Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘Margret Rey

After rereading Curious George and Friends by Margret and H.A. Rey, I babbled on about them to my husband. My excitement surprised me because I hadn’t expected to feel so impressed by this collection of eight fanciful animal stories. I had randomly picked up the collection while browsing my picture books to find examples that I could use to study plot. I’m glad I did because it provided me with an afternoon of amazing fun. Oh, and yes, I also gained new insights into the structure of stories.

Let me start with a quick rundown of the stories found in Curious George and Friends. First up is an action-packed story about a curious monkey named George, who by my childhood had become a household name. Then there’s the sweet story about Cecily who makes friends with homeless monkeys. Next there’s a harrowing tale about a carnivorous plant aptly named Elizabite. No topic is too mature, and so there’s a story about a dog named Pretzel who falls in love with a dog named Greta. She doesn’t love him back, but Pretzel keeps trying to court Greta and prove his love. No topic is too simple either, and so there’s a story about a kangaroo who’s missing a pocket, which is the probably the last thing a kangaroo should be without. The last three tales are my least favorite, but still deserve mention. Spotty is about a rabbit who doesn’t fit with his family because he has spots while his family is pure white. He meets another rabbit who doesn’t fit with his family because he is solid white while his family are spotted. The story is overly moralistic, which is why I don’t care for it. Billy’s Picture is also about a rabbit, this time about one who wants to draw. When he tries to draw a picture, everyone keeps interrupting to add their own touches, and so no one is happy with the final result. Last, the seemingly never-ending story of Whiteblack the Penguin is about the Chief Storyteller of Penguinland who has sadly run out of tales and so goes on vacation to find new ones.

"The Man with The Yellow Hat" and Cu...

“The Man with The Yellow Hat” and Curious George, the pet monkey, are enduring characters.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With these summaries out of the way, let me switch to how the stories will entertain you. Like all good yarns, I rarely knew what would happen next. For example, I didn’t know that on the boat from Africa to the United States, George would try to fly like the seagulls and so almost drown. In most of the stories, there was always a twist around the corner that I hadn’t seen coming but which made perfect sense. For example, I didn’t know that Katy the Kangaroo would decide to ask the other mother animals how they carried their babies in an attempt to solve her problem of not having a pocket. I love that through her we learn about all the different ways that mother animals cart about their babies. Most of all, I love Katy’s final solution! Indeed, many of the twists and turns were so imaginative that it’s hard to believe adults wrote these stories. For example, when Cecily the Giraffe meets homeless monkeys, I never would have guessed how many ways she could stretch her body to play with them. In listing ways that this collection of eight stories will entertain you, I shouldn’t neglect to mention the characters. An evening with a botanist wouldn’t have inspired me to write a tale about a carnivorous plant. Not would have I created such a humorous character out of a plant who bites dog’s tails and maid’s backsides. The Reys made me laugh many times. In compiling my list, I must include the settings. In Whiteblack the Penguin, he sails the ocean, gets rescued by a cruiser, is shot from a cannon onto a foreign country that is inhabited by ostriches, and takes a camel ride across a desert. That’s a lot of unusual places for him to visit, but they also make wacky stories for him to share back home and for us to read.

As for what I learned about plot through the Reys, I learned that one can let one’s imagination run wild as long as each new event proceeds logically from the other. Stories can also be about things as minor as wanting to draw a picture but facing continual interruptions. And a sense of silliness helps, because then one can have giraffes playing with monkeys, kangaroos crying about missing pockets, and penguins asking camels for a ride home. Thanks to the Reys, I might just have an inkling how to write about those two geese that I saw waddling towards our local office store.

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?
H. A. and Margret Rey in 1951

H. A. and Margret Rey in 1951
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of you are probably familiar with Curious George, but what do you know about his creators Margret and H.A. Rey? After purchasing the anthology Curious George and Friends, I started reading about the Reys and discovered they have quite the interesting history. For example, just after the Reys had begun working on their first full-fledged story featuring George, the Reys found themselves having to escape the Nazis.

How exactly did this event happen? Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Elisabeth Waldstein (whom the world now knows as Margret Rey) both grew up in Hamburg, Germany, around the turn of the nineteenth century. The two met briefly when Margret was a young girl, before she left Hamburg to study art. They reunited in 1935 in Rio de Janeiro, where they worked together on a variety of projects and eventually married. How did a couple who lived in Brazil face danger from the Nazis? Turns out, the Reys moved to Paris after falling in love with the city during their European honeymoon. Being German Jews, they Reys had to flee in 1940 when Hitler was poised to take control of Paris.

Where does Curious George come into this story? A French publisher saw Han’s newspaper cartoons of a giraffe and asked Hans to expand upon them. The result was Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys. The story also marked the debut of a mischievous monkey. The Reys then decided that Curious George deserved a book of his own. However, before the new manuscript could be published, the Reys found themselves having to escape Paris.

Early in the morning of June 14, 1940, the Reys set off on bicycles cobbled together from spare parts. They brought with them only warm coats, a bit of food, and five manuscripts–one of which was Curious George. The Reys rode their makeshift bicycles for four days until reaching the French-Spanish border, where they sold them for train fare to Lisbon. From there they made their way to Brazil and on to New York City, beginning a whole new life as children’s book authors.

For more information about the Reys, visit: The Rey Center

You might also check out: The Curious George Timeline

Return on Saturday for my review of Curious George and Friends.


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