Book Article

Tales of the Gold Monkey

Curious George turns 50 -- We look back at how the mischievous monkey became a beloved character

''Call me Ishmael.'' — Moby Dick, Herman Melville.
''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...'' — A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens.
''This is George.'' — Curious George, H.A. Rey.

There may be more power or profundity in the opening lines of the Melville and Dickens novels, but to millions of kids, the simple declarative sentence identifying the monkey named George is every bit as dramatic. They know those three words mean fasten your seat belts, excitement ahead.

Curious George, which introduced George and his nonstop antics to the world, is 50 years old this year. The book is as fresh as ever for new audiences and an object of deep affection for adults who remember it fondly for from childhood. Still its success is curious indeed. ''We had no idea when we started the book what we were letting ourselves in for,'' Margret Rey says with a laugh. She did the majority of the writing of the books illustrated by her husband, H.A. Rey, who died in 1977. The last of the original seven volumes, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, came out in 1966.

The books' language is very simple (the same memorable opening sentence appears in each of the first seven tales about George), and the illustrators are straightforward. There's none of the fantastic, stylized, and complex artwork that accompanies many of the more celebrated children's books being published today. Nor is there any attempt at elaborate characterization.

Yet Curious George is now considered a modern classic, and with translations available in more than a dozen languages, it shows no signs of fading. Houghton Mifflin, the American Publisher of Curious George since 1941, says books in the series are selling better than ever. More than 1.5 million copies of the U.S. edition of Curious George have been sold.

Margret Rey still isn't certain why the books remain so popular. ''I do think kids are identifying very much with George,'' she says. ''He does all these mischievous things — but a lot of other books do that too, so I couldn't tell you.''

In Curious George, an adult, identified only as ''the man with the yellow hat,'' catches George in Africa and tells him he's going to take him to a zoo. Before they get there, George falls off a ship, phones in a false alarm, escapes from jail by walking on elevated wires, grabs a bunch of balloons, and soars into the sky, George flees the zoo in the second book, Curious George Takes a Job (1947). En route to find the man with the yellow hat, George hops a bus, washes windows outside a high rise, repaints an apartment (in jungle motif), knocks himself unconscious with ether, and appears in a movie. This is George: He rarely sits still for long, preferring instead to maintain a breakneck pace — which surely accounts for part of his appeal.

''Children see George doing things that maybe they'd like but can't,'' says Helen Mullen, the director of children's services at the Free Library of Philadelphia. ''He sort of represents what they would be like to be. Every generation I've worked with has responded the same way to him,'' says Mullen, who has worked at the library for 38 years.

Part of the secret of George's success may be linked to the Reys' approach to their work. Although they never consciously tried to write for children, both Margret and H.A. (Hans Augusto) have said they were blessed with a child's imagination. ''I know what I liked as a child,'' H.A. once said, ''and I don't do any book that I, as a child, wouldn't have liked.''

Margret, who is 84 years old and lives near Boston, says that when she and H.A. were working on the books. ''We kept nothing in mind — except that we wrote a story that we liked. And my husband did pictures that he liked.''

That collaboration looks, at first glance, to have been effortless. The writing has an artless sound and pace. The drawings are so immediately comprehensible that they leave the impression the illustrator must have dashed them off. But such seeming simplicity was the result of extraordinary labor. The Reys often spent more than a year on one book, arguing and debating as they worked. ''The texts look so simple, but I worked on them and worked on them, changing a word here and a word there,'' Reys recalls. ''We worked immensely hard and kept doing so as long as we thought we could improve something. That was our only standard.''

Evidently one standard was enough. Most children have no idea how hard the Reys worked on the George books; amd most probably don't care, either. They are fascinated instead by what the Reys wrought — a small monkey with winsome smile, a penchant for trouble, and an adult friend who watches over him.

''I'm proud of you George,'' the man with the yellow hat says in Curious George Gets a Medal (1957). ''I guess the whole world is proud of you today.''

He guessed right.


KING GEORGE: THE TOP TITLES
There are 35 books in the Curious George series, many of them based on filmstrips about the little monkey. The best are the original seven titles, all illustrated by H.A. Rey and published by Houghton Mifflin.

Curious George (1941)
Curious George Takes a Job (1947)
Curious George Rides a Bike (1952) includes instructions on how to make a boat out of a sheet of newspaper!
Curious George Gets a Medal (1957)
Curious George Flies a Kite (1958) with a vocabulary designed to children beginning to read.
Curious George Learns the Alphabet (1963)
Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966)
All seven books: A

Originally posted Mar 15, 1991 Published in issue #57 Mar 15, 1991 Order article reprints