Ever since a man in a big yellow hat found Curious George in the jungle and brought him to civilization, the little monkey has been getting into mischief. He has been hospitalized, imprisoned and blasted into outer space. “George’s curiosity gets him into trouble,” says Margret Rey, 81, who created the children’s book character in 1937 with her late husband, Hans. “But he always gets himself out of it through his own ingenuity. I suppose there’s a moral in that.”
Last week George celebrated his 50th birthday at Harvard’s Erikson Center, where Margret Rey is now a research associate in childhood studies. Over the years a mere seven books chronicling George’s misadventures have been translated into 15 languages, with 20 million copies in print worldwide.
The saga of the Reys, like that of Curious George, is one of surprising luck in the face of disaster. The couple were young German expatriates in Paris when they created George. “We never expected to do children’s books,” she says. “I don’t believe in the glorification of children. We loved monkeys, and the first thing we did when we went to a new city was to visit the zoo. Hans was the artist, a genius and a dreamer who loved animals. I was the midwife. I’d write the text and supervise the drawings.” When war broke out in Europe, French police arrested the Reys as suspected spies, but their interrogator couldn’t keep a straight face when shown a Curious George book and released them. After the Nazis invaded Paris in June 1940, the couple left France on bicycles, with no belongings except their manuscripts. After a sojourn in Brazil, the Reys landed in America a year later. They continued their collaboration until Hans’s death in 1977. Margret insists it is impossible to continue the work alone. “Each book took a long time,” she explains. “All my life I spent standing behind him at his desk. I made all the movements George makes. When we had one book finished, I’d vow, ‘Never again.’ ” Now she spends her time “yelling at manufacturers to keep up the quality” of George merchandise, including hats, shirts, puzzles and dolls. “I have to yell at them all the time,” she says. But that’s okay. “I like yelling.”