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Curious George

A Remarkable Tale

When walking through the Curious George Saves the Day exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, don’t be surprised if you find yourself delightfully squealing, “Wow, I remember that!” coupled with lots of, “Wow, I never knew that!” exclamations.

The exhibit truly is an entertaining trip down memory lane featuring nearly 80 original drawings combined with fascinating behind-the-scenes stories from the husband-and-wife team, illustrator H. A. Rey and author/artist Margret Rey. Their creative process, inspiration, and incredible tale of survival are revealed in a captivating exhibit that will intrigue everyone from little kids to the big kid in all of us.

Curious George is the loveable and mischievous monkey protagonist from the popular children’s book series of the same name. He was brought from his home in Africa by the Man with the Big Yellow Hat to live with him in the big city. The exhibit explores how Curious George’s humorous escapades of narrowly escaping disaster were inspired by the Reys’ real-life adventure of narrowly escaping Nazi-controlled Europe.

The Reys were both born in Hamburg, Germany, to Jewish families and lived together in Paris from 1936 to 1940. Hours before the Nazis marched into the city in June 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles carrying drawings for their children’s stories, including one about a curious monkey, then named Fifi.

After their fateful escape from Paris and a four-month journey across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil, the couple settled in New York in the fall 1940. In all, the Reys authored and illustrated over 30 books, with seven of them starring Curious George.

The exhibit is chock full of examples of the Reys’ real-life adventures, which inspired some of their stories. For instance, the Curious George books feature the little monkey living out many immigrants’ American dreams, from landing an acting job in Hollywood to flying into space. Margret Rey, drawing inspiration from the war, penned an adorable and poignant children’s tale about discrimination called, “Spotty.” The tale is about a bunny slighted by friends and family because of his spotted appearance. It includes a wonderfully clever illustration of the bunny trying to use spot remover to remove his spots.

In fact, there are so many fantastic hand-drawn cartoons and vibrant water colors — many of which have never before been displayed — that it’s hard to pick a favorite. The humorous sketches are charming, adorable, witty, inspired and full of life and energy. The exhibit gives the viewer a rare glimpse into the process of making children’s books, as well as the creative process.

I loved the drawing, “....an hour later the painter came back,” where Curious George is left alone for a little while and paints the Man with the Yellow Hat’s entire apartment a jungle scene so he feels “at home.” The shocked look on the Man’s face when he returns is hilarious.

I also adored learning that H.A. Rey included caricatures of himself in many of the Curious George illustrations. If you look closely at some of the drawings, you’ll find a cartoon of H.A. Rey smoking a pipe, carrying a portfolio, drawing, or with his wife and dog.

The exhibit also includes clever New Year’s cards that the Reys would send to their friends each year. The Reys would sum up what they’ve been up to (moved, fixed up their house, etc.) through funny illustrations, quite reminiscent of New Yorker cartoons but featuring the Reys themselves in the drawings.

If you enjoyed Curious George as a child, Curious George Saves the Day at the Contemporary Jewish Museum will give you a completely new admiration for the little monkey and his incredibly brave and talented creators. And your wee ones will appreciate it, too

Contemporary Jewish Museum
Now through March 13