Allison's Book Bag

The Curious George Controversy

Posted on: December 7, 2012

Until I started surfing the web for articles about the controversy over Curious George, I hadn’t realized the issues seemed mostly to have surfaced in 2006 in reaction to a proposed animated movie. Has it really only been six years since I first heard complaints? If the books are so bad, how they have survived intact since the first Curious George adventure was published in 1941?

For those of you unfamiliar with the complaints, the three main ones are:

  • imperialism
  • animal abuse
  • bad parenting

You might recall that George originally lived in Africa. One day he saw a man with a large yellow straw hat. The man is also Caucasian, carries a gun, and lives somewhere other than Africa. I’m actually not sure where the man is actually from, given that the Reys were born in Germany and given that they wrote the story while in France. At any rate, the man with a large yellow hat is not from Africa. And so apparently he is an imperialist. I’m not sure how one man visiting Africa amounts to extending rule or authority of a nation over another country, but maybe white men with guns and wearing yellow suits are the caricature of imperialists?

You might also recall that the man in the large yellow straw hat decided he wanted to take George home with him. To do so, he puts his yellow hat on the ground. George tries it on and the man instantly pops him into a bag. The act of leaving his country makes George sad but still curious. So he proceeds to have adventures. For example, he finds some sea gulls, wonders if they can fly, and so tries to imitate them. The next two pages delightfully illustrate what happens, which is first he seems to fly but then he crashes into the water, and make me laugh.

Even so, I’ll agree with the animal rights activists that the man in the large yellow straw hat shouldn’t have captured George. Yet in the same breath I’ll contend they’re being overly serious. Come on, what monkey tries to fly like sea gulls? Eats from a human dish? Wears pajamas? And, if you really think those can happen, what monkey uses the telephone ? Curious George is a silly story, folks, from the wacky imagination of the Reys. This couple also blessed readers with a tale about a lonely giraffe who befriended homeless monkeys, a mother kangaroo who lacked a pocket for carrying her child, and a penguin who left his home in search of a story to tell. Are any of these serious attempts at portraying realistic animals and their adventures? In other words, were the Reys trying to instill morals when they wrote these stories or just entertaining children with wacky adventures?

You might recall too that in one scene George smokes a pipe and later he lands in jail. For these reasons, the man with the large yellow straw hat is considered a bad parent. I have no idea why the Reys decided to depict George with a pipe. Actually, maybe I do have a couple. First, we’re told that George struggled with being good. Maybe it’s only realistic that little monkeys who are curious will try smoking a pipe? Second, H.A. Rey himself smoked. Perhaps, when the Reys created George, they bestowed him with some of their own traits? As for the jail part, this happened because George played around on the telephone and ended up calling the fire department. If you truly want to draw parenting advice from the Reys, what better scare tactic can you get? Whatever one thinks of the man with the large yellow straw hat, I’m not sure it matters. Even young children know not all parents aren’t perfect, so why does George’s “parent” need to be?

Ouch! Now I fear that I’m being too serious. Maybe readers do have a reason? After all, some of the stories by the Reys which less pleased me did contain morals. Spotty was an obvious attempt to combat racism, in its portrayal of a rabbit who didn’t fit due to being a different color. Even Billy’s Picture might have been trying to warn readers against needing to please everyone, because no one ended up liking Billy’s Picture when everyone added their own touch. Also, as much as the Reys loved their local zoo, even they weren’t adverse to writing about a giraffe who felt sad because all of her family and friends had been taken away to a zoo. The rest of Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys tells of her adventures with monkeys that become her friends. By the story’s end, I’ve chuckled often over their crazy adventures. Again, I contend that the Reys were more about entertaining than dictating values.

All that said, you might still feel that children should receive guidance when reading Curious George. That would be your right. All I know is that personally the first time I started thinking about the three above issues is when adults started pointing them out as flaws in the Curious George books. I suspect that’ll hold true for most young readers. Furthermore, when I read another controversial book (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) with a group of elementary boys, they were smart enough to behave better than the main character. At the same time, they found Greg hilarious and so eagerly sought out every book about him. Sometimes books can be just about being entertained.

For more information, read: New Monkey Movie Lands in the Middle of a Culture Battle

Your turn!

  • What do you think of the Curious George controversy?
  • What other controversial books for young people have you read?
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Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

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