Curious about the 1940s

by Shannon McKinney, Sales Associate in the Indiana Store

One of my earliest memories of my curiosity landing me into trouble was a time when I was around 3 or 4 years old. My mother and I had spent weeks practicing calling 911 in case of an emergency, but each time we practiced, she disconnected the telephone. One day, while she was watching TV in the living room, I came to the conclusion that I needed to practice for real this time. I wanted to know what the people on the other end would sound like and the kinds of questions they would ask, so with the phone happily connected and fully functioning, I dialed 911 and calmly informed the operator that my mommy was dying. Fortunately, no one came to the house to “save” her. I’m sure that after I dialed, my mother called them back to let them know that everything was all right, and her daughter was simply indulging her curiosity.

curious_georgeIn one way or another, I believe all children are able to relate to Curious George’s adventures. The experience I just detailed somewhat reflects when Curious George once accidentally dialed the fire department, but unlike the outcome of my story, Curious George ended up in prison for his actions. Thank goodness that wouldn’t happen in real life to a curious little child (or monkey)!

Out of all of the products that we currently carry in our 1940s decade section in the Indiana Store, the Curious George books and related merchandise have, perhaps, the most compelling history behind them. Nearly every adult alive today likely remembers reading Curious George at some point. However, many people might not be aware of the fact that the story of the mischievous little monkey has a connection to the Nazi-occupied Europe of the 1940s.

Both Margret Rey (born Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein) and Hans Augusto (H.A.) Rey, the authors of the popular children’s books, were born in Hamburg, Germany, around the turn of the 20th century. Their birthplace was especially significant considering they were also both Jewish; anti-Semitism in Europe reached its greatest and most terrible height when the Nazis rose to power in the years leading up to World War II. The Reys married in Brazil in 1935 before moving to Paris, France, soon after. It quickly became clear to them that Paris would not remain safe from Hitler’s forces, and mere hours before the Germans invaded the city in 1940, the Reys fled Paris on homemade bicycles. Among their few possessions? Five manuscripts — one of which was Curious George. Eventually, the Reys reached New York and were able to publish Curious George in 1941.

Since then, Curious George has appeared in a number of areas of the media, including a 2006 film starring Will Ferrell as The Man with the Yellow Hat and a subsequent PBS children’s show based on the books. The books themselves have sold over 30 million copies and have been translated into several different languages. If the Reys had been unable to escape Nazi-occupied Paris, it is very likely that the Curious George stories would have never become the beloved icon of childhood that they are today.

For further reading, see the following sites:
Houghton Mifflin Books: Curious About George?
PBS Parents: The Reys and Curious George