Curious George, a children’s book written in 1941 by H.A. Rey and his wife about an inquisitive monkey, has been a staple in the bedtime story rotation of families raising children for over 75 years. It has been lauded by critics, remade by Pixar into a feature film, and turned into six other published sequels, making it one of the most iconic franchises of the children’s book industry.
The story depicts a monkey named George, who is “befriended” by a man (“The Man with the Yellow Hat”, henceforth referred to as “The Man”) in Africa and taken back to what is presumably the United States, where he will live out the rest of his days in a “big zoo in a big city”. Along the way, due to his insatiable curiosity, George gets himself into all sorts of hijinks, to include: jumping overboard on the ship taking him to the United States, mistakenly dialing the fire department, who in turn respond to what they believe is a fire, and floating aimlessly over the city while holding a bunch of balloons, causing chaos and traffic jams to ensue.
Sounds like a perfectly innocent and wholesome story to tell to a young child, right? Wrong. Sure, this story was written in 1941, which was certainly a different time, particularly in light of WWII and its unforgivable horrors, but are the messages contained in this book ones which we want to pass on to our youth? Let’s take a bit of a closer look, through the lens of a small child listening to this story, so you understand what I’m talking about…
The book’s first few sentences read:
This is George. He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey and always very curious. One day George saw a man. He had on a large yellow straw hat. The man saw George too. “What a nice little monkey,” he thought. “I would like to take him home with me.”
Sure, take whatever you’d like — while you’re at it, why don’t you plunder the nearby village, set it ablaze, and force a few newly homeless 11 year-olds to steal 20 carats worth of blood diamonds from the local warlord. The Man, who is carrying a double-barreled shotgun and dressed in some sort of yellow jumpsuit, then proceeds to throw his hat onto the ground, where George’s curiosity causes him to put the hat on his own head, covering his eyes. Then, The Man snatches George, puts him in a sack, and takes him to a large transport ship docked offshore. Are you getting sleepy yet, son? Wait until the part where The Man films a hostage video for Al Jazeera, starring George, a machete, and a scary hooded man demanding death to the infidels…Sweet dreams!
Right off the bat, I, the adult reading this story, have several questions. Is The Man some sort of billionaire, with his own fully staffed transport ship, on an animal poaching boondoggle? If so, why is marigold his chosen color for a hunting outfit, as it clearly cannot be for its camouflage qualities? Was animal trafficking considered a leisure activity for the ultra-rich in 1941, or, is that how The Man amassed his vast fortune? Why wasn’t The Man, who appears to be of fighting age in the pictures, training to fight in WWII, which the U.S. entered against the Axis powers in December of 1941, the year this book was written, along with the rest of his “Greatest Generation”? Was The Man misinterpreting a common cliche as, “monkey see, monkey zoo”, leading him down an irreversible path into the shady underworld of international animal trafficking on behalf of the largest municipal zoos? Did he have a thing for monkeys and or other animals — was he a “pet-o-phile”? Has anyone in the scientific community considered the possibility that George was the “patient zero” for simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which later mutated into HIV? If The Man was truly a “pet-o-phile”, he certainly could have contracted SIV from “monkeying around” with George, and, as a result, caused the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and 90’s, ultimately ending Magic Johnson’s storied basketball career, disappointing thousands of other men, and women for that matter, with yellow hats which read Lakers across the front — just sayin’…
Setting those obvious but unanswerable questions aside, what do Mr. and Mrs. H.A. Rey expect to be the takeaway of the book’s initial exchange from the child’s perspective? Do they want the young bucks in 1941 to think, boy, if I just got myself a really big gun, I could score a monkey of my own! Or, screw college — once I get my GED, I’m going to work for the city until I can save enough money to get to Africa — it’s a free-for-all over there! Or, if I see something that I really like — even if it doesn’t belong to me, breaks international trade law, and numerous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention import regulations — I am free to just take it, because my impulsive whims are all that matter, even if I have to break up a family of monkeys to satisfy them!
After The Man recrosses the Atlantic on his boat to take George (“aye, aye, primatey!”) to his home in the “big city”, the book continues:
George said good-bye to the kind sailors, and he and the Man with the Yellow Hat walked off the ship on to the shore and on into the city to the man’s house. After a good meal and a good pipe George felt very tired. He crawled into bed and fell asleep at once.
Wait, what? A pipe? The book actually has a picture of George sitting in a comfortable chair, kicked back, smoking a pipe. And what was George smoking inside that pipe, Mr. and Mrs. Rey? It’s sort of ironic that up until this point, George could hardly be kept in one place, galavanting all over The Man’s poaching yacht, to the point where he tries to emulate seagulls flying, only to fall violently into the ocean. Now, after what appears to be, according to the picture in the book, a meal consisting merely of a cream-based soup and a few puffs on a pipe, he’s borderline narcoleptic — curious, George…curious indeed.
