Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb: classic kids' book about drumming beatnik monkeys

One of the coolest things about being a Dad is getting the chance to pass on the books I loved as a kid to my daughter. I was bummed to discover that my favorite larval maker book, Why I Built the Boogle House, was long out of print and not suited to review here (though I do have my much-loved copy for the kid!), but that sorrow was dispelled by my discovery of a pocket-sized board-book edition of Al Perkins and Eric Gurney's 1969 classic, Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb.

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb is a great, rhythmic poem about monkeys playing drums, with an infectious, earwormy refrain: "Dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum." It opens with one monkey drumming on his drum with one thumb, and progresses until "millions of monkeys" are drumming on drums (dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum).

It's not (just) the refrain that makes this book so great -- it's the monkeys. Illustrator Eric Gurney's drumming monkeys are a motley collection of comic beatnik simians, sporting sweater-vests, giant muttonchops, goatees, and big golden rings. Each one bears an expression of such incredible cool and mischief that I could look at them all day.

I'm clearly not the only one. When Poesy wakes up every morning, I go into her room and change her diaper and say, "Did you have a nice sleep, Poesy? What did you dream about?" Every morning this week, she's said the same thing: "Monkeys drumming on drums!"

The pocket-sized edition is great for trips, and the rhythm is a perfect distraction for grumpy car-rides, impatient restaurant meals, and interminable waits for the bus. And unlike many of the kids' books and videos that Poesy wants to play 200 times in a row, I don't get tired of this one, either.

Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb


  1. The board book is missing several pages from the original. We don’t let the kids turn the pages on the one I had when growing up but some of my favorite parts are only in the paper version.

    If you can pick up the original second-hand I highly recommend it. We recently got a second copy from our library when they were clearing out their old kids books.

  2. But where are the black berets? Beatniks must have black berets, by definition! Of course, they’re only monkeys. What do they know?

  3. Corey – I loved reading this book as a kid and then over and over to my kids when they were little (or rather little-er) a couple of years ago. We initially had the little board book version but then my daughter came across the full hardcover edition (the board books typically omit about half the book and change some of the words) at a bookstore and insisted we get it. The full version is even better, with a lot more cool monkey scenes and beat-monkey phrases. It is definitely still in print (Bright and Early Books – Random House) and you can get it from Amazon.

    If I recall, there are also some pictures in there with black berets.

  4. This was the first book I ever read by myself when I was a kid, my mom has a video of me reading it out loud (admittedly, i got “dum” and “drum” mixed up a lot, and ended up, for some reason, rolling my R’s often). Love this book :D

  5. I loved this book, but for some reason, at the age of five, I didn’t notice all the allusions to beatniks! I’ll have to re-read it now…

  6. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one to love this book! So much fun to just shout it out loud when I read it. My son has it now, and once he gets over his irrational dislike of monkeys, I hope he will love it too. :-)

  7. I love this book so much — loved it as a kid, love reading it to my two-year-old now. She has it memorized and no longer needs me to read it, but it is still a big favorite here.

  8. Cory – this book was definitely one of the favorites of both of my two boys when they were little. Our oldest especially wanted it read to him over and over.

    Namnezia – I had no idea there was a longer version than the board book, I’ll have to tell our youngest (who’s in kindergarten) about it. Thanks!

  9. I remember the first time I read my favourite The Hungry Caterpillar to each of my kids. That board book went every with us for years and is still a big favourite now.

    That said there’s something to be said for finding new favourites. Julia Donaldson (with Axel Scheffler’s drawings) is very popular in our house (love the Snail & the Whale) and I suspect they will become the ones my own kids pass on.

  10. Cory, I can’t believe you busted out with this today – talk about a blast from the past.

    I always loved the ‘millions’ scene!!

  11. I never read this one as a kid–I was about five when it came out, perhaps too old–but I loved reading it to my kids a few years back when they were firmly within the target demographic.

    The world needs more beatniks. Bring back Maynard G. Krebs!

  12. It should be said that the board book versions of books like these are usually abridged, sometimes to the point of ruining the book. The board book version of ‘Are You My Mother?’ cuts out half the animals the bird visits, for example.

