Happy Birthday, Formerly Curious George

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When Curious George was born 75 years ago this month, his German Jewish parents, H.A. and Margaret Rey, were fleeing the Nazis. They took George with them, in the form of a manuscript. As Alison Lobron notes in The Boston Globe:

Three generations children have grown up with Curious George, who celebrates his 75th birthday this month and continues to star in several new stories a year. He’s still inquisitive and prone to find trouble. But as tastes and publishing standards changed, George lost some of his curiosity — and his adventures have largely lost the element of danger.

Of course! Like the children’s bible one commenter once wrote in about, which said, “Then Jesus went away,” making it sound as if He spent a long weekend in Bermuda, Curious George’s struggles have considerably lightened. The original books, Lobron writes,

…were sometimes funny and sweet, but they were also scary. In “Curious George Flies a Kite” (1958), George takes a frightening airborne voyage after flying a kite without permission. Floating high up above his town, George didn’t exactly enjoy the view. He “did not like it a bit. He wanted to get down, but how? Not even a monkey can jump from the sky. George was scared.”

Other early stories feature similar frights. While being chased by angry grown-ups, he jumps off a fire escape and breaks his leg. He rides a rocket into outer space — two years before Sputnik! — aware of the distinct possibility he might not come back down. And, of course, George’s first encounter with the Man with the Yellow Hat is truly terrifying: George is snatched from his home in an African jungle, a scene whose imperialist overtones are disturbing, on a different level, for today’s readers.

Though far less gory than the original Grimms’ fairy tales, George’s experiences are extreme versions of situations that children might encounter. George always comes out right in the end, but the happy endings don’t erase all the scary parts that came before.

But in the past generation, new stories added to the George oeuvre have the monkey doing things like —

making a mess in the kitchen or upsetting a bookstore manager by building a tower of books. Things always wind toward some incredibly nice resolution, on a scale far too grand for whatever mistake prompted the episode.

The books are like the literary equivalent of a giant, high-five “Good job, buddy!” for a kid who does half a somersault. Let’s pretend that’s the greatest thing ever!

So let’s call these new books by their true name. Not Curious George. Cautious George, a little monkey who plays it safe. If “plays” is the word.

And if you want to come up with the names of some other, newly cautious classics, feel free! – L.

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Curious George and the healthy treat. Kids are gonna love this one!

Curious George and the Non-organic Banana. Be careful, little guy! 

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42 Responses to Happy Birthday, Formerly Curious George

  1. theresa September 16, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    Even though I haven’t seen the new ones it doesn’t sound like everyone favorite monkey. What with dumbing down the childhood stories?

  2. bob m September 16, 2016 at 11:48 am #

    And in other news “The Baby-sitters Club” has been dissolved due to lack of clientele and increases in their liability insurance premiums.

    Kristin “Kristy” Amanda Thomas, founder and president, said that work has been declining for years.
    “Nobody trusts their children with us anymore – they say we are too young and WE need more adult supervision as well. It is tough to get baby-sitting work at 12 in a town where the police chief thinks 16 is about right age to go outside unsupervised.”

  3. Workshop September 16, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    Just wait until someone discovers that Harry Potter and his friends faced down a troll, a giant spider, a basilisk, dementors, and He Who Must Not Be Named.

    Good Lord, they’ll have kittens.

  4. Jessica September 16, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    The Curious George books I’ve read in the last couple of years have George doing some pretty stupid stuff, like climbing a ski lift, operating a dump truck, and messing up a lot of stuff. (Not the books that are spin-offs to the PBS cartoon, that George is focused on teaching math and science.) I have no problem with this, but the consequences to his actions in these books are barely there. He usually does something like freeing animals at the zoo, tries to run away from a person in charge, manages to save the day by rescuing an animal he freed or some other animal that is unrelated to the mess he causes, and then gets forgiven because he fixed a problem. Not only forgiven, but rewarded sometimes. George can cause all the mayhem he wants, but I’d like it if he actually got in trouble. If you break someone’s snowboard, you shouldn’t get pizza and a pony (or whatever actually happens).

  5. Aimee September 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    I absolutely CANNOT RESIST:

    The Childhood Neglect and Unsupervised Delinquency of Huckleberry Finn (in which Huck Crosses State Lines with a “Strange Man”).

