Like many of you, I grew up with Curious George. But it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned the story of the author-illustrators, Hans and Margaret Rey, and their harrowing escape from the Nazis. You can find quite a few accounts of their journey online and elsewhere, including a great nonfiction children’s book, but here are the quick facts.
Both German-born and Jewish, Hans and Margaret moved to Paris after their marriage in 1935. Margaret convinced Hans to quit the family business, selling bathtubs, and the two began collaborating on children’s books. Both of them wrote, and both of them illustrated, in a true team effort.
By 1939, the situation in Paris grew increasingly ominous as the Nazis advanced, and the Reys decided to flee Paris. But it wasn’t easy to assemble the massive amount of documentation required for traveling. And there was no way out by train or by car. During the harrowing wait for the paperwork to go through, Hans managed to build two working bicycles from a collection of parts purchased at a used bicycle store. They brought with them just a little food, even less money, and five children’s book manuscripts, including one about a little monkey named Fifi. The Reys biked out of the city, en route to the Spanish border. Two days after they left, on June 14, 1940, the Nazis seized Paris.
They biked for several days to the town of Orleans, managed to board a train to Spain, and at last got to New York by way of Brazil. Just a few weeks after arriving in New York, they were offered a four-book contract by Houghton Mifflin. The publisher suggested they change Fifi’s name to George. Curious George was published in 1941. Initially Margaret’s name was left off the cover (too many lady authoresses out there, I guess). It was restored on later editions.