Celebrating Curiosity Day 2018: The History of Curious George

This blog post, originally published in 2016, was updated in September 2018.

This weekend is a special one for everyone’s favorite mischievous monkey, Curious George. Saturday, September 15 is Curiosity Day, which celebrates 77 years of learning through reading about George and The Man With the Yellow Hat. 

And did you know that September 16 is his creator’s birthday? Hans Augusto Rey, the illustrator and co-author of the Curious George books, was born on September 16, 1898 in Hamburg, Germany. So, without further ado, let’s kick off the weekend’s celebrations with a look back at the history of Curious George.  

Left: H.A. Rey and a real-life monkey. Right: H.A. Rey, with his wife standing behind him, sketches Curious George.
The Arrival of Curious George

Like all heroes of a good story, it wasn’t apparent from the start that George would be the hugely beloved star that he has become, or even that he would survive to make it into print. Louise Borden tells the story of the Reys’ last minute escape from Paris in 1940, one step ahead of the Nazis, in The Journey That Saved Curious George, which HMH released in a new Young Readers edition in 2010. The Reys and George made it to the United States and the offices of Houghton Mifflin (HM), and the first book appeared in August 1941. This was a good year for Houghton Mifflin children’s books because not only was Curious George published but so was Johhny Tremain by Esther Forbes, Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling, and Calico the Wonder Horse by Virginia Lee Burton. 

While all four titles are acknowledged as classics today, some were greeted with greater acclaim than others. As Anita Silvey, the publisher of Houghton Mifflin children’s books from 1995 to 2001, wrote in her introduction to the 60th anniversary Complete Adventures of Curious George, sales were slow to come at first, but come they did and now we can’t imagine raising a child without our favorite curious monkey.   

George Turns 25

H.A. Rey died in 1977, so the only milestone birthday of George’s that he was able to participate in was George’s 25th in 1966, which involved a cocktail party held by Houghton Mifflin for 325 librarians and publishing people in New York City on the opening night of the American Library Association’s convention. Unfortunately, no photos of the event survive in the archives; however, I did find the party bill in the files. I’m sure it seemed like a lot of money at the time, but I doubt you could stock a bar for a party with 325 people today for $792.  

Also in 1966, Curious George Goes to the Hospital, the last of the original stories, was published. The book had been proposed by Boston Children’s Hospital and took several years to complete, involving lots of back and forth between the hospital, HM, and the Reys about the content, size, price, and more. Below is a note that HM editor Austin Olney scribbled during a phone call with the hospital. See that line about the syringe? H.A. Rey’s drawing of the original cover included a needle, but it was removed from the final version as requested by the hospital.

Top: HM editor Austin Olney's note, written during a phone call with the Boston Children's Hospital. Bottom: Sketch and final cover of Curious George Goes to the Hospital, published by HM in 1966.
George Turns 50

In 1991, when Curious George turned 50, there were many celebrations. In fact, Houghton Mifflin received so many birthday wishes that they created the postcard below to send in reply. Celebratory events included Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn declaring the week of September 30–October 6 “Curious George Week” in honor of George’s contributions to literacy’s past and future. Additionally, in partnership with Houghton Mifflin, Partners for Literacy established “Curious George Corners” in 25 early learning centers across Boston, and HM threw a party at One Beacon Street to celebrate the partnership and George’s birthday. At left (below) is a photo of Margret Rey (in front) with Leslie Loke of the Boston Public Library and Walter Lorraine of HM. Notice those name badges around their necks? One of them survives in our archives. Furthermore, the First Lady at the time, Barbara Bush, was deeply involved in literacy causes, and she sent a letter to Margret Rey for George’s birthday.

Left: Margret Rey (front) with Leslie Loke and Walter Lorraine. Center and Right: Back and front, respectively, of Curious George 50th birthday card.
Other Curious Creations

After the publication of Curious George Goes to the Hospital, H.A. Rey mostly worked on a new edition of Find the Constellations, which incorporated many of the new discoveries coming from NASA as the space program accelerated in the late 1960s. He also worked on a few other projects, including a request by the Children’s Book Council in 1967 for the design of a bookmark about the Dewey Decimal System for use in libraries. Though the project never proceeded beyond the sketch below (left), he sent it in to Houghton Mifflin along with the letter below in which he suggests that instead of displaying the Dewey numbering as “900 – Geography” it should be “900 – Georgegraphy."

The Reys were also well known for their holiday cards, which they faithfully sent out for over 30 years. We’re lucky enough to have about a dozen of them preserved in our archives. Though the Reys couldn’t be political in their books, they were both vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War and found other ways to protest, including through their 1971 holiday card (below).

The Reys always had a very long and fruitful association with HMH. They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and visited the Boston Houghton Mifflin offices on Park Street often. One day in 1974, perhaps inspired by seeing the stained glass window which features HM’s early colophon, Rey drew the parody below.

So now it is time to celebrate our beloved Curious George and his 77 years of mischievous shenanigans, as well as his ingenious creator, H.A. Rey. Happy birthday to you both!

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Find answers to frequently asked questions about Curious George and his history.