“Is There a Monkey on My Back?” is a short story I wrote for my kids in December 2016. A year later, my daughter Hannah Smith added the illustrations. I write a lot, usually, though, it is on topics such as digital marketing or politics. I know that good writing takes a lot of time, but writing a fictional short story turned out to the much more difficult than I imagined. The story didn’t turn out as perfectly as my brain imagined before starting, but my kids seem to enjoy me reading it to them each Christmas. I hope your family enjoys it too and benefits from some of the life lessons I tried to include as morals to the story.
Long ago, there was a monkey named James who lived in a forest with a large tribe of his fellow monkeys. When James was a boy, he loved to climb to the highest branches of the tallest trees. From there, he could see distant mountains, rivers cutting through valleys, and birds flying with freedom, power, and majesty. James imagined the other tribes of monkeys that surely must live those faraway lands. He thought up stories in his mind about what life was like with those other monkeys in those distant mountains and valleys and longed to travel there someday.
Most of the other monkeys in James’ tribe thought he was weird for climbing so high. There was no food or warmth on those high branches and all the other monkeys stayed in the lower branches or on the ground, gathering food and monkeying around for fun with all the others.
In the forest where James lived there was a lake where all the monkeys would come to get a drink each day as they were out searching for food and playing. One day James met a girl monkey named Diane at the watering hole. They enjoyed each other’s company and they began to date. For dates, they went swinging through the forest, and James even took Diane up to the highest branches of the tallest trees. Diane loved seeing these amazing views that James shared with her. James and Diane fell in love and were soon married.
About a year later, James and Diane had a baby monkey they named Mae. Mae was a very beautiful little girl monkey and James and Diane loved her very much. Like all baby monkeys, Mae rode on her parents back wherever they went. Baby monkeys are too small and weak to climb the trees of the forest to get the food they need. By riding on her mom or dad’s back, Mae got food to eat each day and learned how to be a grown-up monkey and take care of herself.
Every time James and Diane were about to head into the forest for their daily gathering of food, James would crouch down and Mae would climb on his back. James would say, in a playful voice, “Is there a monkey on my back?” Mae would giggle and say “Yes, Daddy. It’s me Mae.” And they would head off into the forest to find food and seek adventures.
James still climbed to the highest point in the trees when he had the time but he didn’t dare take his little monkey to those dangerous heights. He thought, though, that he should put the stories sparked in his imagination from those amazing views into a book for his little ones and other monkeys in the tribe to read.
James soon finished his degree at Primate University and then got a job at the tribe newspaper, the Gorilla Gazette. Diane wanted to give their baby monkey the best care possible so she stayed at home in the treehouse with Mae and took care of her all day while James went to work.
At work, James helped the newspaper print stories about politics and sports and all kinds of other things that were interesting to most monkeys. It was easy for James to get interested in those things too, but when he was honest with himself, he realized those things were not the most interesting stories that could be written.
James longed for the day when he could write his own book and fill it with the stories inspired by what he had seen as he gazed at the distant mountains at the tops of the trees. He thought those stories were too wonderful not to share and that if the other monkeys in the tribe read his book, they would have greater appreciation the beauty and majesty of the world around them.
Soon James and Diane welcomed another baby monkey to their family. This time it was a baby boy monkey named Russel. Now when James and Diane went out each day to gather their food in the forest, they each had a monkey on their back. When James went to work during the day, then Diane did all the work of caring for the little monkeys and she did so joyfully, realizing that her time together with them was short. They would soon grow up and she wanted to teach them all they could before they left the treehouse.
Having a monkey on the back isn’t just work, it is also fun, and James and Diane had tons of fun with their two little monkeys. When it was time each day to go gather food in the forest, James and Diane would crouch down. Mae would climb on her dad’s back and Russel would climb on his mom’s back. The parents would ask: “Is there a monkey on my back?” The two little monkeys would giggle, say “It’s me Mae” and “It’s me Russel” and they would head off for a day of hunting and family togetherness.
A few more years passed and another baby monkey joined the family of James and Diane. They called this baby monkey Maximillian and he was a very happy, smiley monkey. Now, with three little monkeys to take care of, James and Diane had a real balancing act to manage, but with a little practice, and a lot of patience, they kept the family fed and happy.
