"The Wartime Escape" at Holocaust Museum Houston Illustrates the Daring Escape of the Creators of Curious George

The little brown monkey floats down the river on a plank of wood, his face set in its famously quizzical expression: eyes wide, eyebrows arched, mouth upturned at the corners. He and The Man in the Yellow Hat have been visiting friends in the country, but the monkey, wandering after some tempting distraction, as he is known to do, has gotten lost! After about 30 minutes (and two or three repeat trips past the same floating rock,) the monkey deduces his location, creates a mental map and is able to find his way back to his owner and his friends. When he finds him, The Man in the Yellow Hat shrugs and laughs. It's just another day in the life of Curious George.

Before George's animated turn as an early morning children's television character, he was the charming scamp in a series of children's books, "The Adventures of Curious George."

Before it was a popular children's book series, "The Adventures of Curious George" was originally titled "The Adventures of Fifi," created, written and illustrated by Hans and Margret Rey.

And before H..A. and Margret Rey created "The Adventures of Fifi," they were a couple desperate to flee Paris in advance of approaching Nazi forces.

Their epic journey is depicted in a series of 25 giclee (liquid) prints on watercolor paper, drawn by illustrator Allan Drummond and is titled "The Wartime Escape: Marget and H.A. Rey's Journey from France." The exhibition dots the halls in the Central Gallery at the Holocaust Museum Houston's Morgan Family Center.

This series of illustrations originally appeared in "The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey," a book penned by Louise Borden.

"My [illustrations] are only half of the story," said Drummond during last week's preview reception. "It's really [Borden's] story."

Drummond's illustrations are as expressive as Curious George's innocent eyes, relying on a cool color palette that surprises with pockets of red, orange and yellow, the last paralleling the signature yellow of the "Curious George" book jackets.

Across from and next to Drummond's pieces, The Reys' own historic pieces -- photographs, journal pages, letters -- hang in the Central Gallery, contrasting with the bright illustrations of the former. "H.A. and Margret Rey at a book signing" is a black-and-white photograph of the smiling couple signing copies of their books. Children surround Margret in the foreground, while in the background, H.A. draws a kangaroo onto a chalkboard. Likewise, on "Diary page from May 1980," the closest the frayed, worn paper gets to the book series' signature sunny yellow is a faded custard curled into the tips of H.A.'s journal page.

Curated around Drummond's illustrations and the Reys' memorabilia is a vivid red background. Textual explanations of each pictures hang nearby. Instead of bland copy, these summaries are written as a picture book's question-and-answer format. With this, "The Wartime Escape" is designed to appeal to both adults and children -- and curious little monkeys.

H.A. and Margret met and married in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1930s. It was in Brazil where the idea of Curious George was born, as the couple owned two mischievous monkeys who were always getting into things.

H.A., Margret and the monkeys moved to Paris in 1940 and began work on the manuscript that would eventually become the tale of Curious George. Their stay would be cut short, however, as word of Nazi soldiers invading Europe in the 1940s, moved the Jewish couple to escape. On May 10, 1940, Nazis did cross into Europe, invading Belgium and Holland first. By June, the Nazis reached Paris, barely missing crossed paths with the Reys. Thus began their journey, first out of the city by bike, then through country after country, by boat.

The escape was fraught with many dangers. "Across Spain," illustrated by Drummond in 2006, depicts one of these: During a checkpoint, the couple's noticeable German accents put them under suspicion by the guard taking tickets. When asked by the guard why they were leaving France, they showed the manuscript, catching the attention of other passengers. These were so enthralled by the tale, that the guard chose to leave the Reys alone. The picture shows H.A. and Margret holding the original "Fifi" manuscript, with a crowd of onlookers smiling around them. It eerily parallels the photo mentioned earlier, in which the couple is surrounded by the younger admirers.

Another challenge to their departure occurred before they even left. There were millions of Jews trying to leave Paris; thus, visas were hard to come by. Their Brazilian resident status made the process of obtaining one easier. "Visa Stamp" only takes up the top right corner of the paper, with the rest of the sheet a blank page. However, H.A. and Margret's faces of relief resonate across the sheet, as their visa is approved, stamped with a great big "thump!"

Four months later, in October 1940, the Reys arrived in New York, manuscript still in tow. A year later, "The Adventures of Curious George" began its own journey into the hearts of children all over the world.

"The Wartime Escape" will be on view until June 15, 2014. In February, author Louise Borden will visit the Holocaust Museum. Visit hmh.org for more information.

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