Curious George Saves the Day

by Joseph Ramelo

“Now they were right in the center of town. There was so much to see that George did not know where to look first.” (from Curious George Takes A Job)

This weekend, the starving student and Bank of America customer that I am paid a visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum for its “Curious George Saves the Day” exhibit, which runs through March 13. Through the Museums On Us program, on certain weekends you can get into certain museums for free, and this past weekend I decided that my free museum visit would be to the CJM.

I was excited the first time, last month, that I saw the streetlight banner ads for this exhibit waving throughout downtown San Francisco. In addition to the fact that the Curious George books were among my favorites (I can distinctly remember first coming across them in the library of my elementary school when I was in the first grade), Margaret and H.A. Rey are key literary figures. In the literary community, children’s books authors don’t always get the kind of recognition that their mainstream peers do, unless they are staples such as Lewis Carroll and Laura Ingalls Wilder. (In fact, the work of both Wilder and the Reys are nearly contemporaneous.) Also complicating matters is when the authors are also the illustrators. Are the authors staples of literature or art? The Reys took as much care with their drawings as they did with their prose. For example, Margaret had once explained the challenge of writing for children: that she had a very limited vocabulary to choose from because the target audience wasn’t yet accustomed to using a wide variety of verbs and adjectives. Personally, I would conclude that the Reys are key literary figures, if not heroes, for mastering this unique narrative structure.

I had never been to the CJM. Its current downtown location, across the street from Yerba Buena Gardens and the Metreon, and neighboring the historic St. Patrick Catholic Church, opened in 2008. Before that, the CJM was the more modest Jewish Community Museum, which was located down the street in the Financial District. As a nearly eleven-year resident of San Francisco, this was a good opportunity to visit a San Francisco point of interest, as well as to learn about the creators of one of my favorite children’s literary series.

The key details of the lives of the Reys are accessible on Wikipedia, at this point. But the relevance of the exhibit is not only to see drawings of Curious George, but also unpublished panels and even the Reys’ original sketches and journals. One such journal on display is titled “Margaret and H.A. Rey’s Miscellany Journal”, which the Reys kept from 1941-1950. These were their first years in New York, after a nomadic existence that took them from Germany to France and Spain, even Brazil, and finally to the east coast of the United States. Even when they settled in New York, they continued changing addresses a few times within the city and around the east coast. All of this was due to the rise of Nazism, and although World War II interrupted their work, the Reys managed to assemble an impressive cast of children’s literary characters that included, besides the celebrity simian, Spotty the Bunny and Pretzel the Dachshund. In fact, George himself was originally called Fifi, the youngest of nine monkeys who were the friends of a lonely giraffe named Cecily G.

I never knew that George had another name, that he was originally part of a larger group of monkey characters, and that the Reys had created other animal characters. The exhibit also revealed that the Reys were workaholics in the best sense of the word: for example, when they weren’t working on their professional projects, they kept themselves personally busy by crafting New Year greeting cards each year. These finely-crafted greetings were written and illustrated with the same whimsical bent of the Curious George books, except tinged with commentary about the outgoing year, and sometimes that commentary was sociopolitical. To ring in 1974, the Reys’ card for the outgoing year features an illustration of them writing on a tandem bicycle past a shuttered gas station; still another greeting card, crafted after a presidential election, features an adorable turtle painted in the stars and stripes design of the American flag. When not reflecting the times, the Reys stayed personal: for their 1950 greeting, the Reys depict themselves on yet another migration, this one local, as they move from the south to the north end of Washington Square. (In that illustration, you can see the apartment building that they are leaving behind, which is undergoing demolition. This was due to the expansion of NYU into the area.)

The Reys’ “Miscellany Journal” contains meticulous notes about their personal lives, as well as a social calendar, an ongoing list of books to read, and information about their dogs. Perhaps the dog notes were the most detailed of all, for they were organized in tables and contained such datum as changes in the weights of the dogs, the dates they were given baths, and a curious tracking of the “worming of the dog”.

Although it’s easy enough to connect the Reys’ necessarily nomadic history to the theme of harrowing escape espoused by the Curious George books, the CJM exhibit still makes for a noteworthy visit for viewing these original, and very personal, artifacts of the Reys’ daily lives, as well as to uncover unexpected revelations. For instance, it never occurred to me that the reason why George has no tail is because he is “a make-believe cross between a gibbon and an ape”, according to the Reys. As a child, although I knew that real monkeys had tails, I always accepted as fact that George himself had no tail. I never really bothered to ask why, and even as an adult, I have up until my CJM visit always believed that George without a tail is right and true.

The CJM does not house a permanent collection. The materials on display for “Curious George Saves the Day” are primarily sourced from the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection in Mississippi.

The exhibit concludes with an interactive corner in which two Mac desktops are positioned next to a world map dotted with Post-It notes. The notes come in three colors: yellow to write where you were born, pink for where your parents were born, and green for where your grandparents were born. Then you stick each note to its corresponding place on the map. This exercise correlates with the Curious George exhibit because of the Rey diaspora. As for the computers, they contain anonymous survey questions that the CJM is conducting for an upcoming exhibit about the “diversity of the Jewish experience in the San Francisco Bay Area”. I am Filipino, but the survey is prefaced with a helpful notation that reads: “Not Jewish? Not a problem.” The CJM is seeking contributions from all backgrounds. Though the questions are anonymous, you can opt to fill in your e-mail address.

After the Curious George exhibit, I found a change of pace in the somewhat more grown-up world of jazz. Watch for a later entry about my visit to “Black Sabbath: The Secret History of Black-Jewish Relations”, a CJM exhibit on the second floor. “Black Sabbath” runs through March 22.

If you miss out on the Museums On Us dates, you can still visit the CJM on the cheap on Thursdays, when admission is just $5 after 5pm and the museum is open late until 8.

Joseph Ramelo is the Assistant Blog Editor for Forum magazine in the Spring 2011 semester. He studied Creative Writing at San Francisco State University and was a funded creative nonfiction resident at the Vermont Studio Center. His works can be found in Drunken Boat and Drain. Joe lives in San Francisco, where he follows the Giants and dreams of growing up.

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