A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
JUNE 11:

  • Happy birthday Robert Munsch (Paper Bag Princess, Mud Puddle) and Satoshi Kitamura (Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing, UFO Diary).
  • In 1776, the Continental Congress appoints Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to the Committee of Five to draft the Declaration of Independence. Read Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration on Independence by Dennis Brindell Fradin, illustrated by Michael McCurdy, and Rissa Bartholomew’s Declaration of Independence by Linda B. Comerford.
  • It’s Corn on the Cob Day. Read Corn is Maize by Aliki and The Life and Times of Corn by Charles Micucci.

Seventy years ago in 1941, three days before Hitler’s army marched into Paris, two German Jews who had come to the city on a honeymoon and stayed for a couple of years, found themselves trapped in Paris. Although Hans and Margret Rey had secured railroad tickets, the trains stopped running. So Hans scoured bicycle stores, but found all the bicycles had already been sold. He purchased spare parts and fashioned something for them to ride that resembled a bicycle. On June 12 they headed out of Paris, with only some book manuscripts and their winter coats, in an attempt to evade the Germans.

For about a week they stayed two days ahead of the invading troops—peddling by day, sleeping in the fields at night. At one point, a border guard stopped them and asked the man what he did. “I create children’s books,” Hans Rey said. Asking to see one of the books, the guard smiled at the manuscript presented to him: “My children would like this…you can continue.” That day Hans and Margret Rey’s lives were spared because of a story about a mischievous monkey named Curious George. To be accurate, their lives were saved by a monkey named Fifi, whom Margret Rey served as the model for and who was later renamed “George.”

Brazilian passports got them out of France and America’s Good Neighbor Policy made it possible for them to come to New York. Without resources, they frantically contacted their British editor, who as luck would have it now directed the children’s book department of Houghton Mifflin in Boston. To help these struggling refugees, Grace Hogarth gave them a four-book contract—thereby paying $250 in advance for a book that still sells millions of copies every year.   She and the Reys decided to publish Curious George right away; in time George became one of our most beloved American icons. With endless capacity to get into trouble, Curious George serves as the alter ego for so many preliterate children who would love to behave just like George does. Fortunately, George is always rescued by the man in the yellow hat.

I had the privilege of working with both the Reys. Margret lived to be ninety, and I would sit with her, in her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decorated as a shrine to George—with books, stuffed toys, and various replicas in all forms. She would look in wonder around her and say, “It is so hard to believe that all of this came from that manuscript we brought from Paris so many years ago.” No story demonstrates the miracle of children’s books as much as Curious George. No matter how, where and when great children’s books begin, or their trials on the way to publication—they can reach across generations, across time and history, to speak to the children born today. So I’d like to take a moment on this day to honor my friends Hans and Margret. I am so grateful that they escaped Paris seventy years ago.

Here’s a page from Curious George:


 

instead of one balloon,
the whole bunch broke loose.
In an instant
the wind whisked them all away

and, with them, went George,

holding tight with both hands.

 

 

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Originally posted June 11, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, History, Humor, Imagination, Monkeys, World War II
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Curious George
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COMMENTS

  1. Beth says:

    Thanks, Anita, for sharing that wonderful story about the Reys and the origins of Curious George. CG remains on high rotation at our place, though my ardently anti-smoking 4-year-old remains baffled by George’s post-prandial pipe!

  2. Susan Gilbert says:

    It’s such a fascinating story. I saw an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NYC a couple of years ago. Isn’t there a big non fiction picture book about their lives?

  3. Anita says:

    Susan: Yes, it is listed under the picture — The Journey that Saved Curious George by Louise Borden

  4. Michelle M. says:

    This is a great story about the Reys. I had no idea about this. Thank goodness they survived and we able to share their wonderful stories.

  5. CLM says:

    My two favorite pictures are the balloons and George and one in a later book where he makes boats out of the newspapers he is supposed to be delivering (CG Gets a Job). I love that the Reys’ story can be appreciated by the parents and grandparents reading George aloud. This has to be one of my top ten picture books.

  6. suzi w. says:

    Sitting here with wet eyes. Wow. My favorite CG is “Curious George gets a medal.” The page where the suds are in the room is indelibly marked on the insides of my eyelids.

    I have to forward this to my dad.

    Lump in my throat, needing a Kleenex,
    Suzi

  7. Gail Terp says:

    I have such fond memories of students who were hooked on Curious George books. And my son, too. Curious George is eternal! Thanks for sharing the Reys’ story.

