This year, Curious George celebrates a birthday of 75 years in print! However, the curious little monkey that children have come to know and love almost never became a children’s book character. His creators and illustrators, Hans and Margret Rey, were World War II refugees. The amazing story of the Reys and their journey is detailed in a wonderful book by Louise Borden entitled, The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey. Borden did most of her research at the De Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. The de Grummond houses the original papers and artwork of over 1,200 children’s book authors and illustrators. The Journey that Saved Curious George is illustrated by Allan Drummond and contains photographs of Hans and Margret, as well as letters from Hans’ personal journals. The story of how Curious George came to be is one of the most fascinating tales in children’s literature.
H.A. Rey was born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany. In 1906, Margarete Waldstein was born the same year that Hans turned eight. Both Hans and Margarete grew up in Jewish families in Hamburg during the turn of the century. They were also both artists--Margarete even studied art and photography at the Bauhaus. Hans went on to fight in World War I, but he loved drawing funny pictures more than being a soldier. After Germany lost the war, he moved to Brazil in 1925. This is where he began to draw monkeys, since they were everywhere! Ten years later, Margarete visited Brazil in search of adventure, and she knew that a family friend, Hans Reyersbach, was working in Brazil. The two artists married in August of 1935, and soon after, they shortened their names so they could be pronounced easily in Portuguese. Margarete became Margret, and Reyersbach became Rey. Hans began to sign maps and other posters he created “H.A. Rey.”
|Original 1940 drawing by H.A. Rey gifted to Lena Y. de Grummond in May 1972|
With two pet marmosets, they took a honeymoon trip to Europe. They ended up staying in Paris for the next four years, during which time Hans & Margret began writing and illustrating books for children. In particular, this was when the couple created the story and illustrations for The Adventures of Fifi, a story about a monkey who was always getting into trouble. World War II began in September of 1939, and the Reys moved to the South of France. Here, Hans finished The Adventures of Fifi in 1940, and signed contracts with Chatto and Windus, a publishing house in London, and Gallimard, the publishing house in France.
Back in Paris, the Reys did not have much time as the Germans began to occupy Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. They were German-born Jews, and knew they had to flee. So on June 12, 1940, on two bicycles that Hans assembled himself, the Reys left Paris in a mass exodus that was fleeing the city. The manuscript and illustrations for The Adventures of Fifi, among other stories, were among the only possessions they took with them in baskets strapped to the bikes. Two days later, on June 14, 1940, the Nazis would raise their flag to hang from the Eiffel Tower. The Reys escaped just in time.
|Detail from “The Journey that Saved Curious George” by Allan Drummond|
|H. A. Rey|
Their journey was not over yet. It took them more than a month to reach Portugal and safely board the Angola, the ship that would take them to Brazil. From Brazil, they took another ship to America, and in October of 1940, they saw the New York City skyline. Finally, the Reys--and their story for children--were safe.
Late in 1940, the Reys were offered a contract for four stories from Grace Hogarth, an editor the Reys knew from British publisher Chatto and Windus. Hogarth had also left Europe and was now an editor for Houghton Mifflin. All four stories were carried with the Reys on their bicycles. As for The Adventures of Fifi? It was renamed Curious George, but it featured the same mischievous monkey that has been charming the hearts of readers for 75 years.
|Happy Birthday, Curious George!|
This article originally appeared in The Clarion Ledger