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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.“
Afterthoughts. The 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.