  13. My mom got this book for me when I was a little kid and she kept for years so that I was able to read it to my little girl. She loved it and I loved reading it to her.

    dum ditty dum ditty dum dum…

  14. Yes, we had this 30+ years ago thus was aware of it and got it for our progeny as well. It’s a compelling beat for new listeners to books, good for stimulating language acquisition (the rhyme and rhythm) and by the time they are walking and talking you should have it burned in your brain and not need the damn book.

  15. Sadly, the book ends with the monkeys digging their own grave before being shot in the back of the head.

  16. Cory: This was one of our favorite books when I read to my two boys (now 12 and 14). The words and pictures and rhythm of the thing was so compelling. We still have it. Maybe a lucky niece or nephew will get it. Maybe.

  17. Ha! Cory, I have this book memorized from reading. I somehow missed it as a kd, but it was given to us about seven years ago. Just when our elder got out of it (he still loved it til age four or five), the younger came along and is all over it. He’s a year and half and runs up with it yelling “Mankeys! Mankeys!”

  18. Cory you just made my morning!!! Absolutely loved this book as a kid. My 2 year old son’s got a monkey theme going on in his room due to his love of the “10 little monkeys jumping on the bed” story, so I’m definitely going to have to pick this one up for him.

  19. My kids loved this story so much, they went through four copies of the board book. For years, our Christmas presents to friends in Japan were copies of the book, along with an MP3 of me reading it (so they kids there would know how it went). The best part about the book is that even tiny kids too young to really construct sentences can tell you what they want to read by repeating the rhythm of “one thumb, one thumb, drumming on a drum.” Easily my favourite book of all time, and certainly the one I’ve read the most number of times!

  20. My boy loves this book, too. So much so he likes us to play marching band where we both play drums around the house pounding out the rhythm.

    On board book exclusions…
    The board book version of “There’s a Wocket in my pocket”
    excludes the part about the Wocket being in his pocket. Go figure.

  21. Actually, you could make a decent introduction to drumming out of this, especially given a drum with at least two tones (doumbek or djembe would be perfect, with “dum” as the center tone and “dit” as the edge tone).

    Start with the chorus, where it’s explicit. Then point out that the rest of the poem also has rhythm, and if you listen carefully it also has tones — there are several different ways to inflect “millions of monkeys”, for example — and you can play those too on a drum.

    dum dum dum dit dum
    dit dum dum dum
    dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum

    Play with that a while, and you’ve actually got a decent length (though simple) drum solo.

    Of course the “talking” drums take that further, by being able to bend pitch in the middle of a note. You can do that with other drums too, of course…

    (I don’t claim to be a good percussionist, but at least I have the basics and a decent sense of rhythm.)

  22. So these millions of beatnik monkeys on millions of drums will eventually duplicate the works of Buddy Rich…

  23. I loved that book as a kid and reading this article has brought back so many good memories…can’t wait til I’m a mom and can read these great books to my kids!

  24. This was in heavy rotation for me as a kid and I have recently gotten my 3-year-old into it as well. He, of course, LOVES it! Dum ditty dumm ditty dum dum dum!

  25. What about “The B Book”?! One of my all time favorites, next to HHFT. Also check out The Diggingest Dog, The King The Mice and The Cheese, and Sir Toby Jingle’s Beastly Journey (mainly for the art).

  26. ‘dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum’ is the sound of someone who knows their hhft. i suspect that the very reason for its success is that it bears repeating by both the wee beasties and their guardians. thank you for mentioning it.

  27. I have an 11 month old boy and this is his favorite book. Heck it’s my favorite book :) Very fun, and its super cute when the boy tries to dum-ditty-dum-ditty-dum-dum-dum

  28. We’ve got the board-book version, and our daughter loves it! My wife thinks it really bogs down during that long digression on fruit harvesting, though.

  29. I loved this book as a kid. Maybe that’s why I find myself hand drumming to my 6-month old more often than singing to him. Gotta dig up my copy or get a new one for him.

  30. I loved it, too! I can still recite parts of it by heart nearly 40 years later, and you’re right that the beatnik monkeys add immeasurably to the infectious fun.

    Another great rhyme & rhythm book I discovered when my son was younger is the fantastic alphabet book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I still remember that one by heart over a decade after my last reading.

