Curious George: From Anarchy to Reason in the Postindustrial World

An unanticipated joy of having children is access to hundreds, thousands, of children's books. And let me tell you, there are some fan-tas-tic books out there. And some lousy ones.

Here's the deal, the books written as concepts, or books written for parents – these books suck. Let me give you an example: “Autumn Walk” by Ann Burg, illustrated by Kelly Asbury. The first warning sign is that it's topical. In this case, an autumn theme. It's about… anthropomorphic dog-boy who takes a walk. And, well, that's pretty much it.

What makes the book particularly odious is that it's written in a strict metric and rhyming scheme, something like seven beats per line, an iambic-esque beat. That's another warning sign, because children's authors who do this end up stuffing their “stories” into a tangle of increasingly complex sentences and metaphors, and they use too many adjectives and adverbs. (Writing advice: like a canoe, a sentence overloaded with baggage tends to tip. At the very least, it looks funny.) The book's storyline, which is why we read children's books, is non-existent.

(Okay – Dr. Suess could do the ryhme thing, the no plot thing, but he made up his own words. “Big F, little f, what begins with f? Four fluffy feathers on a fiffer-feffer feff.” And he was a friggin' genius. I mean, a normal guy would give up the whole alphabet theme thing once he landed on “X.” Not Suess. What does he do? He colors outside the lines: “X is very useful if your name is 'Nixie Knox.' It also comes in handy spelling 'ax' and 'extra fox.'” That's right — you don't have to use words that begin with the letter “X'!)

Here's sample language from “Autumn Walk”:

A whiff of apples and cinnamon toast, air that is corduroy-cold,

The street is ablaze in crimson and brown, and the sun shines pumpkin gold.

Whirling and twirling, the leaves are calling. “Come play with us, come play!”

Laughing like clowns, spinning around – autumn is here, let's play!

Ugh. “Ablaze”? What the h*ll does “corduroy-cold” mean? Corduroy's not cold! So who's “laughing like clowns”? The leaves? Autumn? The dog-boy? Leaves call, my *ss.

That's not even the worst of it. And there's this one panel that drives me nuts – at least since my dad pointed it out. There's a picture of this little dog-boy looking up into a tree, and there's a spider in her web, and two birds building a nest! See? See? It's a book about autumn! The text? “Plump feathered birds search for scraps to pad their cozy nests.” Birds build their nests in the spring, you moron. Unless you're from New Zealand, but then there's the falling leaves, pumpkins, etc…

“Autumn Walk” is a book written by an adult for an adult. Only both adults think it's all about children. There is a surprising amount of this crud on the market.

Now, a great book: “Curious George.”

It stars a monkey. I mean, come on! Do I need to explain this to you?

The language is simple and direct. Take the opening lines of “Curious George,” they'd make Hemingway proud:

This is George. He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey and always very curious.

What more do you need to know?

Besides being easy to understand and especially laden with imagery, the language is weird. There's a strange juxtaposition between sentences, one blunt statement following the next, implying causation, but really narrating a series of random events. Take the scene where the firemen break down George's door, catch him, then…well…read on:

The firemen rushed into the house. They opened the door. NO FIRE! ONLY a naughty little monkey. “Oh, catch him, catch him,” they cried. George tried to run away. He almost did, but he got caught in the telephone wire [by the way, try explaining telephone wires to a 21st century child], and – a thin fireman caught one arm and a fat fireman caught the other. “You fooled the fire department,” they said. “We will have to shut you up where you can't do anymore harm.” They took him away and shut him in a prison.

Holy smokes! Talk about government workers exceeding their authority! It's like a Bush administration fantasy! But see what I mean? One sentence piling on the next, absurdity multiplying, no messy details or concerns about the “whys” and “hows.” Get that monkey into prison! Forget about due process of law, animal control, the issue of breaking and entering and the theft of the Man in the Yellow Hat's property, the monkey he stole from Africa.

(Off the topic: The cover for “Curious George” comes from this scene. In the book the two firemen – one thin, one fat – have George by the arms. The thin guy looks smug, the fat guy is dang angry and lecturing George and pointing to what we can only assume to be his future in a cell. George looks miserable, as one would expect. On the cover, however, it's the same picture – only George is laughing! Talk about misrepresentation! Some poor kid, from seeing the cover, might think the book is about a monkey enjoying a walk with firemen. Imagine his surprise – his shock — when that innocent image is revealed to be a mockery of George's sufferings! I tell you, this H.A. Rey guy is a genius.)

Things happen. For example, on page one, George is swinging on a vine in his jungle home, enjoying a banana. By page five, he's stuffed in a bag and headed out to sea, captive of the mysterious and sadistic Man in the Yellow Hat.

Which brings me to…bad things happen. This is a very important feature for a good children's book. What's a better story, “Hansel and Gretl,” or “Barney's ABCs”? I don't know about you, but I'll take the book about parents who leave their kids to die in the woods and a cannibal witch, over a fat, excessively happy purple dinosaur reciting the alphabet.

Lots of bad things happen to Curious George in “Curious George.” He's kidnapped. He falls overboard during an ocean voyage and nearly drowns. He's assaulted by an entire fire department. He's thrown in prison. (Complete with wooden bed and rats!) He's dragged into the air by runaway balloons and nearly falls to his death. At the conclusion, he's living in a dilapidated tree on a tiny island in an overcrowded zoo.

And while we're on this topic, let's talk about the Man in the Yellow Hat. This is the guy who should be thrown in prison.

First he kidnaps George, then he provides no supervision while George is in his care. George falls in the water, fights a fire department, goes to jail: where's the Man with the Yellow Hat all this time? You steal a monkey from his home, you should at least have the decency to make sure it's okay!

And when George is in some particularly nasty tangle, does the Man in the Yellow Hat ever look concerned? Sad? No way! George comes floating down on top of a traffic light causing a massive pile-up at the intersection, does the Man in the Yellow Hat gasp with horror at the carnage? Does he show remorse for letting the monkey get in trouble? Is he angry at least? No! He's laughing! “Ha ha ha, there's my monkey causing a twenty-car pile-up, floating down out of the sky when I thought he was home in my apartment.” I'm curious to see how the movie handles this.

In the first book, at least, we can understand why the Man in the Yellow Hat leaves George alone. He doesn't know what trouble George can make. In the later books, however, the Man in the Yellow Hat has no such excuse. In “Curious George Wins a Medal,” he leaves George home all day. George ends up staining the rug with ink, flooding the apartment, stealing a cow, and destroying a museum exhibit. In “Curious George Rides a Bike,” the Man in the Yellow Hat gives George a bike, then drives off to work! He just gave a monkey a bike! And drives off! Is it any wonder George hitches a ride with two strange men who dress him up in a costume and make him do acrobatics?

And what's with the yellow outfit?

See, these are elements of a great story. Random events linked only by proximity, but causation is implied. Folks, that's how we experience real life. We go throw a series of random events then create a story from them after the fact. The story creates meaning. From meaning we derive comfort for the multitude of sufferings and joys that afflict us.

Kids dig that.

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed that.

  2. No problem! Stay tuned for more children’s book reviews!

  1. 1 On “Goodnight Moon” « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] There was a great article on children’s books in the recent issue of The New Yorker. Not that this is a childish post – no more than usual – I enjoy considering kids’ things as an adult. I’ve already given the literary treatment to Curious George – twice. Now it’s “Goodnight Moon’s” turn. […]

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