Cover image for I once was a monkey : stories Buddha told
I once was a monkey : stories Buddha told
Lee, Jeanne M.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Physical Description:
1 volume (unpaged) : some color ; 28 cm
A retelling of six Jatakas, or birth stories, which illustrate some of the central tenets of Buddha's teachings, such as compassion, honesty, and thinking clearly before acting.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BQ1462.E5 L44 1999 Juvenile Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
BQ1462.E5 L44 1999 Juvenile Non-Fiction Open Shelf
BQ1462.E5 L44 1999 Juvenile Non-Fiction Fairy Tales

On Order



A colorful introduction to Buddhist fables

A monkey, caught in a monsoon, finds shelter in a cave amid the rubble of a temple. The monkey is not alone. A lion, a jackal, a turtle, and a dove bicker in the cramped space, until a statue of Buddha comes to life. "Hush, children, hush." Buddha says. "I will tell you a story to pass the time." From the tale of the clever monkey outwitting a hungry crocodile to that of a bird and turtle rescuing a friend, the six amusing parables told by the Buddha will introduce young readers to the famouscycle of fables in Buddhist literature known as the Jatakas, or birth stories, which Buddha originally told to his disciples to illustrate his teachings. Joined with stunning linocut illustrations, Jeanne M. Lee's I Once Was a Monkey form a book notable for both its beauty and its wisdom.

Author Notes

Jeanne M. Lee is the author and illustrator of many books, including The Song of Mu Lan and Silent Lotus . She lives in Massachusetts.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Gr. 2-4. In a sort of story-within-a-story form, Lee presents six short Jatakas, or "birth stories," drawn from Buddhist literature. A lost young monkey enters a cave, stepping on, tripping over, or bumping into the animals that got there before him. While the larger animals complain, the statue of Buddha, with whom the creatures share the cave, begins to talk, recounting tales about experiences that occurred during his previous lives--when he was a forest sprite, a willow tree, a monkey, a lion, a dove, and an antelope. The stories seem to help the animals put aside their hunger, impatience, and fear. The appealing character of the monkey will pull children into the tales, which convey lessons in a direct yet gentle way that is never preachy. The accompanying linocut illustrations are lovely. Source notes are contained in an afterword. (Reviewed March 15, 1999)0374335486Karen Morgan

Publisher's Weekly Review

A monkey that takes refuge in the ruins of Buddha's temple during a monsoon sets the stage for these finely honed retellings of six Jatakas, or birth stories. As the monkey's eyes adjust to the light, he discovers he is in the company of a lion, turtle, jackal and dove, and a statue of "the Enlightened One" begins to speak. In each tale, Buddha assumes a different shape to impart his message of peace, attentiveness, tolerance and respect. Lee (The Song of Mu Lan) effortlessly and subtly weaves Buddhist practices and principles into her evenly paced tales. Each story is a study in brevity and restraint yet, like Buddha, conveys enormous empathy. For instance, after a heron, in a deceptive ploy, consumes all the fish in a lake, a crab outwits him then makes his way back to the water, "weeping all the while for his lost friends." Lee draws the frame story in black-and-white, with Buddha in teaching posture and the animals listening attentively. The full-color illustrations for each Jataka combine the strength of woodcuts and the fluidity of Chinese silk painting, with their serene landscapes in soft colors and confident black lines; the full-spread illustration of a lion heading off a stampede of animals bound for danger is especially moving. Fans of Aesop's fables and the Just So Stories will likely find these characters equally as compelling, while others will discover a gentle and graceful introduction to Buddhism here. Ages 5-up. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Gr 2-5-A group of animals, sheltering in a cave from the fierce monsoon rains, hears a small statue of Buddha speak. The six stories he tells calm the beasts and teach them wisdom. Chosen from the hundreds of ancient Jataka tales, the selections are, like many of Aesop's fables, gems of moral philosophy. Lee's retellings not only encapsulate some of the teachings of Buddhism, but also suggest the centrality of Buddha in that religion. Each selection begins with a different incarnation of the Buddha: "I was then a willow tree..."; "I once was a monkey..."; "Long ago, I was born a golden antelope...." The smoothly flowing text shares each page with a bold block print, some in black and white and some with subtle colorings. Both words and pictures are arranged for reading aloud and invite comparison with other beast tales and discussions of Buddhist teachings. Like Demi's Buddha Stories (Holt, 1997), which shares only one tale with Lee's book, these stories will enrich collections of folk literature and parables from the world's religions.-Shirley Wilton, Ocean County College, Toms River, NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.