It’s Not Monkey Business

Profound ideas populate the pages of picture books

August 9, 2010


If by vocation or avocation you’ve come to cherish children’s literature, you’ve no doubt encountered some skepticism about this particular passion. For too many people, children’s books simply don’t merit serious consideration. As Seth Lerer aptly observes in his award-winning Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, “For a long time, what was not literature was the ephemeral, the popular, the feminine, the childish.” Even outside the canon-building environs of literary studies, a youth literature expert can feel fated to reprise Rodney Dangerfield’s signature quip: “I get no respect.”

Anyone who has listened to authors and illustrators speak about their work, who has researched the origins of a popular book, knows that the complexity and the depth of works for young readers belie the semblance of simplicity that a 32-page picture book might suggest. To represent the world for children involves skillful choices based on training, research, and lived experience. Entering the lists on the side of children’s literature as a reflection of larger cultural concerns is the Jewish Museum in New York City, with its summer exhibition, “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey.”

Strictly speaking, children were not the sole audience for the exhibition, with its displays of minutely handwritten diary entries, passenger lists, and editorial correspondence. Parents and caregivers brought enthusiastic little ones anyway, so the museum rang with exuberant cries of “Monkey! Monkey! Mon-keeee!” and child-style plot summaries whenever the possessor of a piping little voice recognized a visual from these enduring stories.

Colorful images from the Reys’ books and a small room full of oversized pillows and picture books notwithstanding, the exhibition was about the political context in which the Reys developed their famed series as well as its youth appeal. The creators of Curious George were German Jews who fled France in 1940 as the Nazi army approached Paris. The exhibition, like Louise Borden and Allan Drummond’s book, The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey, reveals the duo’s life, first as newlyweds in Brazil and France, then as refugees in Portugal, Rio de Janeiro, and New York. Through their stressful and exhausting international travels, the Reys carried their manuscripts, and the cheerful illustrations assured anyone with suspicions that the recent arrivals might be spies that the husband and wife were exactly who they proclaimed themselves to be—creators of stories for children.

In addition to the very-well-known tales about Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat, the Reys crafted books about constellations and French nursery rhymes. They also wrote and illustrated Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World and other books that evoked themes of peace and acceptance. Having seen war, its dangers and strife, the Reys endeavored to amuse children and to educate them, too.

An exhibition like this asks viewers to do more than understand how a popular children’s series came to be. It encourages curiosity, tolerance, and all the other values that the Reys’ characters embody. It reflects the belief that children’s literature makes connections to adult concerns and effects in the real world, and makes quite clear that such work ought to get some respect.

Online information on the exhibition and related writings:

“Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey” at the Jewish Museum.

WebJunction Toolkit for The Journey That Saved Curious George.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt home page for The Journey That Saved Curious George.

Bella R. Ehrenpreis, “Curious George: A Jewish Monkey?” Paper presented at the Midwest Association of Jewish Studies, October 2001.

Jennifer Burek Pierce is assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Contact her at jennifer-burek-pierce[at]


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