Nonfiction Monday: The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden

This is my first official contribution to Nonfiction Monday, hosted this week by Capstone Connect. When I think of nonfiction, I think along the lines of adult-related works, biographies, compilations, essays, and so on and so forth. I initially planned to feature a memoir written by a boy soldier, but the story kind of dragged and I never made it halfway through the book. (I will finish it when I get a chance.)

I found several interesting children’s nonfiction through Borders online. Luckily, most of them were available in our library. Unfortunately, I haven’t paid my library fines yet so I couldn’t borrow the books. Ha! Because the library closes early on Fridays, I decided to go to Borders to find out if there was any children’s nonfiction left in-stock.

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey, written by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond

A Serendipitous Moment. Borders store has been in disarray for the last few weeks, trying to get rid of their books for their storewide closing sale. Thus, it wasn’t surprising at all that the nonfiction books were no longer where they were at the last time I was there. I was ready to leave when I decided to browse through the picture book section one more time. While I was tempted to grab several titles from the shelf, I only needed one, and found it placed neatly on a tiny shelf mounted on the wall: Louise Borden’s The Journey That Saved Curious George, illustrated by Allan Drummond.

Even a curious little monkey has a passion for reading!

Part-biographical, part-historical, The Journey That Saved Curious George narrates “the true wartime escape of Margret and H. A. Rey,” creators of the beloved monkey in children’s literature, Curious George. To be honest, I did not grow up in the company of Curious George. I was more a Berenstain Bears child. Neither did I watch a single episode of the Curious George television series. However, when I learned about this book, I was just as curious as the Reys’ little monkey.

Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein, husband and wife, artists since birth

Our curious couple, at a book signing 

Photographs taken by Margret Rey

Artists Since Birth: The Makings of a Dynamic Duo. The Journey – as it shall be called in this review – begins with a short narrative on the Reys’ childhoods in Germany. Both of them grew up in Hamsburg, and both developed an extraordinary liking to animals. H. A. Rey – whose full name was Hans Augusto Reyersbach – loved to draw and paint as a child, whereas Margarete Waldstein – who had wanted to become an artist – studied art and photography in a famous school in Germany. Little did they know, this shared love for art and animals would eventually bring them together.

“The two artists began to work together in business, sharing their talents in writing and drawing. Hans was the gentle one. Margarete, with her red hair and artsist’s spunk, was never afraid to speak her mind. Like Hans, she enjoyed animals and zoos and the circus. Together, they made a great team.” – Teaming Up in Brazil, p. 14

Writing for Children During the Nazi Regime. One of the things I liked most about the Reys’ story was their determination to write and illustrate for children despite the ongoing war. After working on the manuscripts of Curious George, then called The Adventures of Fifi,

“Margaret and Hans began a new project: a book of nursery songs in French and English. Hans drew the strong black lines of his style and added the musical notes. In wartime, children needed good books and songs more than ever.” – Working by the Sea, p. 33

Not only did the book narrated the couple’s literary journey, it also portrayed their struggles as writers during wartime. They worked with several publishers in Paris, and one in London, constantly writing to them. Because of the war, strict laws about printing had been mandated, and paper was getting scarce. Yet, even an hour’s walk to the closest post office did not break their willpower in getting published.

H. A. Rey’s diary pages from January 1940, mostly filled with daily expenses

Pay for Liberty, or Face Your Death. Detailed correspondences with their publishers paid off when they signed a contract for Fifi and two small manuscripts. The money they earned from their Paris publisher would be most useful in their travel preparations when they would finally leave home and head for safety.

“The next day, Hans went immediately to the Brazilian consulate and paid for updated passports. He withdrew money from his bank accounts, as many francs as he was allowed. That week, the Reys went to the same few places over and over again to get the documents they needed for their journey: the American consulate… the Portuguese consulate… the Spanish consulate… and again, the bank. Then back to the consulates. Everywhere they went for their documents, there were long queues that wound around street corners. Thump-thump! Thump-thump! Everything needed official. Everything needed to be stamped with the date. The list of expenses in Hans’s notebook grew and grew: baggage… insurance… taxi… tailor… umbrella… Hans’s calendar became a record of a husband and wife, two artists, getting ready to leave their beloved home.” – Plans to Flee, p. 41

I liked how it was portrayed in the book how difficult it had been to leave a country in a time of war. It was as if war was telling the citizens that freedom has a price. Identity cards, visas, and passports were their tickets to safety, and it could take your life’s earnings to have those processed. In this regard, I think it was Curious George himself that saved the Reys. Had it not been for the manuscript, they would not have the money to afford travel.

