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Author chronicles start of Curious George in ‘Journey’

Sara Pearce The Cincinnati Enquirer

Louise Borden couldn’t shake the image.

It was May 1940. A man in his early 40s and a woman in her early 30s were bicycling out of Paris as the German army was about to enter the city. In baskets on the backs of the bicycles were a few clothes, winter coats, some bread and cheese, and manuscripts for children’s books, including “The Adventures of Fifi.”

Within a year and a half of their escape, the couple – Hans and Margret Rey – would be living in the United States. Fifi would get a new name and live on as the beloved children’s book character Curious George.

George’s misadventures have been published worldwide and the mischievous monkey has blossomed into an industry of his own. His image can be found on everything from lunchboxes and bed sheets to boxer shorts and T-shirts.

The seven original Curious George titles and those published after the Reys’ deaths – “Hans” in 1977 and “Margret” in 1996 – are available on tape and CD, in pop-up and board book editions, in paperback and hardcover, in box sets and collected editions.

Within a year, George will hit big and small screens in a feature-length animated movie and as a PBS series.

The monkey’s appeal to children is easy to understand, says children’s book historian and author Leonard Marcus, who wrote the introduction to “The Complete Adventures of Curious George” and “The Original Curious George.”

“He is this little fellow who is inquisitive and mischievous in the way small children are,” says Marcus. “He gets into minor forms of trouble – not too much trouble, which is reassuring to a child. And his curiosity is encouraged, not squelched the way it can be by an adult of the old school.”

Despite George’s popularity, the Reys’ story has never been fully told.

Until now.

Borden’s book “The Journey That Saved Curious George” (Houghton-Miflin, $17), was released last week, coinciding with the 107th anniversary of the birth of Hans Rey.

In it, the 55-year-old author recounts how Hans (who also used H. A.) and his wife, Margret – both German Jews – escaped France, traveling first by bicycle.

They then went by train and boat to Spain, Portugal and Brazil before reaching their final destination, New York City.

Borden herself trekked thousands of miles and spent years retracing the Reys’ route. She had a copy of the Post-it note size notebooks that Hans kept. “Every time I saw something that validated what was in the notebooks, I took a picture,” she says.

Borden met descendants of the staff who worked at Paris’ Terrass Hotel, where the Reys lived in an apartment and planned their escape.

She is as dogged as George is curious.

“I am fascinated by ordinary people set against the canvas of large events,” she says. On the counter where her children, now grown, once ate breakfast are piles of the documents, photographs and letters acquired during her five years of research. “I could write a book about the research for the book,” she says.

Borden’s unraveling of the Reys’ story took her to Hattiesburg, Miss., where the couple’s papers are housed in de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi Libraries.

It’s a collection with 85,000 volumes and material dating from 1530. (The building came through Hurricane Katrina with minor water damage to its first-floor reading room.)

Borden pored over the library’s papers.

British illustrator Allan Drummond is grateful that Borden is meticulous. “She visited me in England and showed up with all this research,” he says.

The story is divided in two. The first half covers the artists’ lives from their childhoods onward. It is filled with Hans Rey’s drawings, reproductions of documents, old photographs and some of Drummond’s loose-lined watercolors.

Part two recounts their escape and is almost completely illustrated by Drummond. He worried that his style might whither next to Rey’s, which he describes as “very bold, graphic and strong.”

Then he decided that because “most children’s books are about movement and gesture and energy, and if I could put that in, which I knew I could, I could stand up to Rey.”

Both Borden and Drummond were concerned about making the book readable for middle-grade readers, the target audience, without dumbing it down, sensationalizing it or diminishing its seriousness.

Borden had to keep reminding herself that in order for children to suspend their disbelief, she couldn’t let on that she knew what happened to the Reys after 1940. That’s taken care of in a one-page afterword.

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