library's collection, and he credits the "stimulating environment" of the museum for influencing his own work. He's currently working on a new book about dogs, part of which is set in the city and part of which is set in Africa. DuQuette says he was always drawing as a child, and his childhood ambitions included being a painter as well as an architect, an anthologist and a pet-store owner (to name a few).

His father was a cartoonist; his mother was a homemaker and a fine arts aficionado. In 1983, DuQuette got a B.F.A in painting from the State University of New York, but was turned off by the culture of the art gallery world. He knew he liked paintings that told stories, and he soon tried his hand at children's books but was discouraged by his efforts.

A few years later, he met an ambitious writer and a co-worker at the museum, who inspired DuQuette to give it another try. He's been at it consistently since 1990.

One reason that may have contributed to his lack of self-confidence is that reading was not DuQuette's strong suit as a child. He says he was always placed in special reading classes in elementary school and was terrified of reading aloud in class.

Nowadays, visiting schools and children's libraries is a big part of his job; he frequently follows up his reading with a drawing activity that encourages children to take what they've learned from his stories and use their own imaginations to create something new.

These days, his only pets are cats and birds, and he says he feels lucky to have a career in which so many of his childhood enthusiasms can be explored. His early exposure to his parents' artistic styles continues to influence his work.

"Each book is not a battle, but a speaking to both sides, the fine arts side and the cartoon side. I'm still doing a very commercial thing — children's books — but I really want my books to have a level of beauty and charm."

© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2006
© Keith DuQuette 2010