We look forward to welcoming writer/historian Louise Borden to the Museum on Saturday, January 14, 2012, where she will share the remarkable true story of artists Margret and H. A. Rey, the subjects of our current exhibition, Curious George Saves The Day. The author’s 2005 book The Journey That Saved Curious George (Houghton Mifflin Company) documented the Reys’ 1940 wartime escape from Paris, where they lived and worked for four years. Just hours before the Nazis marched into the city in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles carrying drawings for their children’s stories, including the original manuscript for Curious George. Ms. Borden will explore how the couple’s most popular creation may have ultimately saved their lives.
Below is an interview Louise Borden conducted with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt back in September 2005, to coincide with the release of The Journey That Saved Curious George. The charming picture book (with illustrations by Allan Drummond) would go on to inspire the exhibition curated by The Jewish Museum, and currently on view at Norman Rockwell Museum.
Why did you decide to write The Journey That Saved Curious George?
For many years, I had been intrigued by the snippets of information I knew about the Reys’ escape from Paris. I had just finished writing a book, The Little Ships, about the same time period, June 1940. I wanted to know more: details about the Reys’ lives as artists, why they were living in Paris, the particulars of their journey. How far did they bicycle each day? What happened to the belongings they left behind? What was it like to be German-born Jews during World War II in Europe?
As a historian writing for young people, you have to be mindful of what your readers know. How did this affect your description of the situation of Jews in France in 1940?
Whenever I am writing about a European setting during World War II, I try to make the time period accessible to young American readers. It is a real challenge to take a subject as complicated as World War II and write about it in a way that children can understand. I also think that maps can give young readers important information about where the events are occurring.
For The Journey that Saved Curious George, I realized that even adult readers might not be aware of the situation in France in 1940. The war was unfolding on many fronts. Armies were in retreat. Governments were surrendering. Imagine the confusion and fright that must have been common among ordinary citizens. So I tried to set the wartime scene by mentioning faraway battles in Poland, then the situation in Denmark and Norway, and, on May 10, the invasion of Holland and Belgium, and then France. All French citizens were at risk, not just Jews. Everyone was fleeing from the battles.
In 1940, the full implications of what the Germans had in mind for Jewish citizens in France was not yet known by the public. Besides their Brazilian passports, the Reys also held French identity cards that stated their occupation and nationality but not their religion. If the Reys had remained in France, even though their Brazilian passports did not state that they were Jewish, I am sure they would have been caught in the closing net of the Nazis and been deported to a concentration camp. After the fall of France, foreign Jews were required to be registered on French government lists. Many non-Jewish citizens were deported as well, after Germany took control of France.
In my text, I tried to inform young readers that Germany was not a safe place for Jews in the 1930s. Kids are smart. They will understand that wherever the Nazis were in control after the 1930s, this situation would continue until the Nazis were defeated. Some students in the upper elementary grades know about the plight of Jews during World War II and have beginning knowledge of the Holocaust. The story about the Reys takes place before those terrible events unfolded.
What was one thing that surprised you during your research and travels?
As I was reading through copies of letters and looking at the Reys’ personal photographs, as well as photographs of Paris during this time period, it seemed like a very gray and black-and-white world. Photos were not in color. Newsreels were not in color. Letters were typed or written in black ink on white paper. And yet, when I looked at the artwork of Hans Rey, the colors were vibrant — yellow and blue, red and green. And I realized that the Reys’ childhoods and their later life in Paris and as refugees were lived in full color.
Before I visited Chateau Feuga, where the Reys spent the fall of 1939, I had been picturing the black-and-white photo we found in the archives. But when I saw the house it was in full color! This, I think, is what surprised me — the black-and-white research versus the full-color scenes from my travels.
Something else that surprised me was Hans’s meticulous notes in his calendar books. He was certainly a man of habit in his record keeping, which seems to be at odds with the image of a typical artist. Hans had an interest in science and philosophy and had planned to study medicine in his university years, but the poor economy in Germany made that impossible. In letters and documents, his small handwriting was neat and orderly, whereas Margret’s script appeared much larger and bolder and was sometimes difficult to read.
What do you think accounts for the popularity of Curious George?
I think that most people need and love humor in life. The antics and expressions of the character Curious George hit the mark in delighting readers of many ages and nationalities. Think of all the laughter and smiles around the world that have been generated by this one mischievous little monkey!
George brings a positive outlook to his readers in those moments when they are turning the pages of his books — an outlook that they can carry with them into their own lives.
So many of George’s instincts are universal ones. His most famous trait, curiosity, shines through all the Curious George stories and inspires children in what they already know about the world — that it is a big place full of unknown adventures. George also touches our hearts in a unique and special way. He endures through generations of readers because we can each see a part of ourselves in his antics, mishaps, and solutions to comical and unexpected situations.
Curious George is such an enduring character from children’s literature. Does he remind you of Hans and Margret Rey at all?
Yes. I think that Hans and Margret live on via the wonderful personality of their famous George. Just by reading the Reys’ letters to their family and their editors, I instantly recognized their humor and playful approach to life. Even when they were living through threatening circumstances, their humor and positive energy shone through like a bright thread.
Many scenes in the Curious George books reflect parts of the Reys’ lives — just look for a camera, hanging on the wall in a ship cabin, and you’ll be reminded that Margret Rey was a photographer. Hans smoked a pipe, just like the Man with the Yellow Hat. Turtles, the zoo scenes, the balloon man — these all came from the Reys’ lives in Europe. When I page through the Curious George books, I feel as if I am reliving some of their adventures. Both Margret and Hans were creative and curious people — they explored life with their inquisitive minds. They were always learning new things, and they stepped out into a busy world with a smile, just like George.
How do you think we can keep curiosity alive in children?
I’m not sure how to answer that question. I’ve always been curious about many aspects of the world, and I think that comes from being a reader. When I was in elementary school, I loved reading books about other countries and cultures and learning new things through books. I knew my first heroes through books. Today’s young reader has the influences of TV and computers, but those can be used in positive ways to enhance curiosity. As long as we have wonderful literature, good teachers, and vibrant classrooms in America, and can grow lifelong readers, I think we’ll continue to foster curiosity in kids. And being curious about the small and big things in life will certainly enrich their worlds.
Interview used by permission of Louise Borden.
Louise Borden’s Saturday, January 14 lecture, and an afternoon program for educators/librarians to be held on Friday, January 13, have been supported by a grant from the Wassermann-Streit Y’DIYAH Memorial Fund administered by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The aim of the Y’DIYAH Fund (Y’DIYAH, Hebrew for “learning”) is to enhance public understanding of diverse aspects of traditional Judaism by supporting a broad variety of non-doctrinaire projects and programs—exercising its motto, ‘The Greatest Good is Knowledge, the Greatest Evil is Ignorance.’
Visit the author’s website at www.louiseborden.com
Learn more about: Curious George Saves The Day: The Art of Margret and H. A. Rey