Monday, March 27, 2006

BOOKS: Curiouser George

I don't know how much you know about the Curious George stories, but here's how the series starts off:

A man, ostensibly some kind of explorer, in a yellow hat -- thereafter referred to as the man in the yellow hat -- is on a jungle expedition. He sees a young monkey in the wild.
"What a nice little monkey," he thought. "I would like to take him home with me."
So he uses his yellow hat to attract the monkey.
The hat covered George's head. He couldn't see. The man picked him up quickly and popped him into a bag. George was caught.
Then the man in the yellow hat takes George back to the city with him and puts him in a zoo.

Pretty monstrous, huh?
Margret and H.A. Rey, the husband-and-wife team who wrote and illustrated these books, don't mince the genesis of the stories. No explanations, no apologies. That's just how things go.

Now, you could think to yourself, "Well, that's just a sign of the times. After all, these stories were all written during the 1940s, '50s and '60s, when the idea of stealing wild animals from their native habitat was not widely considered a bad thing."

Or, if you're me, you could look at this as an allegory. And no, the allegory I'm thinking about -- right now, anyway -- is not about western imperialism over the environment and other cultures. Though we can talk about that later, if you want.

If you're not up on what the Curious George stories are about, here's the gist: after the initial story, George eventually comes to live with the man in the yellow hat. In subsequent adventures, George takes a job, learns to ride a bike, flies a kite, and in one ominously punitive cautionary tale, ends up in the hospital. In each story, George's powerful, irrepressible curiosity gets him into a tight spot... a spot from which he can only be rescued by the goodness and common sense of nice humans.

I know what you're thinking, but hold the anti-imperialism rant at bay for just a little while longer, okay? Because I probably would have dwelled solely on that angle myself if it weren't for the fact that I have an almost one-year-old son who is the
homo sapien embodiment of Curious George. My growing tendency is to read these stories, not as political or sociological allegories, but as simple parables for early childhood development.

Or, to paraphrase
Rusty when we talked about this, children are like wild animals, and our job as adults is to pluck them from the primordial jungle of childhood and force them to learn our ways. To be a parent is to be an imperialist, and if you can't accept that then next thing you know your naked three-year-old is running around and hurling his own feces at the other Starbucks patrons... behaviour that I understand is frowned upon by most.

According to Rusty, "We have to tame these savages. Children don't
go feral. They're born feral. If we're lucky, they go civilized."

I was following him up till that point, but then he started talking about this in relation to
The Epic of Gilgamesh and
Marx and Lenin and Stalin, and I got caught up in preventing young Master Sam from once again grabbing the dog's penis (aka "his doghood"), and by the time I got back to the conversation Rusty had worked things around to Star Trek, and at that point I activated the tractor beam and sent him back to his home planet. Emergency transport! One to beam up!

I tend to agree with Rusty, though. You may think it seems cruel to nip childhood curiosity in the bud, but you haven't witnessed firsthand Sam's scientific pursuit of answers to such questions as:
  • What are cats made of?
  • How does gravity work as it relates to the edge of the bed?
  • Who lives inside the electrical outlets?
  • Is playground gravel also food?
  • Can I breathe underwater?
I've been thinking about Curious George a lot lately, mostly because we've had Jack Johnson's most excellent CD Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the Film Curious George (a gift from JennyO, who lives an incredible double life as a regular human being and a superhero) in heavy rotation these days. I never get tired of listening to it. If you have a kid, or if you used to be one, I insist you go get your hands on a copy. You can thank me at your convenience.

I love every song on the disc, even the hippie ones about recycling and healing mother earth that snuck into the mix, but my favourite tracks are "Upside Down" and "People Watching". Both of these songs pretty much sum up the experience of being a very young child, in that they are, respectively, about getting into crap and staring at people.