  31. Am I the only one who sees a strong Seussian resemblance in this book, especially in the cover title typeface?

  32. We bought this book 9 or 10 years ago for our son and passed it on to our daughter after he became too cool for Dr. Suess. She’s now outgrown it as well and we’ve passed it on to our young nieces. I always read it getting louder and more frantic with each page until it was pandemonium by the end. Another favorite was “Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?”

    “He can make lightning Splat! Splat! Splat! and it’s very, very hard to make a sound like that!”

  33. Wow, thanks for making me a little misty over here.

    My gramma used to read this to me as a wee tyke, always with such enthusiasm even as I was begging her to read it again. Hell, she used to remind me that I would wake her up first thing in the morning to read it to me while she was still in bed.

    This book is absolutely fantastic, although I never noticed the beatnik vibe until now.

    Thanks for the memories, and making me miss my gramma even more.

  34. We used to have a nightly dose of this. And Hooper Humperdink. I can still recite most of it even though the kids are all grown up!

  35. I’m actually really glad to hear that the references are beatnik, as I love this book (as does my 2-year old son), and I was really afraid that it was a hidden reference to fears of the time of the coming wave of African Americans (the instruments are drums and banjos, they seem to “steal” fruit and wear proto-bling.. all stereotypes of the mid 20th century).

    I’m just glad to hear that this is just me being overly sensitive and reading racism into it. I didn’t want to dislike the book.

  36. Go Dog Go, the board book is pretty short compared to the full version but both are fun, my 3 year old likes it. Mr. Brown Can Moo! is also a big favorite we would go pretty crazy with the sounds.

  37. I love this book as an aunt, and as a children’s librarian. I’m constantly on the hunt for books with fun, easy refrains so that parents can join right in with me when I’m reading a book at storytime. It’s much more fun for all of us when we participate together, and fantastic to hear as a chorus.

    My only regret is that I haven’t found a large picture book-style copy yet. My storytimes get pretty big, and the “reader” copy that I have is hard to see past the first few rows of folks. Fingers crossed that your post helps spur demand.

  38. Holy cow! This was the first book that I ever read. Rather, I had memorized it and convinced my parents that I was reading way before any kid should be reading. The best!

  39. I remember reading this book to my kids. We all loved it, especially the pages with lots of lots of monkeys drumming. What a fun story. Thanks for the reminder. I blog on book lists for kids and have lots of great picture books which you might also enjoy. See http://pragmaticmom.com. See entry: Favorite Picture Books. I hope you enjoy them as much as my children and I do.

    Pragmatic Mom

  40. Add me to the list of kids who learned to read on this one. according to my mom, I then progressed to “Stuart Little” with uncanny speed….

    Sarah Ennals

  41. I loved reading this to my kids. It has a great build-up to the “millions of monkeys…” page where I would tickle them with millions of fingers and millions of thumbs.

    I always like “Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?” as well since it has similar ways of acting out.

  42. My kids also loved this book. So did I. The monkeys always reminded me of Victorian gentlemen with muttonchop whiskers. Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a particular resemblance to Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley, maybe because he was was sometimes caricatured as a monkey by anti-evolution skeptics.


  43. I loved reading this book to my kids when they were younger.

    Other favorites in our home have been:

    Four Pups and a Worm – http://www.amazon.com/Four-Pups-Worm-Beginner-Books/dp/0679879315/

    Our schtick was to shout out “Four Pups and a Worm!” whenever it came up in the story.


    If You Give a Moose a Muffin – http://www.amazon.com/You-Give-Moose-Muffin-Give/dp/0060244062/

    – this is far superior, IMO, to the whole pancake/take a mouse to school versions…. ;-)

  44. everythign you say sounds better

    (dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum).

    when you follow it by

    (dum ditty dum ditty dum dum dum).

  45. I didn’t grow up with this one but my wife did, and she still had the book which I now enjoy as I read it to my son. Awesome book and awesome experience! Thanks Cory for giving this great work a shout out!

  46. “The Boy with a Drum” by David Harrison is another lovely kids’ book with drum rhythm – “There once was a boy with a little toy drum… rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rum-a-tum-tum” as the kid wanders about the countryside meeting a variety of farm animals.

    Also at the end (spoilers!) it says “They all marched away to the top of the hill. If they haven’t stopped marching they’ll be marching still”…to which we have to suppress the urge to say “ZOMBIE ANIMALS!”

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