Three generations of children have grown up with Curious George, who celebrates his 75th birthday this month and continues to star in several new stories a year. He’s still inquisitive and prone to find trouble. But as tastes and publishing standards changed, George lost some of his curiosity — and his adventures have largely lost the element of danger.
By making storybooks safer, we aim to make children feel secure. But in the process, we weaken what it is that makes these stories appeal to kids in the first place.
The original Curious George story was written by H.A. and Margret Rey and published in Boston in September 1941. The Reys, both Jews born in Germany, famously carried the first manuscript of the series with them as they fled wartime Paris on bicycles. They went on to write six more books featuring the character, with the final adventure under their name, "Curious George Goes to the Hospital," appearing in 1966.
These books were sometimes funny and sweet, but they were also scary. In "Curious George Flies a Kite" (1958), George takes a frightening airborne voyage after flying a kite without permission. Floating high up above his town, George didn't exactly enjoy the view. He "did not like it a bit. He wanted to get down, but how? Not even a monkey can jump from the sky. George was scared."
Other early stories feature similar frights. While being chased by angry grown-ups, he jumps off a fire escape and breaks his leg. He rides a rocket into outer space — two years before Sputnik! — aware of the distinct possibility he might not come back down. And, of course, George's first encounter with the Man with the Yellow Hat is truly terrifying: George is snatched from his home in an African jungle, a scene whose imperialist overtones are disturbing, on a different level, for today's readers.
Though far less gory than the original Grimms' fairy tales, George's experiences are extreme versions of situations that children might encounter. George always comes out right in the end, but the happy endings don't erase all the scary parts that came before.
In the late 20th century, George's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, began publishing new books about the "good little monkey" (as he's described) by various authors who have tried to match the Reys' style. In line with the current industry standard, the new books are each 32 pages. (The Reys' longest ones reached 80 pages.) More significantly, George's misadventures are a lot tamer than they used to be. Nowadays he runs the risk of making a mess in the kitchen or upsetting a bookstore manager by building a tower of books. Things always wind toward some incredibly nice resolution, on a scale far too grand for whatever mistake prompted the episode.
Picture books of any era tell us more about grown-ups than about the very young children to whom they are read. Adults, after all, are the writers and publishers and buyers and first readers. At some level, we parent-buyers may prefer stories without too much danger, stories that show our kids — and ourselves — a world in which only good things happen to good little monkeys.
Yet by taking the danger out of these books, we fail to tap into a child's desire for control. A subtle lesson of the original Georges and other mid-century classics is that kids have as great a capacity to get out of mischief as they do to get into it. In Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" (1963), it's Max who declared "let the wild rumpus start," and it's he who decides when enough is enough and puts a stop to it. The children in Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat" (1957), whose house gets ripped apart by Thing One and Thing Two, have to stand up for themselves to bring their home back to order.
In many contemporary picture books, childlike characters are denied this opportunity for agency. In Mo Willems' "Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale" (2004), a little girl loses her favorite stuffed animal. Guess who finds it? Her dad! So too, the George of today has less agency than the George of yesteryear. Once, he offered himself up to the scientific community and rode on a rocket; now, many of his happy endings seem almost accidental, as in his discovery of a lost baby rhinoceros in "Curious George Goes to the Zoo," published in 2011.
Without danger or agency for their protagonists, what do contemporary picture books have? Nice stories and characters, clever pictures and rhymes. There is nothing wrong with nice — we all want it for our children — but the world isn't always nice and kids tend to figure that out fast. Books without a real challenge, whether for kids or adults, present a different kind of risk: irrelevance.
As Curious George celebrates his 75th anniversary, let's wish him a happy birthday and many more. Let's hope he keeps getting into trouble for at least another 75 years — and that his latest stewards let him linger in the danger zone just a little longer.