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Curious George: Not Just Monkeying Around

First edition cover, 1941

First edition cover, 1941

In a column posted on the American Libraries Magazine website earlier this month, Jennifer Burek Pierce argues that children’s books, like the ever popular Curious George series, should garner more literary merit. “To represent the world for children involves skillful choices based on training, research, and lived experience.” Often times the simple words and captivating imagery of a 32-page picture book impart important life lessons or cultural themes. Such is the case with Curious George, the creation of husband and wife Margret and H. A. Rey. As German Jews, the couple was forced to flee France in 1940 as the Nazi army rolled toward Paris. They escaped on bicycles, and carried among their few belongings several manuscripts of children’s books, one of which featured a mischievous monkey named Fifi.

The Reys escaped Europe through the Lisbon port in Portugal, travelled to Rio de Janeiro and then New York, where they lived for a few years, before finally settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their manuscripts and illustrations of the cute little monkey, later named George, helped facilitate their voyage by convincing any suspicious authorities that the two were just kindly children’s book authors. Viewed in this cultural context, the Curious George books are more than just stories about a fun-loving monkey. Though, as an article in The New York Times point out, the cultural turmoil of World War II is never blatantly addressed in the series. Yet, positive lessons of tolerance, acceptance and joyful curiosity are prevalent themes throughout.

For those interested in learning more about Margret and H. A. Rey and the inspiration behind Curious George, try The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey (HMH Books, 73pgs). In this book illustrated by Allan Drummond, author Louise Borden draws on a wealth of primary resources, including several of H. A. Rey’s handwritten diaries, to portray the couple’s life story and describe their creation of the beloved monkey. Earlier this summer, The Jewish Museum in New York featured the exhibition “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey“, showcasing over seventy original drawings and book dummies, as well as documents and ephemera related to their struggles during World War II. The exhibition ended in New York on Aug. 1, 2010, but will be showing on the west coast at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from November 14, 2010 to March 13, 2011.

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