Inspiring Young Readers
H.A. and Margret Rey
This husband and wife team are probably best known for their cheeky monkey creation Curious George although they collaborated on several other children’s characters in their lengthy career. Hans, who always styled himself H.A. Rey was born in Germany as Hans Augusto Reyersbach in 1898 but found himself in Brazil during the time the Nazis rose to power where he met Margret, also a Jew, whose family was also trying to escape Nazi persecution.
Hans found he had a facility for drawing and storytelling and aided by Margret they created their first story book Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys – which included the first incarnation of Curious George. The pair had moved to Paris in 1935 but found themselves again under pressure to move on as the Nazi threat of invasion loomed and they headed in a roundabout way across Europe heading for sanctuary in the USA.
Hans had originally thought he might produce a series of watercolours for the Curious George stories but abandoned this in favour of the graphic, highly coloured cartoon style that typified his work. Alongside Margret’s facility for storytelling the combination was hugely successful with a total of seven books in the series which almost immediately made the character of George an American children’s classic.
The Rey’s also created the Dachshund Pretzel, again with a story written by Margret, Spotty the rather oddly polka dot lamb and Elizabite, a carnivorous plant ( yes, your eyes don’t deceive you – a carnivorous plant). None of these creations came close to matching the success of Curious George however and pretty much all of them have vanished from contemporary children’s book sections in most book shops.
Curious George has his fans here in the UK too but I think it’s fair to say that he never made it quite as big on this side of the Atlantic. Quite why this should be is hard to pin down. George’s career here didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts because when the book was published in London in 1941 his name was changed to Zozo in order to avoid any possible confusion between this banana-scoffing cheeky monkey and King George VI ! I’m not quite sure whether this says something about the monkey or the king that there might be confusion over their identity but I’m sure this change of identity didn’t help launch George the monkey onto the market with the bang it might have deserved.
I personally love the Curious George illustrations because they seem to me to capture something essentially American and post-war and yet they retain in their DNA an echo of the European culture that gives George his quite special personality. Plenty of accessible and affordable reprints of the Curious George stories are available at modest prices and maybe the time has come for the cheeky monkey to have a higher profile on the shelves of the UK’s children?