Margaret Rey is tiny and button-bright. She is also the co-creator of the well-loved Curious George picture books, which were first published in 1941. The series features a mischievous and lovable monkey whose limitless curiosity lands him in all sorts of trouble.
Mrs. Rey entered her 10th decade this month. I took advantage of the occasion to visit her at her home in Cambridge, Mass.
After initial introductions, we head into her kitchen to trim a small bouquet of yellow daisies. "Flowers need attention before people," she says in her charming German accent. While I clip stems, she looks for the right-shape vase. From many pieces of her own handmade pottery she selects an earth-colored vessel with graceful lines.
Flowers arranged, we head back to a book-lined living room to chat.
Did you and your husband, H.A. Rey, have any inkling 'Curious George' would become the phenomenon that it has?
No. You never think of things like that while you're doing it. You can't think of a thing like that. We wanted to write about things the way we liked them and not the way children liked them. But later on, we found out children liked the same things. That was nice.
So do you, in part, attribute the success of 'Curious George' to the fact that you wrote from your heart?
Yes. Nothing else. I advise everybody to do nothing else. Don't find out what other people want or what is proper to do.
How did you come to write books for children?
It came completely by accident. We were living in Paris. My husband had done some cartoons about a giraffe. A French publisher, Gallimard, saw those, and they called us. They said, 'We like those drawings. Couldn't you make a children's book out of them?' We had never thought of children's books in our lives, but we needed money, so we thought, 'Sure we can!' And so we did the first book, 'Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys.' I did the text, and he did the illustrations. Then we did a book about one monkey. In France it had an awful name. I've forgotten the exact name, some cute-ish name. Later, when we came here, it became 'Curious George.' This is a good name.
Who named him George?
We never knew. Our editor said, 'You did it.' And I said, 'No, you did.' We don't know where the name came from. It was just there.
What was it like to write a Curious George book?
It was hard work, very hard work. People always say, 'I love your little cute books. It must be fun dashing them off.'
It had nothing to do with dashing them off. People never believed how much time was spent on one book - many, many months.
You've said work was one of the few things you and your husband argued about.
Yes, we argued about the books endlessly. He wanted such and such a picture in the book, a monkey here or there. Then I'd have to write the story exactly, so that it would sound completely normal to have a monkey here or there. Sometimes, it became more like mathematics than writing a book.
Many people know you and you husband left Paris on bicycles just as the Nazis were getting ready to invade. And 'Curious George' was with you in manuscript form. Was that as scary as it sounds?
Not to us. We left Paris very early the next morning. That was the only sad moment I remember. Nobody was in the streets, and it was gray and dark. After we left, it was fine. We bicycled. We were lucky.
People who had a car would be stopped because another car broke down miles ahead. So when one car broke down, it was terrible. But bicycles could always get by. We kept going south, and we slept in barns. You know, when you're in action you're not scared. When you're sitting and waiting for something, that's the unpleasant situation.
Your manuscripts were among the very few things you took with you?
Yes, I was smart enough to know that manuscripts were more valuable than underwear!
Were you headed to New York?
No. We couldn't get a visa so quickly, so we went to Brazil. In fact, we were going to stay in Brazil, but we got a visa to come here in 1940, before Pearl Harbor. We were in New York for over 20 years, but when we wanted to buy a house we moved to Cambridge.