Tales and Their Tellers 8: Curious George is Not a Monkey

By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

Readers of this column will be aware that I like it when children’s books have been banned or challenged.  It is this contrast between the child-like and the societally subversive which goes a long way toward making them such a compelling topic for me.

The list of books which have been challenged is staggering and oftentimes perplexing.  The most benign book seemingly finds a way of offending someone somewhere.  I suppose, then, that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found Curious George on the list.  After all, I myself am sometimes uncomfortable with reading it aloud to Arlo.  I can’t help it.  I am a sensitive soul, after all – what one might call a bleeding heart liberal.  Added to that, after the hundredth time or so of reading the same book over and over, my mind begins to wander, begins seeking out connections and extrapolating on things like the sexual-preferences of the Man in the Yellow Hat, for example, wondering just what it is he does for a living which enables him to live such a carefree, playboy lifestyle in Manhattan and travel the…

“Dad, keep reading!”

“Oh, right, sorry, Arlo.  Where was I..?”

And so it often occurs to me, does George have parents?  Does he have a family who mourns his absence?

The beginning of the book involves the Man in the Yellow Hat – I’ll refer to him as Yellow Man – coming to “Africa” (which always strikes me as being inherently xenophobic.  Africa?  Really?  He’s chilling in Johannesburg?  Or the deserts of Egypt?  Or in any of the 47 countries which comprise the world’s second largest continent?  No, just plain old “Africa,” narrative code for “the deep, dark jungle.”)

Once there, Yellow Man traps the curious little monkey using his iconic Yellow Hat as bait.  Apt symbolism – his key signifier being the very object which leads to George’s capture.  “What a nice, little monkey,” he says to no one in particular.  “I would like to take him home with me.”

Plop into the sack goes George, strings pulled taught!  Yellow Man absconds with the poor creature, ostensibly, as he later tells him, “to put him in the zoo.”  He is not asking.

I always become uncomfortable reading storybook accounts of animals who actually want to go to the zoo.  Another classic example is Robert Lopshire’s 1960 opus Put Me In the Zoo, in which a magical polka-dotted bear-like creature bemoans the fact that he is allowed to wander about freely throughout society.  Why, oh why, won’t any zoos lock him up for display?  I suppose its a comforting fantasy for children.  Yes, dear, the nice animals want to be in the zoo!

But there we have the essential premise of the series.  White man come, steal away native monkey, put him in zoo for the delight and entertainment of all.  So yes, seeing Curious George on that list of challenged books, I could understand how some especially sensitive folks out there would be uncomfortable enough to want to censor it from…

What?  That’s not why it was placed on the list of challenged books?

Apparently, a family in Atlanta had requested the book be removed from their library because George was not anatomically correct.

Which is not to suggest that the does not possess genitalia, but rather, he does not have a tail.

Monkeys, as you well know, possess prehensile tails.  This book is therefore teaching children incorrect anatomy and must be removed lest they move throughout life with this glaring misinformation!

I too have wondered at George’s curious lack of the tail-boned appendage.  It has been theorized that he must have somehow lost it in one of his many curiosity-induced accidents.  I’d sure like to read that one!  Curious George Loses His Tail!

But the answer is just that at the time the book was written, “monkey” was used more of a blanket term to describe any type of primate…  It is only nowadays that we take care to distinguish between them.  The truth of the matter boils down to this: Curious George is not a monkey.  He is a chimpanzee.  Thus, no tail.

“Now remember, George, be a good little chimpanzee and don’t get into any trouble!”  Just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Do not suppose that I have come to speak ill of Curious George!  I am a great admirer.  One of the first books Arlo ever had was the 405 page hardcover collection of the complete Original Curious George Adventures which we have read and re-read ad infinitum.  Curious George certainly came out of a specific time; I do not believe that the Reys themselves were unduly xenophobic.  They were Jews who lived in Paris when World War II broke out, escaping on bicycles in 1939 – taking the first illustrations of Curious George with them.  They also lived in Rio de Janeiro, New York City, Cambridge…   Well-traveled people, certainly, who clearly had seen the ugly part of life, and the fact that they became so well-known for writing entertaining books for children is a delicious contrast.