  8. Anita says:

    Suzi: I have always thought this saga the most amazing back story of all of our classics. I often say that we can miss great books by “seconds and inches.” We came so close to not having these amazing books. And I might never have had the privilege of working with these two incredible people.

  9. Jude says:

    Once upon a time my husband was reading one of the Curious George stories to my son. When he read the line “It’s hard for little monkeys to remember to be good,” my son, not yet two, nodded sympathetically. The stories are wonderful adventures that small children really relate to, and the drawings are marvelous. Whenever I see a Curious George book, I am immediately transported back to my children’s early childhood. While I’ve given up most of their early books, I’m hanging on to The Complete Adventures of Curious George.

  10. Linda C. says:

    Thanks so much for this post about Curious George and the Reys. The Chrysler Museum (Norfolk, VA) is now hosting a traveling exhibit which honors the Reys, their flight from Nazi Germany, and, of course, George. Perhaps this is the one Susan Gilbert (above) saw at the Jewish Museum in New York. It is such a thrill to see the original letters, journals, and drawings of the Reys who have brought such joy to all of us.

  11. Laura says:

    Such an interesting story is tucked away within this story of Curious George! Thank you, Anita for sharing this piece of history! Hearing history like this adds so much meaning to the book. It makes the events of WWII so real. Did you happen to attend the dedication of the Children’s Room at the Boston Public Library in April of 1997? As you know, it was named the HA. Rey Room.

  12. Anita says:

    Laura: Yes, I was there at the BPL. At that point, I was Publisher of the Houghton Mifflin list and Margret my author!

  13. Anita says:

    Linda: Thanks for telling everyone about the traveling exhibit.

  14. How is it possible that Curious George still works wonders in 2011?

    It is impossible, yet true.

    THhnk about it – it is almost incomprehensible that the Reys could write such a timeless book.

    From a border guard in wartime Europe to a newborn child in the 21st century – the effect of their creation is always the same.

    So, just two pieces of advice from Read Aloud Dad:

    If you don’t have a Curious George treasury – get it for your kids if you can.

    If you already have a C.G. treasury – get yourself the lesser-known Curious George and Friends: Favorite Stories by Margret and H.A. Rey and enjoy many other captivating characters invented by the Reys, such as Whiteblack the penguin, Elizabite, Spotty, Pretzel, Billy the Bunny…

    What a great day for children’s literature!

    Read Aloud Dad

  15. Anita says:

    Read Aloud Dad: Thanks for the post. And thanks for reminding everyone of Curious George and Friends. I’ve always loved that book because it shows more of the range of the Reys’s work.

  16. chris says:

    I too am sitting here with tears in my eyes. Had no idea this is how Curious George came about. What a truly amazing story.

    p.s. 1941 was 70 years ago.

  17. Ed DeCaria says:

    Thank you, Anita. Curious George was/is one of my all-time favorite characters. Just a few months ago I unpacked an old “memory box” and came across my old stuffed George. Dusty. One eye missing. Smelling of old paper. Yet smiling all the same. He’s a survivor!

    What a back story.

    -Ed

  18. Helen Frost says:

    Anita, this is so interesting. The details you share–Margaret being the model for Curious George. So fun to know. And I hope you don’t correct the math in your first sentence. Chris’ little p.s. is a delight.

  19. Anita says:

    Thanks for helping me with math! All correct now.

  20. Erica S. says:

    My favorite was always the one where Curious George ends up working in an ice cream store and making a giant sundae – delicious!

  21. G.Perry says:

    The only thing I don’t like about this book is, I didn’t write and illustrate it.

  22. Wicked Good Grrrl says:

    Dear Anita,

    Yay, Curious George! I’ve always loved the story about the Reyes getting out of Paris on bicycles just before the Germans came in. But _Curious George_ probably isn’t the book in the series I hold most dear…

    The first book I remember checking out of my hometown library (Porter Memorial, Machias, ME) was _Curious George Goes to the Hospital_. I’d been an open-heart surgical patient very few years before and I guess the subject resonated with me. Little did I know that one day I’d graduate with an MSLS from Simmons GSLIS a stone’s-throw away from Boston Children’s Hospital, which inspired CGGttH.

    In honor of that occasion, I carried a tiny stuffed Curious George toy–purchased at the “Curious George” store in Harvard Square–in my pocket when I received my diploma. I’m so glad I finally started “tuning-in” to this website!

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