    Anne of Green Gables: Hyperactive, Delusional Foster Child

    Pollyanna Goes to Therapy: No Child in Her Plight Could Possibly be That Happy and Mentally Healthy

    Goldilocks and the Three Counts of Breaking and Entering

    Jack and the GMO Beanstalk

    The Oppositional-Defiant Gingerbread Man

    The Three Little Pigs and Mr. Wolf, the Building Code Enforcement Officer

    Little Red Riding Hood and the Sex Offender Who Violated the Conditions of His Parole

    the following one might be MAJORLY crossing the line, but…..

    The Diary of Anne Frank, (or See, I Told You, Kids Are Always Safer Staying Inside and Staying Quiet)

  6. lollipoplover September 16, 2016 at 1:04 pm #

    Curious George Takes a Job (1947)/Curious George Takes A Criminal Background Check to Volunteer (2016)

    Curious George Rides a Bike (1952)/ Curious George Rides in the Backseat of an SUV (2016)

    Curious George Gets a Medal (1957)/ Curious George Gets a Participation Trophy (2016)

  7. Miriam September 16, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Another example of ‘censorship’ of children’s books:

    My sister just introduced to me this silly book (by British writers), about animals that sit on stuff (that rhymes with the animal).
    Frogs sit on logs, cats sit on mats etc.
    She told me that she went to a story time with the author or illustrator (in England), and they said that originally the last page (after the frog asks: ‘what do dogs sit on?’) was supposed to show the dog sitting on the frog and squashing him. But the American publishers thought it was too graphic, so instead the frog is squashed, but not completely (not dead), and waving a white flag saying “help!”

    You can see the final ending here:
    https://youtu.be/oPDyXsSbxOY?t=4m04s (or start the video from the beginning to appreciate the humour and rhymes).

    My sister (as did I), thought that the original would have been funnier. As did our kids. They really enjoyed seeing him getting semi-squashed and would enjoy it even more if he was all dead.

    While looking for a confirmation of this story online (I couldn’t confirm it), I DID find that there was another line in this same book that had to be changed because of the gentle soul of the American child:

    Here the illustrator talks about removing the line: “Beavers sit on levers”:

    http://www.jimfield.co.uk/Oi-Frog
    “…originally it was going to be a ‘beavers sit on levers’ but this was too rude for the American market…”
    I don’t even get why it’s rude. And I’m in Canada, so I should be even more offended.

    Lately I’ve been almost making it a point to look for stories which DON’T have a moral. Or are naughty. They are funnier. The writers are usually more true to their artistic calling (visual artists, writers, musicians), and I can call it art. The rest is a waste of time. Kids notice that it’s someone preaching to them, disguised as a lovely book. When we read books – we don’t just teach words, we can expose them to art. Let’s make sure the art is of good quality and not (self) censored.

  8. Miriam September 16, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Hey (even though I like the dark humour) – didn’t work for Anne Frank – someone snitched. She died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

    Since you brought it up, it should be told. The story is usually an example of how the Dutch risked their lives to save Jews, but everyone is ignoring the fact that she didn’t survive the war. Even though one family did risk their lives (and I don’t take that lightly), another person decided it was worth it to snitch, and the reason was probably a couple of guilders.

  9. Tom September 16, 2016 at 2:05 pm #

    The Little Engine that Got a Participation Trophy

    Cage-Free Eggs and Ham

    Alexander and the Monitored, Highly Watched, Totally Structured Playdate

    The Stay-at-Home Bunny

  10. Aimee September 16, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Miriam, I really wrestled with whether I should write that one. It was pretty bad…. I appreciate your candor.

    For the record, The Diary of Anne Frank was such an important book to me when I was a child. I read it many times and I grieve… then and now…. that the world lost such a light as her (and SO MANY OTHERS).

    Like I said, maybe that one was over the top….. and Lenore, if you feel it should come down, I understand. At the same time, it does kind show how foolish American parents are to keep their kids trapped in the house when we are SO FORTUNATE to live in a country where, not in all cases, but for the most part, we are extraordinarily safe and free. As a society we don’t appreciate that enough. (That’s why Free Range Kids is AWESOME!)

  11. Michael Fandal September 16, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Time for a curious Georgia to go B bas especially during the Chinese year of the monkey. Let the critics and helicopter parents go ape.

  12. andy September 16, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Since you mentioned that Curious George author was fleeing Germany, Germany was preparing for the war systematically and preparation was reflected in a way kids were raised (by schools, youth clubs and so on). Physical proves, danger and toughness were valued a lot way more then now also for that reason. Whole culture was kinda violent and tough and dangerous – to despised Jews esp.

    In a way, there was darker side to why contemporary books had more elements of danger – that was the way adults and kids lived every day.