In all, the Reys only produced seven Curious George books in their lifetimes.  Afterward, there have been several dozen more – and still more to this day, done by a plethora of different writers and artists.  We have collections of these in our household as well: A Treasury of Curious George (2004) and The New Adventures of Curious George (2006).  These also have been read and re-read.  It is not unusual for Arlo to want to begin with the first story and not stop until the end of the final tale has been reached.

In just a few sentences, the plot of each book is laid out.  Following the perfunctory, “This is George.  He was a good little monkey and always very curious.  He lived with his friend, the man with the yellow hat…” at some point, in some locale, the Yellow Man will say, “Stay here, George.  I’ll be right back.  Don’t get into trouble.”

Oh, silly, silly Yellow Man.  Will you never learn?  George does not – needless to say – stay put.  To the contrary, with just a few curious strokes, he can single-handedly destroy the best-laid plans of mice and men, ruin anything that gets in his way and enrage the public for his careless acts of inadvertent sabotage.  Yet then, in the end, he always somehow manages to make amends, just in time for Yellow Man to return from wherever it was so important for him to run off to.  George is pronounced the hero, seemingly none the wiser.  A Greek afterlife in which no progress is ever made, no foothold is had.  Nietzsche’s Eternal recurrence.

It is only in reading these so-called “New Adventures” that I was able to truly appreciate the classic stories by Margaret and Hans Augusto Rey.  I would take their original 7 over the latter 700 any day.

Whereas the New Adventures are formulaic, the Original Adventures are anything but predictable.  From one page to the next, it is impossible to anticipate where George’s curiosity will lead him next.  After a run-in with firefighters and the police, a daring jail break and a high flying helium-filled balloon ride, George is reunited with the Yellow Man at the end of the first book of the series, and taken – as foretold – to the zoo.  The final page is one of George happily sitting in the crook of a tree, his eyes closed in sheer contentment, surrounded by all the other zoo animals.

It wasn’t until six years later in 1947 in which the Reys produced Curious George Takes a Job that we learn of George’s fate.  For he is not content to remain in the confines of the zoo, surely not.  Though it is not necessarily a profound yearning for freedom, so much as it is – as the narrative informs us – “He wanted to find out what was going on outside the Zoo.”

One take-the-key-from-the-pipe-smoking-zookeeper trick later and George is on his way, propelled by the curiosity which is not just his signifying trait, but also the narrative drive.

My favorite sequence comes at the beginning of Curious George Gets a Medal (1957).  George is just lazing about, flipping though a book, when all of the sudden… the mailman delivers a letter!

That’s all it takes.

In a moment, George – overwhelmed by curiosity – is trying to write his own letter.  This leads to a mess involving some spilled ink, which leads to a mess involving copious amounts of soap and water, which leads to an incident involving the garden hose outside, which leads to the pump out in the shed, two dozen squealing pigs, two mad farmers,… and next thing you know, old George is hurtling though outer space on board a rocketship.  No fooling.

There have been several changes made to the character over the years.  His origin was retconned in 2006 with the release of the Ron Howard animated film. No longer a kidnapping victim, he now intentionally stowed away on board the ship without the Yellow Man’s knowledge.  In addition, several characters have changed race and – in some cases – gender.  Professor Wiseman – last seen in Curious George Gets a Medal as an old, white man with a long, white beard, is now an attractive, young African-American woman in the current PBS series.  Gone, also, are the copious amounts of pipes and cigars and other unhealthy habits.

It is a kinder, gentler world that George now lives in – and it goes to show what a malleable character he is, that he has managed to survive so many changes.  You could call him a true iconic figure.  Just don’t call him a monkey.

Next: The dark truths underlying Goodnight, Moon!


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