Review: Celebrating 70 Years of Curious George

Geek Culture

image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourtimage: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This year marks the 70th anniversary of children’s literature staple Curious George. To help celebrate this milestone, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has elected to re-release a pair of books that manage to celebrate the very legacy of this beloved character on two distinctly different fronts. One allows readers to revisit all the seminal Curious George tales in a single volume, while the other spotlights the creative couple behind the world’s most famous monkey.

The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 70th Anniversary Edition is a handsome hardcover that collects the seven original Curious George stories, as well as a retrospective essay, archival pictures and two audio CDs featuring recordings of the aforementioned tales. The simple artistry of the Reys’ work still holds up remarkably well, and, on a personal note, this collection served as an amazing introduction for my children – who know George more through his feature film and PBS series – to the playful primate that I grew up with.

From his introduction in the jungles of Africa in Curious George to the utter edutainment of Curious George Learns the Alphabet, George’s collected adventures are a truly delightful affair that will appeal to both fresh-faced geeklings and nostalgic parents alike. It’s a sizable volume of 400+ pages that certainly keeps readers coming back, and the modern presentation is slick and appealing without dulling the classic sensibilities of H.A. Rey’s whimsical art style.

The one caveat is that this compilation also does nothing to dilute the sometimes dated nature of the original stories. For nearly every smile-inducing instance of iconic delight as George comically explores the world around him, you are also likely to encounter a rather cringe-worthy moment — a ghost of kiddie lit past, if you will. Whether it’s George being unceremoniously plucked from his home by The Man With the Yellow Hat, our titular hero being tossed in jail for accidentally calling the fire department or the poor little monkey being visibly, grievously injured by a fall, The Complete Adventures offers you all the classic Curious George material in a wholly unaltered form.

A lot has changed in the 70 years since the Reys’ tiny monkey made his print debut, and, to the credit of both HMH and the Rey estate, this book refuses to alter the source material for the sake of the modern mentality. Remember when the 2002 E.T. redux came out and suddenly all of the feds had their firearms digitally replaced with walkie-talkies? Or when Greedo shot first? You don’t have to worry about that with regard to the timeless world of Curious George.

This collection presents to readers the sometimes backwards world of yesterday, where every man was a breadwinner, every woman wore a tidy white apron and everybody smoked. Including little monkeys. Unless you’re easily offended by these classical sensibilities, The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 70th Anniversary Edition is a fantastic edition to your library.

WIRED: Contains George’s seven original tales, beautiful hardbound collection, bonus audiobook interpretations.

TIRED: Reflects a distinctly old-school world view.

image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourtimage: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The perfect companion piece to The Complete Adventures of Curious George: 70th Anniversary Edition is the new paperback version of The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey. Though written in a clear, clean style obviously intended for middle-schoolers looking for context concerning the troubling years leading up to World War II, this is a splendid recount of the escape of the monkey who taught so many generations of children their alphabet (not to mention his famous creators) from occupied France. From their early years in Hamburg to their seemingly predestined reconnection in Rio, the all-important decision to shorten their surname (from Reyersbach to the easier-to-say Rey) to their exciting life together as globetrotting artists, The Journey That Saved Curious George spins the unlikely tale of Hans and Margaret with just the right amount of detail.

Though it seems inconceivable that a story about two German-born Jews fortunate enough to leave their homeland before the rise of the Nazi party only to find themselves in Paris during the invasion of France would be charming, uplifting and fun, this book somehow manages to channel all three in equal measure. Author Louise Borden obviously took great care not merely in collecting information from H.A. Rey’s almost compulsively recorded notes, but in actively recreating the journey of the Reys’ as they crisscrossed the Atlantic with proper pacing and an overall keen sense of storytelling.

Just as important as Borden’s subtle voice – which somewhat channel’s the Reys’ own matter-of-fact style – are the accompanying artifacts presented on-page. Photographs, both personal and stock, diary and manuscript pages and even copies of the Reys’ various passports and travel documents leap off the page and prove wonderful supplements to the narrative that never overpower the story itself. The same can be said for Allan Drummond’s illustrations which, rather than seeking to ape H.A. Rey’s clean lines and bold colors, grounds the book in a soft, fluid visual style.

Much more a tale of triumph than woe, The Journey That Saved Curious George doesn’t dwell much on the atrocities of war. Instead it focuses on Hans’s unique intelligence, Margret’s enduring fascination with animals (particularly monkeys) and the couple’s dedication both to art and to each other as they face triumph and tragedy alike. It’s a book packed with fun trivia – such as H.A. Rey’s uncanny fluency in practically every language he encountered and the fact that the monkey we know as George actually began its life as Fifi – but not exactly an exhaustive biography of the couple in question.

Adult should enjoy the breezy nature of the books’ quick read, while kids interested in an overview of the lives of the Reys during wartime will likely come away with a general understanding of their distinctly creative dynamic. At 70 sparse pages, it’s the ultimate kid-friendly coffee table book.

WIRED: charming voice, fantastic use of items from the Rey estate, solid art direction, an overall fun read

TIRED: the title (and your own common sense) pretty much ruins the ending

Review materials provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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