The book continues:
The next morning The Man telephoned the zoo. George watched him. He was fascinated. Then The Man went away. George was curious. He wanted to telephone, too. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. What fun! DING-A-LING-A-LING! GEORGE HAD TELEPHONED THE FIRE STATION!
The fire department answered the call, but since it was George calling, nobody was on the other line (either because he was a monkey who couldn’t speak, because he was taking a hit from his pipe, or because he suffered from PTSD from the abduction — H.A. and his wife leave it up to the adolescent listening to the story to decipher). However, the fire department, being the technological pioneers that they are, had an exceptionally advanced map, as far as 1941 standards go, where they were able to identify the exact location from where the call came, and they proceed to send, what I count from the picture, to be no less than 20 firemen to respond. When the firemen arrive at the house, the book continues:
NO FIRE! ONLY a naughty little monkey. “Oh, catch him, catch him,” they cried. George tried to run away. He almost did, but he got caught in the telephone wire, and — a thin fireman caught one arm and a fat fireman caught the other. “You fooled the fire department,” they said. “We will have to shut you up where you can’t do any more harm.” They took him away and shut him in a prison.
Umm, okay…are you freaking kidding me? Well, as every fireman plebe can tell you, when you arrive at a false alarm and find a house occupied by only a primate, the standard operating procedure calls for immediate capture and incarceration of the knuckle-dragging subject, as said primate is always at fault — no questions asked…so I’m not too concerned about the fire department going off script here; what concerns me most, however, particularly as one looks at this through the lens of a child, is that poor George simply dialed a wrong number. What was his penalty, maybe an angry voice and a quick slamming of the receiver on the other end? Nope — imprisonment…jail…the pen…the clink…the big house…prison…hard time…up the river. While I agree that “fooling” the fire department is nothing to joke around with, and it is a waste of taxpayer dollars and resources, I think the penalty probably doesn’t fit the crime in George’s case.
What type of world is this where it is okay for someone to kidnap a monkey from Africa at gunpoint, sexually interact with him over international waters, and allow him to smoke marijuana in your home, but you get sent to jail for dialing a wrong number due to evolutionary processes beyond your control, because your thumb-to-digit ratio is much lower than your highly dexterous human counterpart for whom the dial on the phone in question was made in the first place?
Today + 3 years — My son: “Daddy, monkeys have disposable [sic] thumbs like me, right? What if my disposable thumb dials the fire department instead of Grandma — will I go to jail too?” Me: “Umm, no, son — they won’t catch you, as we have cordless phones. Also, prosecuting wrong number dialers wasn’t collectively bargained in the firemen’s latest union contract, so since they are under no obligation to do it, I wouldn’t sweat it…”
So, after George was “shut in” a prison cell, the jail’s watchman came to check on George, who was hanging from the bars covering the window in his cell, high on the wall, trying to escape. The watchman had to step onto the wooden bed to try to get George down, but because the watchman was “too big and heavy” (he must’ve been related to the “fat” fireman), both the bed and the watchman fell over, and George ran out the door.
He eventually made it up onto the roof, where he escaped by climbing onto the telephone wires and over the wall. Once over the wall, George saw a man selling balloons (because where would you set up shop if you were a balloon salesman? Outside of a jail, duh.). His curiosity then got the better of him, again, because he just “had” to have a red balloon. As he reached for a red balloon — because who needs money, as he learned from The Man, if you see something you like, grab it, regardless of your thumb-to-digit ratio — he ends up grabbing the whole bunch, whisking him up and away over the city. It isn’t until the wind dies down that he descends down to earth, landing on a traffic light, where among the chaos, he miraculously runs into The Man, who ultimately takes him to the zoo, which the book describes, in conclusion, as “a nice place for George to live“.
So, if I’m a kid hearing this story, aside from now finding acceptable the aforementioned misdemeanors, felonies, war crimes, and poor decision-making that I’ve already described, I now believe that running away from any problem is the best option; I also put no faith in the judicial process, and the belief that one is innocent until proven guilty (wait, is this post about the first weeks of the Trump administration?). Further, my understanding of the basic laws of physics would be misguided, as I would now believe that it is okay to touch live wires, and that helium balloons, which can only be purchased in close proximity to detention centers, only rise when the wind blows.
Curious George, while iconic, has definitely had its run; but as I hope I’ve demonstrated, I’m not sure it translates well in today’s society. This book, while I remember it fondly, as I write this on my MacBook Air that I stole from a Bosnian orphanage (because it looked like a “nice” computer and I decided “to take it home with me”), has not adversely affected me — and thankfully so…but I worry about my progeny. If I choose to read this classic to my son, will he too come out unscathed? Only time will tell…
Today + 3 years: — My son: “Daddy, isn’t a zoo the same thing as jail, since it has bars, cages, and walls so those inside can’t get out? Why would George want to go there when he tried so hard to get out of jail in the first place? If George wants to live in a place with walls surrounding it, why doesn’t he just move to Mexico?”
Me: “It’s complicated — we’ll talk about it in the morning. Be a good boy, smoke your pipe, and go to bed — okay Champ?”