"Upside Down" is an especially awesome little tune. Sam starts bouncing as soon as he hears it, and I get a little misty-eyed singing along, it's that poignant.
Who's to say what's impossible?
Well they forgot this world keeps spinning
And with each new day
I can feel a change in everything

And as the surface breaks reflections fade
But in some ways they remain the same
And as my mind begins to spread its wings
There's no stopping curiosity

I want to turn the whole thing upside down
I'll find the things they say just can't be found
I'll share this love I find with everyone
We'll sing and dance to mother nature's songs
I don't want this feeling to go away

Who's to say I can't do everything?
Well I can try, and as I roll along I begin to find
Things aren't always just what they seem

I want to turn the whole thing upside down
I'll find the things they say just can't be found
I'll share this love I find with everyone
We'll sing and dance to mother nature's songs

This world keeps spinning
And there's no time to waste
Well it all keeps spinning spinning
Round and round and upside down

Who's to say what's impossible and can't be found?
I don't want this feeling to go away

Please don't go away
Please don't go away
Please don't go away

Is this how it's supposed to be?
Is this how it's supposed to be?


landismom said...

Curious George is absolutely about parenting a toddler. Anyone who's ever called their kid 'you little monkey' must agree. My personal favorite is when George fills the house with soap bubbles, after spilling ink on the floor trying to refill a fountain pen. Because toddler + water play = big fun!

Dave said...

I wanted to not like Jack Johnson on account of his being a too-often barefoot folky, and because he writes the kind of songs that will plague us on adult contemporary station to the end of our days and then longer, but all of this is negated by the fact that he’s really good.

And I only just learned the origin of how George came to live with the Man in the Yellow Hat. It just came up in conversation a week or two ago, with a friend who’s savvy in the ways of fictional monkeys. I think I always assumed that MiYH picked George up at the local monkey store or something. But no: it was blatant monkey theft while on safari. Not cool.

Anonymous said...

Even going civilized isn't a guarantee - e.g. regression to the feral in >i< Lord of the Flies>i<. Or Bush giving the finger to Congress. Of course, that's assuming he was civilized to begin with.

Anonymous said...

As mom of a 2 year old, I am living Curious George these days, too. She begs for "Jack song" on the computer (you can watch the video from Johnson's website if you go to films, then bonus.)
Thanks for writing out the lyrics - I am listening to it 50 times a day, and usually lyrics are what I hear first, but for some reason I hadn't yet appreciated that poetry as I should.
In college, I was a camp counselor at a zoo. Let me tell you, Curious George was NOT popular amongst zoo workers, who are already sensitive about the whole cage/animal jail thing. To have people thinking that animals are stolen from the wild to go ino zoos is not good p.r.

Lydia Netzer said...

I like your interpretation much better! It's still rather uncomfortable to explain to the child, however, about the whole jungle safari / hat trick / boat ride / zoo thing. Mine hasn't questioned it yet. Another thing. In my opinion George is given waaay too much rope, and if he inevitably hangs himself on it, it's really not his fault. If we're using the early childhood analogy, the man with the yellow hat needs to hire a monkey-sitter. And everyone else needs to be more mindful of the juvenile monkey. I'm looking at you, dump truck operator.

Maya said...

I love George -he can't help that he's curious. But young master there ... so cute that my ovaries are now exploding. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

As a college prof, I have to admit to being one of those people who overthink kidslit (yes, I snarled "imperialism!" at the man in the yellow hat). But your take on Curious George made my day. And all I can say is, if you think your toddler is tough, wait until he's four and decides to ask you loudly, in a public restroom stall, "Mommy, did an elephant grab your penis?"

Tammy said...

I have to give you props, roughmagic. I was trying to multitask, feeding me and Sam a banana (speaking of monkeys) while reading everyone's comments, and yours made me choke on my banana. Which made Sam -- who thinks coughing is the high point in contemporary humour -- laugh his head off, making him look much like the photo that made Meepers's ovaries explode. Heh.

Dave, you need to follow the link I posted to Jack Johnson's Curious George CD on Amazon, where you can listen to some sample tracks that feed your conflicted feelings. I just got back from a baby playgroup where I was talking about this CD with two other moms who have the same ridiculous fondness for it that I do.

Anonymous said...

Here's a blog entry I enjoyed about how Curious George and the possible interpretations.

Shadowspun said...

I just have to say my favorite story about George is when he treks off into space. I'm a total space nut. I'm also nearly thirty, with no kids (ever!) and bought the complete series of George books for myself a few years back.

LOL. I never outgrew my childhood. I still love kids books.