James continued to work at the newspaper. He was learning to be a good writer, but he hadn’t yet found the time to write down his stories in a book, and the desire to do so continued to press upon his mind. James feared if he didn’t write his book soon he may never have the opportunity. Writing the book in the little spare time he had, at night and on weekends, would take a long time but was doable. James decided that now was the time to begin, and he started writing.
A couple of nights a week, after the little monkeys went to bed, James could find an hour or two to work on writing his book. As the weeks and months went by, he was able to complete drafts for a handful of chapters in the book. James felt inspired as he wrote and was confident that this book would be the pinnacle of his life’s achievements.
James was making good progress on the book when Diane became pregnant with their fourth baby monkey. Growing a baby monkey in your tummy is no easy task, though Diane handled it as well anyone could. But still, she was sick and uncomfortable often. James tried to help more with the little monkeys, carrying all three of them on his back as much as possible so Diane wouldn’t have to. This meant less time to work on his book, but he thought once the new little monkey was born, Diane would be back to her old self and he continue writing his book.
Soon baby monkey number four was born, a little boy named Gerry. Gerry was healthy and happy and he soon joined the family’s daily venture out into the forest to hunt for food. James and Diane would kneel and the four little monkeys would climb on, two on each of their backs. “Is there a monkey on my back?” said James in the familiar way. The four little monkeys giggled and off they went to forage for food.
James was now more determined than ever to complete his book, but time to work on it was harder and harder to find. Diane, knowing James’s desire to work on his book, made a suggestion one day. Baby Gerry was a little sick and needed to stay home, so Diane volunteered to take the other three little monkeys on her back and go hunt for food, and James could stay home with Gerry.
Gerry would most likely stay in his bed and rest and this would let James have a few extra hours to work on the book. This sounded like a good plan so Diane crouched down and Mae, Russel, and Maximillian climbed on her back. “Is there a monkey on my back?” said Diane in the familiar way. The three little monkeys giggled and off they went for a day of foraging for food and fun.
James got Gerry settled on the couch with a sippy cup of milk and his favorite movie to watch, Tarzan the Ape Man. Then James sat down in front of his computer and started to write. But soon Gerry cried out for help because he wanted a different movie. James changed the movie and went back to writing but within a few minutes, Gerry cried out again because he wanted something different to drink. James patiently helped him get a new drink and then went back to writing. But only another few minutes went by and Gerry cried out again. This time, James lost his patience. He got mad at Gerry for complaining about silly things and sent him to room for an extra early bed time.
Now, James thought, he would be able to work on his book in peace. But as James sat down and attempted to write, no thoughts came into his mind. Usually he could hardly type fast enough to keep up with the thoughts in his head. Several minutes passed and still the writer’s block remained. Try as he would, James could not continue writing his book that night.
James couldn’t stop thinking about how he had gotten upset with little Gerry and he felt horrible about it. Then James thought about his dear wife Diane, off in the forest with three little monkeys in tow, doing the work by herself that was meant for two parents.
James knew that he couldn’t shirk his family responsibilities in order to write his book, regardless of how wonderful and inspiring it would be. James also had a thought that night—perhaps the best way to pass on his knowledge of the spectacular views at the tops of the trees was to instill his experience and wisdom in his own little family of monkeys. James realized that the real pinnacle of his life’s achievements, the work most important for him to do, wasn’t in a book he would write but in the children he would raise and in the family he would have with his wife.
That thought James had, that his greatest influence on the world would be through teaching his family, resonated with him all night and into the next day. He knew that nothing was a higher priority than raising a good little family of monkeys and James vowed then that his desire to write and publish a book would never again stop him from treating his family right.
From that day on, James had a better perspective about his life, his work, his family, and how to prioritize his responsibilities. Over the next few years, two more little monkeys joined that family—a little girl named Ruthy and a little boy named Charlie. James and Diane are busier than ever, but they somehow manage to juggle all the little monkeys on their backs.
Now, on their daily journey into the forest to forage for food, James and Diane crouch down and the six little monkeys climb on their parents with three on each of their backs. As always, James asks, “Is there a monkey on my back?” and all the little ones giggle. James has learned this vital lesson, that having monkeys on your back isn’t a burden to try to get rid of but rather a blessing to be enjoyed. And one day, when those little monkeys are grown, they will all be able to climb together to the highest branches of the tallest trees, share wonderful stories, and enjoy the most spectacular views.