Since 1941, when Curious George was first introduced in an eponymous children's book, the mischievous monkey has been embraced by children and adults alike and has become a cultural icon. The hero of seven books for children co-created by H. A. and Margaret Rey, Curious George retains his appeal because he is like a universal child who often does what his readers are too afraid to do. As well-known author Madeleine L'Engle writes in the introduction to The Complete Adventures of Curious George, "George, like most true heroes, is a creature of action; he acts, rather than being acted upon."
Often referred to as the "father" of Curious George, Hans Augusto Rey (1898-1977) began drawing at the age of two. He had a passion for animals, which could be seen in his initial drawings and the menagerie of animals he kept as pets over the years. In his native Hamburg, Germany, H. A. often visited the nearby Hagenbeck Zoo, where he perfected his animal imitations. A love of languages helped H. A. to master four different tongues and encouraged a lifelong fascination with the study of linguistics. As a soldier fighting in World War I, H. A. would pass the time by studying the constellations in the evening sky. His interest in astronomy would later lead to two books on the subject, one written for a younger audience and the other for a more advanced reader.
Prior to leaving Germany in 1923 for Rio de Janeiro, H. A. met Margaret (1906-1996) through mutual friends. While H. A. was selling bathtubs in Brazil for a relative's firm, Margaret was studying art at the Bauhaus in Dessau, the Academy of Art in Dusseldorf, and attending art school in Berlin. She worked as a newspaper reporter and a copywriter for an advertising agency. In her memoir, included in The Complete Adventures of Curious George, Margaret explains how writing a jingle for a margarine campaign inspired a lifelong distaste for commercials.
In 1935 Margaret left Germany for Rio, where she and H. A. became collaborators in business as well as in life. According to Margaret, they formed "a sort of two-person advertising agency, doing a little of everything…" to make ends meet. After their marriage in 1936, the Reys traveled to Paris, planning to spend only a few weeks. Instead, their visit lasted four years. It was here in Paris that the little monkey first appeared on paper. H. A. had drawn funny illustrations of a giraffe for a Parisian magazine, which caught the attention of French publishing house Gallimard, who approached the illustrator about writing a children's story using the drawings. The result was Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys. This book, which featured a monkey named George, led to other children's books, and if not for the start of World War II, the Reys might have remained in Paris.
In a tale that has become as legendary as their fictional creation, the Reys escaped Paris on bicycles one rainy morning in June of 1940. Strapped to their bike racks were their manuscripts, which included a draft of their first book, Curious George. Abandoning their bikes at the French-Spanish border, the Reys hopped a train to Lisbon. By October of that same year, they arrived in New York intent on selling their stories. Shortly after their arrival, they sold Curious George to publishers Houghton Mifflin, who released the book in 1941. For the next 20 years, the Reys lived and worked in New York, turning out six more Houghton Mifflin books about the curious monkey and his trusted companion, the man with the yellow hat.
According to Margaret, the Reys did not want to write another book about Curious George, and they took nearly six years to do other things before they published Curious George Takes a Job in 1947. Despite their apparent simplicity, the Curious George books took nearly a year to write and were often quite challenging for the couple. "Sometimes, it became more like mathematics than writing a book," Margaret once told an interviewer. Inspiration came from many places: friends, newspaper stories, even chance conversations with strangers. Generally, H. A. presided over the illustrations and Margaret wrote the stories, but the books more often were a complicated merger of the couple's various talents. As Margaret writes in her memoir, "at times it confused even us."
Many have pondered the appeal of Curious George since the first book appeared in 1941. Children like how the pictures tell the story, which liberates non-readers from their literate older brothers, sisters, or parents, and allows them to tell themselves the stories again and again. H. A.'s illustrations deftly capture a sense of George's mischievousness. In Curious George, the little monkey takes an unexpected swim in the ocean on his voyage from Africa to the United States, and the illustration of George coughing up sea water and swimming fish delightfully conveys the results of his curiosity. Children also can relate to George's curiosity and the trouble this frequently inspires. When the Reys wrote, "George promised to be good, but sometimes little monkeys forget…," they could have been writing about any little girl or boy. While George's adventures are thrilling, they also can be scary, and the man with the yellow hat adds a soothing quality to the stories since he often helps George out of his scrapes. George also shows readers that it is okay to be afraid and to cry, but his quick mind demonstrates the benefits of becoming self-reliant, too. Above all, Curious George entertains and delights readers of all ages.
In the 1960s, after writing nearly all of the seven Curious George books, the Reys moved from New York to Massachusetts. After a long illness, H. A. died in 1977. In the 1980s, Margaret and collaborator Alan J. Shelleck worked together on a second series of Curious George stories. Through various licensing agreements carefully selected by Margaret and secured through a series of legal battles in the 1990s, the instantly recognizable image of the curious little monkey began appearing on greeting cards, children's toys, clothing, and even CD-ROMs. Since 1941 when the first book appeared, the Curious George stories have sold more than 20 million copies and continue to have solid sales each year. Curious George sales received a boost in 1994 when the movie Forrest Gump featured a scene with Forrest's mother (played by Sally Field) reading a Curious George book to her son (played as an adult by Tom Hanks).
Poet W. H. Auden once wrote that a good children's book also should interest a clever adult. If this is true, then the Curious George series certainly qualify as good children's books. The stories have been translated into many languages, which further demonstrates their wide appeal. "It does not matter much that there are some I cannot read," wrote Margaret about the different language versions of her books. "It so happens that I know the story."
Rey, Margaret and H. A. Rey. The Complete Adventures of Curious George. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.
Williams, Karen. "She Wrote From the Heart and Touched the Child in All of Us." The Christian Science Monitor. May 23, 1996, B3.