March 08

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CURIOUS GEORGE IS HIS OWN MONKEY by Corabel Shofner

I believe that some characters are clamoring to get into this world. These unruly spirits dodge all obstacles, then when given a toe-hold they stake out a broad claim and finally, in the most unsettling way, they morph far beyond what the author created. This is certainly true for our little monkey, George of the Curious line of simians.

 

Few people know that George narrowly escaped the Nazis and now that he is fear, most people know he is not going anywhere soon. People who grew up with Curious George are now reading those books to their grandchildren. Beyond his place in our library, George is a bona fide celebrity. It is almost like the monkey had a plan all along, but first he needed Hans and Margret Rey to help him escape.

 

He also commandeered Louise Borden to tell the story of how the Reys saved his life. Borden is a former teacher and author of many books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. In 2005 Louise Borden and Allan Drummond published The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey. On the occasion of Curious George’s 75th birthday, September 17, 2015, HMH released an anniversary edition.

 

The Reys were both Jewish, born in Hamburg. After serving in the first World War, Hans traveled to South America. In 1935, Margaret followed her friend to Brazil where they were married. During their four year honeymoon back in Paris, the Reys started writing children’s books about a little monkey named Fifi.  By 1940 the Nazis were closing in on Paris and the monkey was in peril.

 

In order to tell the story of George’s escape, Borden spent years culling personal papers, notebooks, and photographs, and contacted people who knew the Reys. Her research took her from Europe to Hattiesburg, Mississippi  where the University of Southern Mississippi houses the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection. Thanks to Dr. Lena Y. de Grummond, who contacted the Reys in 1966, the Collection now holds more than 300 boxes of the Reys papers circa 1973 to 2002. Drummond’s watercolors bring the story to life, along with photographs and copies of primary sourced documents, such as Hans’ pocket diaries, letters, stamped passports, ticket stubs, and more.

 

As the German army bore down upon Paris, all escape routes were clogged, by millions of refugees who took to the roadways, buses and trains. Hans, a handy and imaginative fellow, built bicycles from spare parts and the couple peddled south weaving “ in and out of the lines or cars, taxis, trucks, green city buses, farm carts, other bicycles and stragglers on foot.”

 

“George is everywhere. Hans painted this in the guest bedroom of his editor’s cottage on the North Shore of Massachusetts.”

They were forced to travel light, but our little monkey managed to stow away in their packs. The Reys peddled through rain and pain: necks, backs, legs, knees, and even the palms of their hands. They survived on the kindness of farmers. When they finally reached the train station in Orleans, it was bedlam but on Friday June 14, 1940, while the Nazis goose-stepped into Paris, George chugged away on a train to Bayonne. They were housed and fed in a public high school. I like to think George’s love of students was cemented there in the Orleans school. Later on the crowded train to Lisbon an official eyed them suspiciously as if they were spies and demanded to see their papers. He might have ejected them from the train had he not found The Adventures of Fifi in the satchel. “Once again, the mischievous little monkey has rescued the Reys.” They finally escaped Europe by sea, always carrying the little monkey. Upon arrival in the United States, via Rio de Janeiro, George quickly found a home at Houghton Mifflin.

 

Once published in 1941, Curious George was an instant success which suits him just fine. Long after the passing of both Reys, George has built himself an enormous franchise, jumping from author to author, releasing toy monkeys, and even getting involved in social justice with It’s Ramandan, Curious George. He is the star of television, video games, movies and now a documentary Monkey Business, directed by Ema Ryan Yamazaki.

 

In short, that monkey knows what he wants and knows how to get it. George has always prevailed over the Man in The Yellow Hat and he always will. He’s just that kind of monkey.

 

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey. 2005. By Louise Borden and Allan Drummond.

 

Corabel Shofner Is an ivy league graduate and former lawyer but before all that, she was a terrible, terrible student who dropped out of high school — so really don’t let anyone tell you that you are not smart, they don’t know anything about anything. And never, never give up. Her debut middle grade novel ALMOST PARADISE was published in 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young People, and will be released in paperback in May of 2018.