Happy Curiosity Day, Curious George

An animation from Ema Ryan Yamazaki’s documentary

Today is Curiosity Day — the 75th anniversary of the creation of Curious George.

That seems like a good time to talk about the backstory of the mischievous monkey and his illustrious career of curiosity.

Curious George was born of the imaginations of Hans and Margret Rey, a husband and wife duo originally from Hamburg, Germany. Hans drew George, and Margret brought him to life with her narratives.

Margret described her creation this way: “Curious George … he’s not a typical animal. He’s Curious George. He’s a curious monkey who, through his curiosity, gets himself into trouble, and through his ingenuity gets himself out of trouble.”

Filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki is intent on preserving the Rey’s story. Margret died in 1996; her husband died nearly two decades before. Yamazaki was granted unprecedented access to the Reys’ archives by their estate. Her forthcoming documentary, "Monkey Business, The Adventures of George's Curious Creators," explores how the Reys weren’t that different from their famous character.

“The more I learned about the Reys and their personalities and their life experiences,” she says, “it became so clear to me that the reason we have Curious George is because of who the Reys were and their life experiences.”

“There’s Curious George in each of them, their curiosity, their sense of adventure. They’re survivors.”

But before we get to the Rey’s dramatic escape from the Nazis and their long trek to the United States as refugees, let’s start at the beginning.

In an archival interview, Hans Rey recounts how he met Margret: “I knew her as a child. At her father’s house, she came sliding down the bannisters. That’s how I met her.”

Hans Strauch, Margret’s cousin, recalls why the duo got along so well. “Margret was the mischievous one and Hans was the curious one. Maybe that’s how George came to be.”

Hans moved to Brazil after World War I. Years later, Margret went to great lengths to get back in touch with Hans. “She was the one that got things done. It was her that went to Brazil in the ‘30s [to find] Hans. He was doing an account-keeping job and she was the one that said, “Hans, you’re too talented to be a bookkeeper. Let’s do something creative together.””

Shortly after, in 1935, the couple was married. They started an advertising company together and ultimately started writing children’s books. They took a four-week vacation to Paris that turned into four years, never checking out of their hotel. As Margret liked to say, “Curious George was born in France.”

But Curious George was a difficult baby to bring about, not because the Reys were struggling for storylines, but because they had to flee the invading Nazi army. Louise Borden, author of The Journey That Saved Curious George, explains, “The Reys had to leave Paris suddenly in June of 1940 along with 5 million other people.”

Yamazaki continues, “They found themselves with no trains, no cars to be had. And they had to get out of Paris. They couldn’t even find bicycles, all they could find was a tandem bike.”

“And the wife wasn’t going to tolerate riding a tandem bike to flee the Nazis. So she told her husband, ‘I’m not doing this. Figure out something.’ And he built two bicycles out of spare parts overnight. And those bicycles [were] what they rode to flee the Nazis.”

“It was through their creativity and imagination that they got out of serious trouble.”

Lay Lee Ong, library executor of the Rey Estate, says Curious George was fully realized by this time. “By the time they fled Paris, George was a finished product.”

In the process of getting from Paris to Portugal to Brazil to the United States, being German-born got the Reys into trouble. Margret recalls, “Somehow they found out we were from Germany. From that moment on, we were spies.”

In Yamazaki’s documentary, animation of the Reys journey shows officials looking through their things and finding the Curious George manuscript. The officials stop frowning suspiciously and begin to smile. Margret continues in the voiceover, “Pretty sure it was George who saved us there.”

When the Reys arrived in the US in 1941, they published the first Curious George book. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published four stories for $1,000.

The Reys later moved to a small community in Waterville, New Hampshire. The duo never had children. But, as Hans once said, “[Curious George] is sort of a child and one of the children who take care of their parents. We’re in the monkey business, you might say.”

One-time New Hampshire neighbors of the Reys fondly remember Hans creating George right in front of them when they were kids, asking them, “Do you think George would do this?”

But the Reys could never have imagined the international impact of one mischievous monkey. And that’s how Yamazaki got turned on to Curious George in the first place.

“I grew up in Japan reading Curious George in Japanese, assuming he was a Japanese monkey.” Yamazaki says. “I never questioned that. Years later, I found out so many countries were claiming him.”

And it’s true, many countries have adopted Curious George. In Japanese, George is called “hitomane kozaru” or ‘mimicking little monkey.’ In Spanish-speaking countries, he’s called “Jorge el Curioso.” He’s called “Coco” in Germany, “Peter Pedal” in Denmark, “Nicke Nyfiken” in Sweden and “Hogisim Maneun Joji” in South Korea.

“It was one of the few things I could share with my new American friends from my childhood, because so many of them had read Curious George.” Yamazaki explains. “He’s universal and timeless, which is incredible.”

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