How Margret and H.A. Rey Saved Curious George (and He Saved Them)

Copyright © 2010 The Jewish Museum (http://thejewishmuseum.org)

About a year ago, I was cycling in southern Williamson County, through the Bethesda and College Grove communities, when I came across a yard sale. Among the old clothes and tattered books and records was a stuffed Curious George doll, in near-perfect condition. He was about two feet tall, and priced just a few dollars. I was on my way back to see my nephew, then only two-years old, and thought George would make the perfect gift. I stuffed him best I could into my backpack — about half of him, head and arms at least, sticking out — and cycled back. I imagine I made a silly sight there, cycling through that rural community of cows and horses, with a two-foot Curious George on my back.

It wasn’t the first time Curious George rode a bike, of course. He loves riding his bike in his books and cartoons. His most important bike ride, though, came 70 years ago this week.

It was then, on June 12, 1940, that George’s creators Margret and H.A. Rey fled Paris on bicycles, in advance of the Nazis entering the city two days later. With them was their manuscript for Curious George, and little else.

Copyright © 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. From http://www.thejewishmuseum.org

The Jewish Museum in New York has a wonderful exhibit, “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey, with almost eighty original drawings and documentation about their escape, first from Paris and ultimately from Nazi-occupied Europe, that as the Museum states, “examine the parallels between the obstacles the Reys faced and the drawings that may have saved their lives.”

At one point in their journey, the Museum’s site explains, they were stopped for “a tense inspection of their belongings by a border official, children’s illustrations were found and they were allowed to continue on their way, eventually reaching the United States.”

If you can’t get up to New York for the exhibit, which closes on August 1, be sure to check out The Jewish Museum’s excellent interactive timeline of the Reys’ journey, “Life in Paris & Narrow Escape.” It includes photos, videos and excerpts from H.A. Rey’s journal. On June 12 he wrote, “Departed from Paris at 5:30, by bicycle to Etampes. Slept at farmhouse in a room with a servant and a woman refugee.” On the 13th, “At 3 p.m. left by bike for Acquebouille. Kind farmer gave us milk. Spent night in barn with cows in Acquebouille.”

The Reys made it to New York on October 14, 1940. It didn’t take long for them to land a book contract. Houghton Mifflin published Curious George in 1941.

Curious George endures almost 70 years later, in books, on merchandise and on TV. His PBS show, which airs on NPT at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the week and 6 a.m. on the weekends, is one of the most popular children’s shows in the nation.

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