(Houghton Mifflin, 1941)
I’ve written about my fondness for the Curious George books before. But I recently checked out a copy of the original Curious George from my local library and I’m not sure I like the Man with the Yellow Hat anymore. It’s not because no one should wear an all-yellow outfit, even once let alone ALL the time. Primary colors for little ones,…I get it. My disillusionment comes because I simply don’t like discovering how George and Mr. Yellow met.
The story begins with George being a “good little monkey”, contentedly swinging from a vine while eating a banana in an African jungle. Through his binoculars, the yellow dude spots the monkey and thinks, “What a nice little monkey. I would like to take him home with me.” He then sets that infamous hat on the ground to lure the curious young primate.
The man picked him up quickly and popped him into a bag. George was caught.
George is not freed from the bag until he and Yellow are aboard a big ship.
I probably read this story as a child. This troublesome beginning wouldn’t have fazed me. What kid doesn’t want a monkey? Now this tale makes me sad. Call me curious, but I cannot help but wonder what George’s mother must have thought when her baby disappeared. I also wonder how stressed the monkey would have been. Later, when George prompts a false alarm fire truck emergency, seven firemen scramble to capture the monkey and toss him in jail. We see the brick walls and the window with bars on it. How traumatic. By story’s end, George is in another enclosure: a zoo, depicted with tiny fencing and happy animals like George playing with balloons. It’s supposed to warm our hearts.
Times have changed since this book was published in 1941. The Story of Ferdinand, another beloved picture book from that era (published in 1936), inanely tells us that bulls long to be selected to be butchered in bullfights in loud stadiums for the entertainment of humans. As long as these books remain on shelves, I think adults need to foster environments where children think critically about how animals are portrayed. Do animals merely exist for human musings and/or consumption? What thoughts and feelings might animals have?
I would read this book as part of a unit that would include Tree Ring Circus and Pssst! By Adam Rex along with Children Make Terrible Pets and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown. Depending on the age group, I would bring in nonfiction articles about the healthy giraffe killed by Danish zookeepers and the revelation that other zoos similarly dispose of some of their animals. I would also search for articles about how some endangered animals are gaining in numbers due to measures taken in captivity. Children can be invited to weigh in on their thoughts about animal welfare and animals in zoos. Some children will want to advocate for better zoo care while others will question whether animals should be raised in captivity at all.
We can enjoy a picture book at face value as a piece of entertainment, but sometimes we are given the opportunity to consider the changes (if any) between the past and the present and to allow children to think about bigger issues.
Indeed, we should be raising curious children.