The creators of Curious George, popularly known as Margret and H.A. Rey, were both born in Hamburg, Germany: Margret Elizabeth Rey (born Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein) on May 10, 1906 and her future husband, Hans Augusto Rey (born Hans Augusto Reyersbach) on September 16, 1898. While they were only briefly and passingly acquainted during their youth in Hamburg, they reconnected after separately coming to Brazil in the 1930s. They married in 1935, went on honeymoon to Paris and never returned home, remaining in Paris until 1940 when they fled to the United States in advance of Hitler’s impending occupation of France. The Reys settled first in Greenwich Village, New York City, and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, (just outside Boston) in 1963.
Despite the division of labor on the Curious George series, where Margret is largely credited with the writing and H.A. Rey with the illustrations, it was actually Margret who had more formal art training of the two. Margret’s training included time spent at the Bauhaus in Dessau, the Academy of Art in Dusseldorf, and additional art school in Berlin. Hans’ talent was both more self-developed and put more immediately to somewhat practical use; it grew out of his boyhood sketching of animals or other objects of interest around home, and eventually resulted in his obtaining some work designing posters. He also learned the skills associated with the lithographic process used to print the posters, skills which would be helpful later in bringing Curious George to print.
However, neither Margret nor Hans set out originally to be a children’s book author. Margret had a variety of jobs, including writing for a newspaper and writing advertising copy. Meanwhile her artistic pursuits moved from watercolors to photography. She went so far as to set up a photography studio in Hamburg, but with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, she relocated to Brazil. It was at this point that she crossed paths with Hans, who had given up his unprofitable poster-making occupation (made even less viable by the hyper-inflation of post-WWI Germany)¸and relocated to Rio de Janiero some years earlier to take a job with a relative. Once Margret convinced Hans to give up his then-current job (selling bathtubs up and down the Amazon river) they undertook their first working collaboration. This was a sort of agency that handled a variety of writing, photography, and advertising assignments, and it was there that they first took on the collaborative roles (Margret primarily writing, Hans handling illustration) that would be a model for their later working relationship on Curious George.
After a brief time together in Brazil, Margret and Hans married and took their honeymoon in Europe, extending their stay, and then settling, in Paris. It was there that the Reys’ path was turned towards the world of children’s books.
While in Paris, H.A. Rey had done some newspaper cartoons featuring a giraffe, which attracted the interest of a local editor who encouraged the Reys to consider working the character into a full-fledged book. The result was the first children’s book by H.A. Rey, published in France by Gallimard in 1939, Rafi et les 9 singes. This story, which was republished in the U.S. with a renamed main character as Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys, notably includes one monkey (originally called Fifi) who would become the famous Curious George of later works.
Due to the popularity of this particular monkey, the Reys began work on The Adventures of Fifi, but were forced to flee Paris in 1940 to escape Hitler’s advancing armies. The Reys traveled across France, carrying several manuscripts, including this one, with them. They eventually made their way to New York City, and were able to place the book for publication, with “Fifi” becoming “George,” with Houghton Mifflin in 1941. (It was also in preparation for this publication that H.A. Rey’s prior experience with lithographs became helpful, since the full watercolor illustrations of the original manuscript needed to be re-done to the specifications of the color separation process then being used to print children’s picture books most economically). In addition to the name change for the title character, an additional concession to the publisher made by the Reys was assigning sole credit for the work to Hans, ostensibly to differentiate the book in a market overly-saturated with female authors. Margret eventually had second thoughts about this decision, and therefore the later sequels made directly by the Reys, as well as most later collected editions and derivative series, credit the pair equally as creators.
Such official sharing of credit seems particularly appropriate in light of the Reys’ own description of their creative process. While Margret primarily handled the writing and H.A. the illustration for the Curious George books, indications are they were co-creators in a truly collaborative sense. Margret notes, in her introduction to the 70th anniversary edition of The Complete Adventures of Curious George, “…who did what? Basically H.A. illustrated and Margret wrote. But that is not the whole story. H.A. also had the ideas, which Margret turned into a story….We worked very hard on each one… We wrote and rewrote, we drew and redrew, we fought over the plot, the beginning, the ending, the illustrations” (404-405).
The first Curious George book was a success, and has remained continuously in print to the present day. The work spawned six direct sequels by the Reys, as well as a variety of related series, sequels, and associated works, about which more will be said elsewhere on this site.
H.A. Rey died August 26, 1977 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Margret remained in Cambridge until her death on December 21, 1996.
“Curious about George?” Curious George. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com//cgsite/.shtml>.
“H.A. Rey.” Wikipedia. N.p., 2 Nov. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._A._Rey>.
“Margret Rey.” Wikipedia. N.p., 3 Nov. 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margret_Rey>.
Picture books author of the month: Margret Rey. Greenville Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://www.yourlibrary.ws/_webpage/author52001.htm>.
Rey, Margret., Rey, H. A., Jones, Dolores Blythe., Marcus, Leonard S.,Silvey, Anita.The Complete Adventures Of Curious George. Boston [Mass.] : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, [2010. Print.
Smith, Dinitia. “How Curious George Escaped the Nazis”, New York Times, September 13, 2005. Web. 6 Nov 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/13/books/13geor.html>
“An Auspicious Journey.” Publishers Weekly. PWxyz, 18 July 2005. Web. 6 Nov. 2011. <http://www.publishersweekly.com////-an-auspicious-journey-.html>.
Borden, Louise. Drummond, Allan (illus.). The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape Of Margret And H.A. Rey. Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
She Wrote from the Heart and Touched the Child in All of Us: An Interview with Margret Ray. Margret Rey and Karen Williams. Christian Science Monitor 88.125 (May 23, 1996): pB3. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Scot Peacock and Allison Marion. Vol. 93. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Word Count:780. From Literature Resource Center.