Authors: H. A. Rey,Margret Rey
On October 18, 1940, Grace wrote to H. A. Rey in New York, saying, "I am, as you know, keen on all your books." But in a later letter she acknowledged that she had never seen
the original French version of
By modern standards, Ms. Hogarth moved with lightning speed. On November 7, she informed the Reys that she would give them a contract for four titles, with an advance of $1,000—probably one of the most well spent $1,000 in all of publishing history. "Keen," Grace Hogarth may have been, but she protected Houghton's finances with an eagle eye. H. A. Rey accepted the $1,000, but noted that it was "considerably lower" than advances he had received in England and France. By November 13, both the print run of
at 7,500 copies and the price of $2.00 or less had been established. A week later the publication date of August 1941 had been set. Perhaps with a small list and few staff members, such decisions came even more quickly than would be possible in our high-speed technological age. Grace Hogarth would have preferred to publish
Raffy (Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys)
first, but, as she wrote, "It has occurred to us that by 1942 the Nazis may be out of Paris, in which case we might be able to buy sheets of
from Gallimard [the French publisher}." And therefore,
became the first Rey picture book offered in the United States.
But it is only by happy circumstance that we can celebrate the birthday of George at all. He might well never have come into being. He was, after all, smuggled out of Paris on a bicycle as his creators fled the Nazis in 1940. Although
was published to strong sales, three other 1941 titles, Holling C. Holling's
Virginia Lee Burton's
and Richard Hubler's
all outshone George in book sales for many years. Laudatory but unexceptional reviews greeted the book;
called the saga "a satisfying funny book," but gave more praise to other titles, which have long since vanished from the canon of children's books.
In 1945, in fact,
had sold negative-six copies; bookstores returned more than they bought that year. Many books with this kind of selling record have been and are still being put out of print at such a moment in their history. But Houghton continued to support the Reys and George through six more titles. Grace Hogarth and her successors had taken a shine to the insouciant little monkey, as had children themselves. Eventually, early readers of George began to pass down the books to their own children. In 1958
managed to sell over 10,000 copies in a year for the first time. Today, close to 25 million copies of the Curious George titles are in print. Few children's books ever stay in print for a decade. At six decades, George's story remains more vital than most that will be brought into print this year.
As human beings, the Reys were as remarkable as the character they created. Hans was a genius with children. I once saw him entertain an auditorium with probably five hundred children brought in by school bus to Boston for the day. I could have heard a pin drop as he drew and talked, a man as modest and gentle as his character. Margret, a force to be reckoned with in the universe, had served as Hans's model for Curious George and was unfailingly direct and curious herself. She could make grown men weep, and could—and did—terrorize her publishers. I would pick up the phone to hear Margret's voice saying, "You always wear hats, Anita. Is there something wrong with your head?" And, of course, because she demanded an answer, I could only reply, "Nothing, Margret, that a hat can hide." When those who worked with her get together, we still tell Margret stories—she left a memory of her spirit and her courage with us all.
As Margret lay dying she called many of her friends and colleagues, in turn, to say goodbye. The last time I saw her, she was in her bed, too weak to talk much but still very present. She held my hand and sang in German. As I sat with her, I had a vision of Margret as a girl, speaking the language of her ancestors. She had always remained close to that child, as had Hans to the child within him. Now Hans, Margret, and their books belong to the ages. But their most enduring creation, Curious George, lives on—an ever-mischievous young monkey, beloved by children for sixty years.
An illustration from the original
This is George.
He lived in Africa.
He was a good little monkey
and always very curious.
One day George saw a man.
He had on a large yellow straw hat.
The man saw George too.
"What a nice little monkey," he thought.
"I would like to take him home with me."
He put his hat on the ground
and, of course, George was curious.
He came down from the tree
to look at the large yellow hat.
The hat had been on the man's head.
George thought it would be nice
to have it on his own head.
He picked it up and put it on.
The hat covered George's head.
He couldn't see.
The man picked him up quickly
and popped him into a bag.
George was caught.
The man with the big yellow hat
put George into a little boat,
and a sailor rowed them both
across the water to a big ship.
George was sad, but he was still
a little curious.
On the big ship, things began to happen.
The man took off the bag.
George sat on a little stool and the man said,
"George, I am going to take you to a big Zoo
in a big city. You will like it there.
Now run along and play,
but don't get into trouble."
George promised to be good.
But it is easy for little monkeys to forget.