  13. Steve September 16, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

    The original book wasn’t as ‘nice’ to George as the later books or tv animated series; George was stuffed into a bag and kidnapped from the jungle by the man in the yellow hat! He tried to escape when he got to the city.

  14. Havva September 16, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

    The PBS version of Curious George is dreadful. I remember while we were packing for a funeral we put on Curious George for our daughter and the story was something like George went to feed the animals, oh, no, there isn’t enough bird seed, the birds are sad. Oh, look a grown up showed up with more bird seed, but the bag is too heavy for George. A grown up fed the birds, now the birds are happy. George is happy. Look at all the colors of happy birds. No creative spark, very little will to do things for himself. Yeah, I didn’t recognize that George. The George I loved growing up was like me. A character with a penchant for getting it all wrong while trying to be helpful. My kid would have been in tears to have her task taken away without a chance to solve it. And so would I at that age. I was so appalled with the PBS Cautious George, I let my daughter spend the rest of our frantic packing effort watching videos about shapes and colors and numbers and so forth with hideously irritating songs. At least they weren’t moralizing on the value of letting a grown up do everything for you, while sucking the life out of Curious George.
    That said, not all the more modern Curious George books are bad. Curious George in the Big City from 2001 involves George tearing open display presents in a department store, fleeing reprimand, he then follows the wrong yellow hat onto the subway and across the city, where he realizes he has no idea how to get back. When he finally finds his way back to the department store, he gets caught by the clerk from before who makes him repair the display.

  15. Jessica September 16, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

    “Beavers sit on levers” was probably taken out because in American English, “beaver” doesn’t rhyme with “lever” and therefore that line would be jarring and make no sense.

    I mean, “beaver” is also occasionally used as a euphemism for women’s private parts, but only 14-year-old boys use it that way, and it certainly wouldn’t be removed from a book for that reason. (It’s not like we’ve removed beavers from all our children’s books.) So I’m pretty sure it was removed because of the rhyme problem.

  16. Jessie September 16, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

    Beware. If the author is listed as “Margaret and H. A. Rey’s,” George is automatically a wuss. And same goes for pretty much any Disney adaptation of a fairy tale, especially The Little Mermaid, Tangled (Rapunzel), and Beauty and the Beast. Sadly, many children only know these heroes/heroines in their Disney form. The real Beauty from Beauty and the Beast is truly a gem.

  17. Havva September 16, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    Let’s see newly cautious classics:

    The little Engine who Could Fetch Help.
    The Well Supervised Garden
    Removing the Unsafe Bridge to Terabithia

  18. James Pollock September 16, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    As is often the case, I’ll state the contrary position.

    The problem isn’t book publishers that lack spine.
    The problem is that they know their market, they know what sells and what does not.
    They’re tailoring their product to match up to what the people who buy books want to buy.

    Anyways, from the time my daughter was 5 or 6, the stories I read to her at bedtime were Heinlein’s juvenile novels (Podkayne of Mars, Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky), Arthur C. Clarke (Rendezvous with Rama), and the incomparable classic of SF, H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. I gave her the Laura Ingalls Wilder box set to read for herself.

    If you want the publishers to market books of the sort you’d like to read, you have to buy them. That’s what they pay attention to. If the timid-children children’s books outsell the bold-children children’s books, you can’t blame the publishers for making more timid-children books.

  19. SanityAnyone? September 16, 2016 at 4:27 pm #

    Curious George Answers the Phone Without Caller ID

    Curious George Climbs Up the Slide

    Curious George Reads Tom Sawyer Without Trigger Warnings

    Curious George Watches a Movie Before Reading the Book

    Curious George Accidently Overhears an Adult Themed Story on NPR that the Man in the Yellow Hat Couldn’t Bear to Turn Off in the Carpool Line

    Curious George has an Unscheduled Hour

    Curious George Meets a New Uncle While Fully Supervised

    Curious George Tastes Soda

    Curious George and the Bug in the Bathtub

    Curious George finds a copy of National Geographic

    Curious George learns Old Math

    Curious George hears a Bad Word

    Curious George’s Feelings Aren’t Validated

    Curious George Stays Safe and Warm on a Snow Day

    Curious George Forgets His Ritalin

    Curious George and the Non-Reusable Lunch Bag

  20. SteveS September 16, 2016 at 4:32 pm #

    I can’t comment much in any of the new books, but the Curious George animated show on PBS certainly involves him doing all,sorts of risky things. It has been a few years, but there was one where he took off in hot air balloon, accompanied only by some inept teen. There were also a few where he was dragged 100s of feet off the ground by a kite and many others where he was off by himself, wandering about a major city.

