Back in the United States for a couple of days last week, I found a few minutes to visit a bookstore and stock up on English-language story material for our one-year-old son. Naturally I went straight to the titles by H.A. Rey, author of Curious George.
I found two shelves-full, including what seemed to be dozens of small-format paperbacks with unfamiliar names like Curious George and the Pizza. Further inspection revealed that the publisher has spun off a line of sequels by other authors. Like everything else these days, Curious George is a brand.
Not having enough time to evaluate the later efforts, I stuck with the 1941 original. Of all the books from my childhood, this tale of a trouble-making monkey is the one I remember most fondly.
One reason, surely, are the cheerful illustrations. All the creatures in George’s world — even the butterflies, flowers and fish — are usually smiling. This would be cloying if it weren’t tempered by the occasional exception, most grimly the scene of a frowning George in jail. The crayon-and-watercolor artwork is vivid yet soothingly soft, and the images of the title character, in oversized pajamas or with his head sticking out of a game bag, are irresistibly cute.
Yet even the most delightful pictures can’t hold a kid’s attention if the story is dull. The key to the charm of Curious George is plot.
In at least one respect, this plot is shockingly dated. You don’t have to be politically correct to feel uneasy about the “man with the big yellow hat” spotting George in his natural habitat (which the text specifies as “Africa”) and blithely deciding to ship him off to a foreign zoo. A latter-day children’s book writer would no doubt depict the hunter as at best a misguided First Worlder, or at worst an imperialist oppressor.
As told by H.A. Rey, the capture of Curious George is a game. The man puts his yellow hat on the ground and hides behind a tree. Inevitably the monkey comes to try it on, gets his head stuck inside, and that’s that. Afterwards, the author informs us, “George was sad, but he was still a little curious.” An illustration shows the captive being taken away in a row boat, gaping at the novel sight of fish in the water.
It’s easy to see why kids would find this both exciting and comforting. Again and again, George finds himself in scary situations — falling overboard, going to jail, floating over the city with a bunch of helium balloons — that ultimately cause him no harm, and manage in the meantime to be terribly interesting.
Such episodes must be deeply (though unconsciously) encouraging to someone facing his first day of kindergarten or a visit to the pediatrician. They also exemplify an indomitable spirit. Even when physically restrained, George remains an active observer of his environment.
Yet George is famously more than an observer. Like the human children who adore him, he is by nature incapable of leaving any unfamiliar object alone or staying out of any area where he isn’t supposed to go. In his first use of a telephone, he unwittingly calls in a false fire alarm. Tossed behind bars as punishment, he escapes and goes on a unplanned balloon ride. The spectacle of a flying monkey causes havoc across the city, and his landing leads to a traffic jam.
Nothing in the story condemns or even discourages such behavior. On the contrary, the book glories in a quality that society — and society’s first representatives, mother and father — typically find inconvenient. Here is the subversive, not-so-hidden message of a story that superficially justifies civilization’s mastery of the wild. George’s nature, as defined by his Homeric epithet, will not be suppressed.
The last scene is of our hero in happy captivity at the zoo (“What a nice place for George to live!”), surrounded by the other animals, with whom he’s shared his balloons. It would take the dulled faculties of an adult to accept this image at face value. Even the least alert kid knows that George won’t sit tamely in his tree, but will be soon be over the fence, looking at everything and inevitably messing it up.