Curious George — Climbing the Stairs with an O’Fallon Librarian

This is another entry in “Climbing the Stairs with an O’Fallon Librarian,” a series in which we explore the classics painted onto the library’s stairs.

The next step on the O’Fallon Public Library staircase that we will be exploring today is Curious George by Margret and H.A. Rey, a children’s classic about a curious little monkey who gets in all kinds of trouble.

Despite some problematic themes and interpretations, Curious George remains popular and has spawned a movie, tv show, video game and merchandise. Ultimately, the value of Curious George has to be decided by you, the reader.

Let’s explore it together:


Plot Summary

There are dozens of Curious George stories though only seven original ones. Today I’m going to describe, “Curious George Visits the Library”, which wasn’t actually written by Margret and H.A. Rey, but is written and illustrated in the style of their classics.

Curious George and the man in the yellow hat, his friend, go to the library. George gravitates towards the children’s librarian, who is reading stories to the children. Behind the librarian, George sees a book about dinosaurs. He loses patience waiting for the librarian to read the book about the dinosaur so he takes it and goes on a mini-adventure in the library.

He finds one book after another that he loves on the library shelves so he takes them with him. George starts to have a problem carrying all of his books but then he finds a cart and is able to carry so much more. He races through the library aisles on the cart, adding one book after another, being chased by the library volunteer whose cart he ran off with.

They race through the library, gathering a crowd of watching children as they go, until George unceremoniously crashes into the encyclopedias.

“Oh no,” says the library volunteer, “How am I going to put away all these books?”

The children and George pitch together and get most of the books put away again, except for a few of George’s favorites. The volunteer then gives George his own library card, which he uses to check out the books.

On the last page of the book, George and the man in the yellow hat are reading the dinosaur book, that started the whole adventure, together. The end.


The Authors

Margret and H.A. Rey were Jewish refugees who carried a manuscript for what would eventually become Curious George with them on their escape from Europe.

Hans (H.A.) served in the German military in the First World War and moved to Rio de Janeiro where he met and fell in love with Margret. They married and owned marmoset monkeys, an action which perhaps later led to the development of the Curious George books.

The monkeys did not survive a trip the Rey’s took to Europe, even though Margret had knitted them tiny sweaters in an effort to keep them warm.

When the Rey’s fled to America, they arrived with only the clothes on their backs and a manuscript for a children’s book about a monkey named Fifi, a name which the publisher suggested they change in order to make the book feel “less French”.

If you are interested, more details about the Rey’s escape were published in “The Journey That Saved Curious George,” written by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond. It is a story in and of itself.

The Rey’s lasting legacy is a curious monkey who gets into trouble but always finds his happy ending, delighting children all around the world.


The Controversy

Though later stories moved away from his origins, the Rey’s first book had George being kidnapped from Africa by the man in the yellow hat, who is dressed in a ways that resembles British colonials. There are some obvious ways this could be compared to the kidnapping of slaves in Africa and their transportation to the colonies.

At first, the man in the yellow hat says he wants George to be in a zoo. But in later stories, their relationship becomes more of a father and son, than a captor and captive.

In an article entitled “A Good Little Monkey: Curious George’s Undercurrent of White Dominance and the Series’ Continued Popularity,” author Maya Terhune writes: “While in many ways the Curious George series proves to be the perfect childhood companion with its inquisitive protagonist and entertaining shenanigans, the earlier books in the series prove problematic with their overt references to the abduction and forced enslavement of Africans during the slave trade and their glorification of the Man with the Yellow Hat who is celebrated as a friend and protector rather than condemned as a captor and oppressor.” More can be read here: https://www.bu.edu/writingprogram/journal/past-issues/issue-7/terhune/

To be honest, I’d never read the beginning of Curious George, just watched the occasional show on PBS or read the later stories to my daughter. She was enthralled by the little monkey’s curiosity and the happy endings.

However, I can see how the material could be considered problematic.


Further Reading and Some Thoughts

I spoke to Teri Rankin, the head of O’Fallon Public Library’s children’s department, about Curious George. She mentioned she had not heard concerns about Curious George specifically.

However, she recalled a story hour in which she hadn’t pre-read the Curious George book she had picked for that day and was surprised to find a part where George was smoking a cigar. She said everyone laughed off that bit and understood the story was originally written in the 1940’s – very much a product of its times.

Teri says the appropriateness of any work of children’s literature for someone’s children is a decision that should be made by the parents.

There are books we hold near and dear to our hearts that may not fit in the modern world any longer. And, as Teri pointed out, there are newer alternate titles that do not carry the problematic overtones, language, omissions or blatant racial slurs that some of the classics do.

Perhaps if we stop using these troublesome titles as required reading they will stop becoming sacred texts for future generations. That’s just my two cents on the matter.

You can access some articles about this topic for further reading here:

UPDATE: ‘Little House’ Revamped: 9 Alternatives for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Most Famous Work: https://bit.ly/3tIk4vE

Weeding Out Racism’s Invisible Roots: Rethinking Children’s Classics: https://bit.ly/3Ohy5rV

Little House, Big Problem: What To Do with “Classic” Books That Are Also Racist: https://bit.ly/3O2Te9q

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