  21. andy September 16, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

    My kids when they were little liked the real life kind “feed birds”, “go to zoo/pool” simple stories. I think they could relate to them better then to “fly on the ballon” adventure stuff they did not really understood. They also tended to worry about collateral damage adventures tend to leave as is without comment (concluding the main character is bad for example).

    It is changing as they are groving up through.

  22. En Passant September 16, 2016 at 5:06 pm #

    Aimee September 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm wrote:

    I absolutely CANNOT RESIST:

    Cool stuff! To which I will add:

    Treasure Island: Jim Hawkins, an English innkeeper’s son, earns money by scouting visitors for Billy, a man staying at the inn who has a sea chest. After Billy dies peacefully in his sleep, Jim opens his sea chest and finds a map. With the help of a kindly local physician, and a local squire, he goes on an ocean voyage to find the island on the map. He meets the ship’s cook, a gentle old sailor with a peg leg and a talking parrot, They find a buried treasure on the island and sail back home to England, where they live quietly and happily ever after.

  23. BL September 16, 2016 at 6:31 pm #

    Danny Dunn and the Flying Microaggression

    Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Safe Space

  24. Andrea Drummond September 16, 2016 at 7:36 pm #

    My daughter has some of the new books and she loves the cartoon; it’s her favorite. But she also has a collection of all the original stories. I guess that’s about all you can do these days.

  25. Quantum Mechanic September 16, 2016 at 7:48 pm #

    A fellow “Danny Dunn” fan! I loved those books as a kid.

    And speaking of free-range, independent kids, how about “The Mad Scientists Club”?

  26. Mark Roulo September 16, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

    “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

  27. Momof8 September 16, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

    Aimee: I think you make an excellent point with the Anne Frank example. Dark humor, but spot on.
    Jessica: in the UK, lever does rhyme with beaver. They use a long “e.” 😀

  28. SteveS September 16, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    Heck, I am pretty sure the current CG series has him going into space several times without anyone going with him. Here are the episode descriptions:

    “Curious George’s Rocket Ride”: The Man with the Yellow Hat is about to become the world’s first untrained person to fly into space so he can deliver food along with several experimental capsules to the International Space Station. But the spaceship designed by Professor Wiseman’s assistants Professor Anthony Pizza and Dr. Alvin Einstein is only designed for someone with four hands. So, George winds up being the world’s first monkey in space. George is told that he must activate the system that releases the goods for the station at a certain point and that his spaceship is in an orbit around the earth so he will eventually get back around to the station. (based on part of Curious George Gets a Medal).

    The man with the yellow hat gets to go with him, but George is the one that does the space walk:

    “Grease Monkeys in Space”: The Man With the Yellow Hat is about to get a big job! He is going to go up into space to fix the Einstein-Pizza Space Telescope, which is broken and pointed right at Pizza’s kitchen window. Dr. Einstein and Professor Pizza explain that the spaceship has a self-locking air lock but they accidentally forgot to make a way to open it from outside. George has to tag along to push the button that would let him in but is forced to go outside and do the job when the Man’s tether breaks. Worse off, George is told he has only 2 minutes of air to complete the job.

  29. BL September 16, 2016 at 8:50 pm #

    @Quantum Mechanic
    ‘A fellow “Danny Dunn” fan! I loved those books as a kid.

    And speaking of free-range, independent kids, how about “The Mad Scientists Club”?’

    My real personal favorite was the Brains Benton series, but it seems to be much less well-known. Alas.

    But for anyone who might be interested:

    http://seriesbooks.info/benton.html

  30. Jenny Islander September 16, 2016 at 10:58 pm #

    @Havva: Give it another chance. My younger kids love the Curious George cartoons because he does things like get lost and find his own way home, attempt to create an ant habitat in the apartment where he lives, accidentally pretzel the arrival schedule of a whole passel of trains, find out why single-person igloos aren’t very big, and dogsit Charkie, the world’s most excitable pooch. His adventures are hilarious and sweet, and the Man with the Yellow Hat is an absolute saint!

  31. baby-paramedic September 17, 2016 at 2:28 am #

    My nephew hated stories. At five years old he had declared them no fun at all.
    I didn’t know his parents were only reading him boring ones (I live in a different country), but when I went to stay with them I started reading proper children’s stories, that are interesting to children.
    He decided my stories were exciting, and started jumping into bed with me so I would read him “good stories”.
    He doesn’t appear to have suffered any ill-effects from my visit, although in a call recently he asked if I could come back and read him fun stories again, because the ones at his new school aren’t as good.

