Curious George hits 50. Anniversary of one of the most popular characters in children's literature

This is George. He lived in Africa.

He was a good little monkey

and always curious.

THESE are the opening lines that introduced to the world a forever-youthful monkey named ``Curious George'' in his first adventure, which was published 50 years ago.

If you ask just about any school librarian for a list of the top-10 children's books for preschoolers and elementary school children alike, the answer you'll undoubtedly get will include the Curious George series. By now generations of children have delighted in his innocent and unintentional mischief.

George may have started his life in Africa. But in the five decades since he ``arrived,'' he has traveled to every part of the world and spoken many languages.

Children and parents have read about his escapades in Greek, French, Swedish, Japanese - and even Chinese. He has traveled by the colorful pseudonyms that suit him: ``Fi Fi'' in France, ``Jorge'' in Spain, and ``Zo Zo'' in Great Britain. ``Curious'' there means homosexual, and the publishers preferred not to confuse morality and monkey business.

The animated Margret Rey, whose husband, Hans Augusto Rey, wrote the Curious George series, speaks of the monkey that has been a top banana in her life: ``We always loved animals.''

She explains why the decision was made to write about a monkey - instead of the turtle, alligators, chameleons, newts, and dogs she and her husband owned - ``It just seemed right.''

The pleasure of creation is what guided Mr. Rey through the eight-book series on Curious George. ``We never thought of what the children would want to read. We did what pleased us,'' Mrs. Rey adds.

``To tell you the truth, I never looked at children's books. It doesn't do anyone any good to look at them.''

Mrs. Rey says many of the escapades George found himself in were taken from real life. A biochemist friend once told her and her husband how, as a boy, he made a bargain with his mother to give the kitchen floor a thorough scrubbing in exchange for money for a chemistry set.

While his parents were out, the boy ended up sprinkling soapsuds on the floor and pulling a garden hose through a window to spray it. In ``Curious George Gets a Medal,'' George emulates this experiment with comic results.

Mr. Rey's fun has been shared by thousands of readers, who seem to get a vicarious kick from the tree-swinging troublemaker. Much of the pleasure follows from George's propensity for sticky situations.

``George can do the things a child would like to do but isn't allowed to - like paint the wall,'' Mrs. Rey says.

He has been accidentally lifted to the sky in balloons, and he once mistakenly fed an ostrich a trumpet. In other words, he keeps himself - and those around him - busy.

The appeal of the energetic George is ageless. Teen-ager Mona Elliott has moved on to different companions, but was still present at a recent birthday party to pay her respects to Curious George. She thinks back nostalgically to the escapades of her favorite character.

``At the end of the story, he always finds a way to solve his problems,'' she says. ``I wish it was like real life.''

Others say much of the appeal comes from the fact that the star is not a person, but a monkey. Says Anne Hartnett, mother of Joe and Kenny, who are both Curious George fans: ``It's easier for kids to identify with animals than with people.''

``I like Curious George,'' says four-year-old Justin Eberlein. ``He's curious, and I'm curious.'' Then Justin starts laughing. ``I remember when he ate the puzzle piece.''

But by the end of each book, George always seems to find a resolution to his difficulties. The puzzle piece is inevitably burped up.

He also inevitably wins the forgiveness of his good friends, such as the Man in the Yellow Hat. Over and over again, H.A. Rey ended with a happy ending - as eagerly anticipated by a child today as 50 years ago.

Here's the one that closes Rey's first book:

And then George and the man

climbed into the car

and at last, away they went

to the ZOO!

What a nice place

for George to live!

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