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Who Wrote The Curious George Children’s Books

by Kathryn McMaster

There are few people of my generation, before and after, who would not recognise the monkey below as being that from the famous children’s book series, Curious George. However, how many of you know anything about the authors and who they were?

Monkey in palm tree

Who Wrote Curious George?

Hans Augusto Rey was born 16 September, 1898 in Hamburg Germany. During his upbringing he had the world-famous Hagenbeck Zoo on his doorstep which he visited often. This love for animals was expressed in creating illustrations. It was after he met and married the writer Margaret Waldstein in 1935, that together they created the Curious George books.

For a long time people thought Hans had written the stories. The confusion as to who was actually the creator of the stories was due to their American publisher. Their publisher had advised them to only have Hans’s name attached to the books as the children’s book industry at the time was swamped with women authors and he felt that the books would sell better if Margaret’s name was left off. However, it wasn’t long before Margaret decided that the suggestion was ridiculous and she finally persuaded the publisher to include her name on the books too.

Once Margaret’s name appeared on later publications it was then widely believed that Hans had written the stories and Margaret was the illustrator. In fact, it was the other way around. Hans had the ideas for the stories which he gave to Margaret who created the plots and the storylines. Once the story had been written Hans completed the book with his delightful illustrations.

Hans and Margaret Rey – The Early Years

Credit H A and Margaret Rey Papers, de Grummond childrens Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi

Hans and Margaret met in Brazil but knew each other from Hamburg. After they got married they lived in Paris. However, it wasn’t long before Hitler’s army was advancing and as German Jews they knew that they needed to leave. Hans spent some weeks cobbling two bicycles together from various spare parts he had found and they left Paris pre-dawn on the 14th June, 1940 with very few belongings - warm coats, a little food, and 5 manuscripts, one of which was Curious George. It was only a few hours that separated their departure and Hitler’s army entering Paris.

They cycled for 4 days travelling towards Spain before selling their bikes at the French-Spanish border for train tickets to Lisbon. From there they made their way to Brazil and then finally on to New York for a new life.

The First Publications of Curious George

Curious George was not always called George. He first appeared in their first book called, Raffy and the Nine Monkeys (Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys in the British and American editions).

Afterwards, it was felt that George needed a story of his own. When the first story was published his name was Fifi. When the name changed from Fifi to George in the 1941 US publication, it was not the case in the British publication of the same year. Instead, his name was Zozo so as not to cause offense and have the same name for the monkey as the reigning king of the time, King George VI.

The Curious George Stories

The main protagonist in Curious George is a monkey that is captured in Africa by “The Man with the Yellow Hat” so that he could be placed in the zoo of a large city. However, George escapes and is found by the man in the yellow hat who decides to take him home to live with him. While he is there, George gets up to all sorts of mischief and the man has to come to his rescue several times.

So who was the man in the yellow hat? He is never mentioned by name in any of the stories. All we know is that he wears a bright yellow suit and a yellow hat, smokes a pipe and seems to care deeply for the little monkey he captured.

Monkey in hospital, scene

As with a lot of authors, they often consciously or unconsciously weave aspects of their lives into their writing. The Reys were no different in the writing of these evergreen children’s stories. They too loved to travel and did so using cruise liners and bicycles. When getting to new cities the first port of call was usually the zoo before they saw anything else. They also lived among palm trees while living in Brazil and Hans enjoyed smoking a pipe.

What made the Curious George Books Popular with Children?

There were 7 original Curious George books that were attributed to the husband and wife team that were written over a 25 year period. When asked what made the Curious George stories so popular, the answer came from Margaret.

“George can do what kids can’t do. He can paint a room from the inside. He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do.”

In addition, they did not follow marketing trends or surveys. Instead, Hans and Margret Rey looked to the child within. “I know what I liked as a child," Hans once said, "and I don’t do any book that I, as a child, wouldn’t have liked.”

With over 75 million copies sold, translated into more than 16 languages, and never going out of print since its first publication 76 years ago, it is safe to say that the Curious George books will continue to be around for new generations to enjoy.

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