  32. Kathy Lopez September 17, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

    I never buy Curious Goerge books unless they are the ones actually written by the Reys. That has been my practice for a number of years.

  33. Amy September 17, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

    Does anybody remember the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories where she came up with creative punishments for naughty kids (well, more like consequences)? There was one where a kid refused to take a bath so she planted seeds on him and plants started growing. There was another one where a kid wouldn’t clean her room and it got so bad the kid became trapped and couldn’t go out and do fun things. Nowadays, seems you can be arrested for neglected if your kid is dirty or your home is a mess.

  34. Beth September 17, 2016 at 4:45 pm #

    I loved Mrs Piggle Wiggle!

  35. Carrie Rogers September 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm #

    Remember the series the Stupids? The Socioeconomically Downtrodden and Intellectually Challenged Family Need Intervention Because, White Guilt.

    Behavioral Intervention and Cognitive Therapy with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

  36. SKL September 17, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

    Every time I read my kids an old book I enjoyed at their age, it’s full of horrifying child neglect and delinquency that I didn’t quite notice back in the day. 😛

    My kids are skeptical that life was really like that in the “old days.”

    Understood Betsy is a good one for showing kids that they are more capable than many adults think. And that they shouldn’t let adults convince them that they are powerless.

  37. Erin September 18, 2016 at 7:01 am #

    Jessie, so true about Disney-fied tales! I just started reading the original Pinocchio to my three oldest kids. All we’ve known was the Disney version. Man, what a shock it has been! We are enjoying it though.

  38. Heresolong September 18, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

    Nanny Goose?

    Helicopter Mother Goose?

  39. Dirge September 19, 2016 at 10:14 am #

    I buy the complete Curious George for all new parents. Even though George rarely faces the consequences for his misdeeds by doing something good at the end.

    My favorite one is where he gets high on Ether in the hospital. I used to wear a shirt in college with George passed out next to the Ether bottle.

  40. June September 19, 2016 at 3:15 pm #

    “Don’t Pat the Bunny, Those Things Have Germs”

  41. Kirsten September 23, 2016 at 3:00 pm #

    I first got outraged over this type of spectacular wrongheadedness when the first twenty years of Sesame Street programs came out on DVD and were labelled “Not suitable for children.” I went on to read an article in the New York Times about how the Sesame Street producers had also decided that Cookie Monster was “a bad role model (think about that for a moment) and would now be going nuts for vegetables instead of cookies. So much for psychologically modeling the fear that one’s ID will get out of control. They also thought Oscar the Grouch was a bad role model (even though he modeled the fact that we are all grumpy and contrarian some of the time and we do not need to fear we will lose our family’s love because of it.) And lastly, they said the fact that Snuffleupagus could only be seen by Big Bird and not the grownups was “too frustrating” for children (its purpose was let children work through in a safe way the frustration they feel when they tell their parents about “monsters under the bed” or an imaginary friend and parents don’t believe them.)

    I just got caught up in the vigorous discussion the other day on Slate’s article called, “I Censor the Books I Read to My Child. I’m Not Ashamed!” It was along exactly the same lines as this and was so infuriating I was speechless at first. The author tells of reading Maurice Sendak’s “Pierre” to her three year old son (who can’t read yet) and it begins,

    “There was once a boy named Pierre
    Who only would say “I don’t care!”

    The author is so appalled by this boy Pierre’s attitude and his potential influence on her own son that in the moment she changes it to, “I…care!” Which of course ruins the entire point of the book, which is a cautionary tale about not caring.

    She says, “I know, I know: It makes zero sense when I read the book like that…But at least another day has passed without my child learning that some people simply do not care.”

    My suggestions to add to her collection were:

    1. Where The Things with ADHD Are – a boy meets strange creatures on an island that “gnash their terrible teeth” and “roar their terrible roars,” and accepts them for who they are because we are all different and that’s wonderful. In the end he helps their mommy get them to a Pediatrician to get an accurate diagnosis and a prescription for Adderal, and they are now able to manage their symptoms.

    2. The Emperor Has New Clothes – the boy is the first to realize how beautiful they are and he grows up to be an important fashion designer in Milan and marries his partner in a civil ceremony.

  42. Sarah Trachtenberg September 28, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    This reminds me of Arthur, the children’s book character. When I was a kid, he was Arthur the anteater. Since then, he’s been dulled-down to become Arthur the Miscellaneous Mammal. I asked the children’s librarian about this and she inferred that the anteater’s long snout must’ve scared kids. Um, OK.