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by Mary Soderstrom

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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Why Curious George Starts in Paris and Ends in New York


Reading and the love of books can't encouraged too soon.  The Curious George books by H.A. and Margaret Rey were great favourites of our kids and Jeanne has delighted in them ever since Elin brought a jumbo book containing six tales back from a trip to New York last fall.  She went looking for our old copies shortly thereafter so ever since Jeanne's been read the old ones--now in  tatters--when she visits here.

The stories are still charming, but one of the things that goes over Jeanne's head is the way that the city George lives in changes between books.  In the first one it's quite clearly Paris, and the zoo where he goes to live is the Ménagerie in the Jardin des plantes, but the next one is just as clearly New York.

The reason why came clear this morning when the quality French language daily here Le Devoir had an article about an exhibit on George's creators.  The Reys were German Jews who met in Brazil where each had gone separately as young people.  Rey (born Hans Augusto  Reyersbach) and the former Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein founded the first advertising agency in Rio in the 1930s, but decided to go back to Europe, setting up shop in Paris.  The curious little monkey appears to have been just one of their projects.

In 1939 the French publisher Gallimard was ready to bring out the first book about the monkey, then called Fifi, but the Reys' studio was searched by the French police  on a tip that there might be material for making bombs there.  The sketches of George convinced the flics that wasn't the case, but the Reys took the hint  the following spring.  They decamped for Portugal, taking with them only their Brazilian passports, their sketches and what was left of their advance from Gallimard.  At the Spanish border their German accents raised eyebrows with Franco's Fascists, but the innocuous drawings of George and their Brazilian nationality allowed them to continue.  Their journeyed back to Brazil and then on to New York, where they started over again.

George once again came to their rescue.  Within a month they had a contract with Houghton Mifflin and the first Curious George book was published in 1941.  Since then 17 million copies of the various Curious George stories (the Reyes produced seven, and a  series has been spun off, written and drawn by others which are not nearly as good.)

The Reyes adventures are highlighted in a exhibit at the Montreal Holocaust Museum from now until June 22. The show was created by Omaha, Nebraska, Institue for Holocaust Education, and is touring North America.  Definitely worth the detour. 

1 comment:

Jack Ruttan said...

I loved H.A. Rey's book on the constellations, where he connected the stars so that the figures made sense.