02 April 2016

Curious George Never Could Have Ridden Their Bikes

When I was a little one, schools--including the one I attended--had book fairs.  There were books about famous people, sports, history, pretty things, and all sorts of other topics.  And, of course, there were the "story books".

Among the most popular of the latter category were the "Curious George" books.  I think I read every one of them; they were among the ones I most looked forward to seeing.

For those of you who didn't grow up with him, CG was a monkey adopted by The Man With The Yellow Hat.  As his name indicates, George could not keep himself from checking things out.  If TMWTYH told him to leave something alone, he'd open it, play with it, try to build something with it or even swallow it--any of which could lead him to all sorts of adventures and misadventures.

So it was in Curious George Rides A Bike.  The Man With The Yello Hat buys George a two-wheeler.  He goes to help a newspaper boy with his route but makes boats out of the newspapers and sets them adrift in a stream.  Then he runs the bike into a rock, wrecking the front wheel.  Some workers with a traveling animal show fix the wheel and invite George to join.  (Hmm...There's an interesting twist on "running away to join the circus"!)  They give him a bugle to play and tell him not to feed the ostrich.  But, somehow, the bugle gets stuck in the bird's throat,and the workers have to get it out.  Then they kick George out of the show for violating the rules and instruct him to sit on a bench until they can send him home.  Meantime, a bearcub escapes and climbs a tree, where it gets stuck until George rescues it in his newspaper bag.  The workers, now proud of George, let him ride his bike and play the bugle in their show.  His act is a hit with the audience, and he's allowed to keep the bugle--and bike.

At first glance, it sounds like the typical shaggy-dog story found in any other Curious George book, except that a bicycle is involved.  But--perhaps not surprisingly--it reflects, at least in some ways, a particular experience of the couple who wrote and illustrated the book.

Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Elisabethe Waldstein nearly eight years apart in Hamburg, Germany.  Both of their fathers--and Hans' mother--were Jews.  They knew each other briefly when she was a young girl, but would not meet again until she was 28 and he was 36--in Rio de Janiero, where they had gone to escape the Nazis.    They soon married and moved to Paris, where they settled in Montmartre.

While they were in Paris, Hans' animal drawings came to the attention of a French publisher, who commissioned him to write a children's book. The result, Rafi et les Neuf Singes (translated as Cicely G. and the Nine Monkeys) is little-remembered today and might be entirely forgotten had it not featured a monkey named Fifi.

The Reys

The couple--now known as H.A. and Margaret Rey--started to work on a book about Fifi.  But war broke.  One by one, European countries succumbed to the blitzkreig.  When German tanks rolled across the Belgian border, the Reys knew they couldn't stay long in Paris.

But how could they--as Jews (even though Margaret wasn't one by Halakhikh law, she was one according to Nazi codes)--travel without attracting attention?  If they'd taken a train, bus or boat, they would have been "outed" if a conductor or gendarme demanded to see their IDs.  And walking would take too long.

When they realized what their best alternative was, Hans got to work.  He assembled two bicycles from spare parts.  Margaret packed a few belongings--including the manuscript for The Adventures of Fifi, for which they had just received an advance.

They mounted their bikes and pedaled south and west--just two days before Paris fell to the Nazis.  They stayed in farmhouses and barns en route to Bayonne.  Along the way they were stopped once, by an official who thought they might be German spies.  He searched their bags and, after finding a manuscript for a story about a monkey, sent them on their way.  

In Bayonne, Portuguese Vice-Counsul Manuel Vieira Braga (following the instructions of Consul Aristides de Sousa Mendes in Bordeaux)  signed the visas that saved the couples' lives.  The Reys continued riding until they crossed the  Spanish border, where they bought train tickets to Lisbon. From the Portuguese capital, they set sail for Brazil.  Back in Rio, they made arrangements to move to the United States.

Four months later, they were in New York, where they settled in Greenwich Village.  Only a week after that, they found a publisher for their book.   However, that publisher thought "Fifi" was a strange name for a boy monkey and suggested changing it.  Curious George was pubished in 1941.  Over the next quarter-century, H.A. and Margaret Rey wrote, illustrated and published six more Curious George stories, including Curious George Rides A Bicycle in 1952.  

H.A. Rey reads to children in the 1970s.

It's often said that writers write what they know--which usually means their experience.  Curious George rode his bicycle to adventures--though not as harrowing as those his creators experienced!


  1. Well this turned out different from what I expected.

    I thought you were going to write about how almost nobody bothers to look at a bicycle before illustrating one and therefore constantly show two wheeled things which could not possibly work...

  2. Wonderful story, Justine. I loved to watch the 2006 Curious George movie with my children when they were younger. Corney, but somehow that monkey just makes you feel good.

  3. Coline--You're right about the bike. The same could be said for most bicycles depicted in most images. Makes you wonder about those bikes the Reys rode to Spain.

    Chris--Curious George is still one of those things I haven't "outgrown"--and don't want to!