George is happily living in Africa when a man in a yellow hat captures him and takes him on a ship to a city. Sad, but also curious, George promises to be good – his curiosity, however, always prevails: attempting to fly like a seagull, he falls into the sea; intrigued by a phone, he mistakenly summons the fire department, landing him in prison; attracted by a balloon seller’s red balloon, he accidentally grabs all the balloons and soars high above the city. When George bumps into a traffic light, causing a traffic jam, the man with the yellow hat happens to be there and he takes George to the zoo.
The illustrations are bright and joyful, just like George’s perpetually sunny disposition, which makes the moments when George is afraid and sad (when he is captured in the jungle and when he is placed in jail) all the more striking.
Hans Augusto Reyersbach (1898-1977) and Margaret Waldstein (1906-1996) were both German Jews who first met briefly in Hamburg and then again in Rio de Janeiro where Hans was working as a bathtub salesman. They married, and in the mid-1930’s, honeymooned in Paris where they ended up staying for a more than four years. In June of 1940, two days before the Nazis entered Paris, they fled on bicycles Hans built from parts, carrying the Curious George manuscript with them. Over the next four months, they traveled by bicycle, train, and boat, through Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, eventually landing in New York.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Reys, I highly recommend The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margaret and H. A. Rey (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2005) – an accessible, informative, handsome volume written by Louise Borden that includes lively illustrations by Allan Drummond, as well as archival photographs and documents throughout.
I first learned of the Reys’ story at an exhibit called ‘Curious George Saves the Day’ at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Included in the exhibit were some of the Reys’ prewar correspondence with their French publisher, Jacques Schiffrin, a Russian Jew who also escaped to New York City with his family. While at the publishing house Gallimard before the war, Jacques Schiffrin had come across one of H.A. Rey’s cartoons of a giraffe in a Parisian periodical and he suggested to the Reys that they make a children’s book. The Reys created a story about a lonely giraffe and nine monkeys who become her playmates, which Jacques Schiffrin tested out on his son, André Schiffrin, and then decided to publish. The Reys’ first book was titled Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys in the U.S. Shortly after, the Reys decided that the youngest of the monkeys, Fifi, deserved his own picture book, and so was the birth of Curious George.
Jacques Schiffrin’s son, André Schiffrin, later became the editor-in-chief of Pantheon Books, but, after 29 years there, was forced to depart. The entire Pantheon editorial team quit in solidarity and over 300 eminent authors signed a letter of protest; some, including Kurt Vonnegut, Studs Terkel, and Barbara Ehrenreich, picketed outside Random House (the parent company). Two years later, André Schiffrin started a not-for-profit publishing house called The New Press – an alternative to commercial publishers that is dedicated to publishing books in the public interest. He also wrote several books himself, including The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. When I learned of André Schiffrin’s connection to the birth of Curious George, I worked at The New Press where I had the honor of working with André himself – he passed away in December of 2013.
When we read Curious George books, we are tapping into a deep and rich history, from Jacques Schiffrin’s discovery of H.A. Rey in a periodical, to the monkeys of Brazil that inspired the Rey’s to create Curious George, to the manuscript of Curious George itself, which accompanied the Reys as they fled occupied Europe. This history briefly intersected with another – that of André Schiffrin, an influential figure in the history of book publishing.
Picture books hold histories inside them, while, at the same time, they remain completely relevant precisely because they are children’s books; after all, a curious monkey is a curious monkey is a curious monkey. Oh, and happy 75th birthday this year, Curious George – you don’t look a day over 4 years-old.