Not too long ago, I volunteered at a Scholastic Book Fair in my son’s school. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed that morning, browsing through classics and newbies alike. In class, they are reading Molly Lou Melon, a delightful story about a short and clumsy young girl with buck teeth, and “a voice that sounds like a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor.”
I have often written about books in this space but it’s been a while since I have discussed children’s books. This was three years ago. Well, we have moved on from board books to Curious George to Space Books and right now, we are knee-deep into Tintin and Calvin and Hobbes.
While Tintin, in the midst of his escapades, is imparting geographical and cultural knowledge, Calvin is holding up a mirror. My five-year-old finds the adventures of a mischievous six-year-old immensely funny. He thinks “yogurt brain” is hilarious. He doesn’t get the deep stuff. And for now, he doesn’t need to. One day, in the not so distant future, he is going to re-read the comic. That’s when he is going to see how the same words can morph into different ideas. The author, the oft-quoted reclusive genius, Bill Watterson, had a way of bringing to life the simplest of emotions and the deepest of thoughts with a few strokes of his pen.
Not one to get sentimental about baby blankets and toys, I get misty-eyed when I stumble upon a tattered board book now and then. Remember the well-mannered Little Blue Truck? Then I look at Curious George, a favorite throughout the preschool years, who has now been replaced by a philosophical, trouble-maker of a tiger, Hobbes.
George’s backstory intrigues me. Hans and Margret Rey escaped Nazi-occupied Paris, and came to the United States in the forties. With them, they had their scant belongings, and a manuscript (with sketches) about a curious little monkey named Fifi. Upon publication, Houghton-Mifflin, the Boston based company, gave Fifi his new name, Curious George.
After books, George followed the usual animated route of Television (PBS), movies, and now he is also on Hulu. Then we have the online games, the apps, the pillows and the cups. A whole merchandising extravaganza. If you wanted to throw a Curious George birthday party, you could do so with as much homogeneity as you want. More didactic and less cheeky than Book George, it is Cartoon George who is really popular among preschoolers.
After going through a couple of Calvin and Hobbes, my son asked me “When can I watch the show?” He was surprised to hear that Calvin exists only on paper. Sometimes it’s good to have art in their original form, as meant by the artists.
At other times, there is nothing wrong with sitting down with a bowl of popcorn, watching the capers of a smart and curious monkey, who can entertain and educate through fun-filled stories. George does myriad experiments with colors, sounds, shapes and numbers. He teaches us about bugs, fishes, plants and animals. At one point he even went to Mars. But the thing he does best is make functioning objects out of day-to-day items, a DIY periscope and a toy car-wash for instance.
The animated version of George is more diverse, both in terms of gender and race, a sign of the times. The books are just stepping stones to a bigger wider world of enjoyment and learning. I will be amiss if I say I don’t miss the little monkey now that we have moved on. And I am really glad that this country welcomed the Reys, without whom we wouldn’t have Curious George, now an American classic.