Allan Drummond’s colorful illustration of Paris before the war

“That hot June afternoon, H. A. Rey, the artist, became a bicycle maker. The biggest adventure of his life was about to begin…” – A Bicycle Maker, p. 45

“More than five million people were on the roads of France that day. Among this sea of humanity were two small figures: Margret and H. A. Rey.” – Pedaling South, p. 47

Traveling by Wheels in Its Most Literal Sense. War makes people do crazy things. Armed with a strong resolve, Hans and Margret – who didn’t have a transportation of their own – biked their way from Paris to the city of Orleans in France. In between, they slept in a farmhouse, “on a bed of hay, in a stable full of cows.” They managed to catch a train that traveled from France, through Spain, and to Portugal, where they boarded a ship to New York City – reminiscent of a scene in The Arrival by Shaun Tan, on which Myra and I wrote a collaborative review for our When Words Are Not Enough bimonthly special last May-June.

“On October 14, 1940, four months after they bicycled out of Paris, the Reys saw the New York City skyline framed by a blue sky and brilliant sunshine. Their ship followed the wake of a sturdy tugboat into New York Harbor. Passengers began to point and cheer. There, ahead, was the Statue of Liberty, the landmark of freedom given to America in friendship by the country of France.” – A New Home, p. 69

Notes About the Author and Illustrator. Louise Borden did a wonderful job with her biographical work. Determined to uncover “the details of those harrowing days” during the Nazi invasion, she began her own journey of research.

“A rich source for my research was Margret and Hans Rey’s personal papers, donated by their estate to the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. This nationally known library houses the papers and original artwork of more than 1,200 children’s book authors and illustrators… Over several years, I had conversations in person or by phone with people who had known the Reys. I wrote letters and e-mailed people in Germany, England, Portugal, and France. And I traveled to some of the towns, cities, and addresses gleaned from the letters and work diaries that the Reys wrote during 1936-40… Newspaper interviews from the 1940s and 1950s gave me needed details. Slowly, piece by piece, I began to stitch together the fabric of their story.” – Finding the Story, front page

“The Journey That Saved Curious George is my way, as a writer, of becoming a witness to part of Hans and Margret Rey’s story. It is my way of honoring their creativity and their courage during a dark time in history for many countries of Europe.” – writer Louise Borden, Finding the Story

In Marilyn Courtot‘s feature on Louise Borden, she said that Borden wrote The Journey that Saved Curious George without a contract. No one had written on the topic and she worked on her version and also had to translate the diaries of the Reys.

Taken from the website of author-illustrator, Allan Drummond, at http://www.allandrummond.com/

AfterthoughtsThe Journey is an uplifting story of the human spirit. I admired the Reys for their willpower, taking only a few things with them in their escape for freedom, including the manuscripts that had more value for them than the francs they owned. They held on to the only treasure they have as they held on for dear life.

As I have previously mentioned, I never paid attention to Curious George for the past two and a half decades. After reading this stirring tale of its creators – how they managed to escape war, and brought joy to millions of children across the globe – I immediately grabbed Mikey’s copy of The Complete Adventures of Curious George (with an introduction by Madeleine L’Engle and a foreword by Margret Rey).

I read the book in less than half an hour. It was a light and easy read, and I found myself loving the curious little monkey page after page after page. It’s one thing to learn about a writer’s inspiration to write a certain book; it’s another to find out the perilous costs the writer had to take to save a book and share it with the world.

Picture Book Challenge Update: 100 of 120

9 Comments on Nonfiction Monday: The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden

  1. What a beautifully written post. I have heard of this book but haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading it. Thanks for a wonderful and in-depth review!

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    • Hi Kerry! Thank you for dropping by. I bought this book last-minute and I was so glad I got the last remaining copy on the shelf. It was a privilege for me to write a review on this book for it was truly an awe-inspiring story of children’s book creators who braved the roads and sea to save their brainchild, the curious little monkey, that many children have grown to love. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the book when you’ve read it. =)

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  2. I have to agree with Kerry, this is indeed a comprehensive post. Is this an NYRB book by any chance?

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    • One of the things I liked was the simple language used by Louise Borden, making this war-themed story ‘accessible’ to children, without sounding too heavy and depressing. Yet, in spite of its simplicity, was rich in details and adventures that one cannot help but admire this wonderful couple! I don’t think it’s an NYRB book. I checked the website of NYRB and typed it in the search engine but no results were found, which was why I figured it might not be. Would it say somewhere in the book if it were?

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      • The cover itself with the red binding on the side kind of suggested NYRB title to me – the children’s collection has that distinct red binding, so I thought of asking you whether it is indeed part of their children’s collection. apparently not. 😉

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  3. Loved this post, and that curious monkey! Thanks!!

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  4. Thank you, Jama! You are most welcome. It was nice of you to drop by! I loved the book. I loved how, in my own way, I was able to pay homage to two of the world’s most popular children’s writers of all time. And yes, I have grown to love that curious little monkey whose curiosity always gets him in trouble but always finds a way to get out of it.

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  5. I reviewed this last year after seeing an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NY. It is a wonderful book with such excellent illustrations. I enjoy reading your review of it so much. Thank you.

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    • Hello Alex! Thank you for dropping by! It is indeed a wonderful book complemented by colorful artwork. I am extremely grateful I chanced upon this book. =)

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