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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

October 17, 2017: Children’s Histories: Curious George

[This coming weekend I’ll be at a book signing for an excellent new young adult historical novel, Dori Jones Yang’s The Forbidden Temptation of Baseball. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the histories within and behind a handful of children’s books and authors, leading up to a special post on Yang’s book.]
Two very different ways to look at a controversial children’s classic.
There were few moments more stunning in my first years as a Dad than the first time I read the original Curious George (1941), H.A. Rey’s classic children’s book, to my boys. Although I had read the book with my own parents many decades ago, I remembered George in the same way that I imagine most folks do—through the entirely unobjectionable PBS show, the many sequels and spin-off books, the merchandising, the great book and toy store in Harvard Square, and so on. So as I read through Rey’s first book, which begins with a happy-go-lucky George being brutally monkey-napped away from his jungle home by the Man with the Yellow Hat, includes George being taken to prison for innocently mis-dialing the fire department, and ends with the Man dropping him at the zoo (where of course he’ll be happier than he was in that jungle home), I had to stop reading multiple times to keep from swearing aloud (which never goes over well during story time).
But since I’m an American Studier, and since the boys had enjoyed it and I knew I’d be reading it plenty more times, I immediately began thinking about how I could analyze Rey’s book. The obvious but not at all insignificant connection is to narratives of savagery and civilization, and more exactly (given George’s African home and, y’know, his color) to arguments that Africans were better off in places like America and Europe, even if they had been brought there against their will. Such arguments were still commonplace in Rey’s era—and indeed are still present in our own—and it’s difficult read the original Curious George and not see them echoed in George’s arc, and specifically the contrast between his jungle starting point and his zoo final destination. Rey complicates that arc in one and only one phrase, and a partial one at that: he notes that George is a bit sad as he is carried away from his jungle home, but highlights in the same sentence that he is likewise curious about what’s next. And that’s the last time, as far as we’re told anyway, that the monkey ever thinks about the place where he had grown up and was pictured happily swinging as the book opened.
Again, there’s no way around that reading, and I’m not going to argue that Rey’s book is secretly subversive or anything (although I did my part, calling the Man George’s “frenemy” instead of his “friend” every time I read it to the boys). But neither is that narrative the only part of George’s story, nor, I would argue, the one that carried into the remainder of the series and the character’s overarching identity. In those terms I would emphasize instead two more inspiring qualities: George’s titular curiosity, his ability to approach each aspect of his evolving experiences with wonder and a desire to learn all he can (a characteristic which reminds me of another slave turned inspiring figure, Olaudah Equiano); and, more complicatedly but still impressively, his friendship with the Man. Granted, the Man initaited that relationship by kidnapping George in a sack. But in their broader lives together, the two consistently look out for each other, transcending all the differences in their identities and perspectives to become model cross-cultural friends. It’s fair to say that these qualities can positively impact the kids who encounter them—and can help the parents who read Rey’s book stay sane while they do so!
Next children’s history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other children’s histories or stories you’d highlight?

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