WHITEBLACK THE PENGUIN SEES THE WORLD By Margret Rey Illustrated by H.A. Rey Houghton Mifflin Unpaged, $15, Ages 4-8
These look just like pictures from 'Curious George'," said my husband when I showed him a page from "Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World."
Not bad, I thought, for a man who claims he doesn't know anything about children's books. He had just realized what thousands of people will discover this fall: There's a brand new book by famous husband-and-wife team H.A. and Margret Rey, creators of the Curious George books.
"Whiteblack" is being published posthumously this year, but it was conceived in 1937 while the Reys were still a newly married couple in France. The penguin's story is charming, but it doesn't outshine the real tale of its 63-year wait for publication. Apparently, this manuscript was one of five that the Reys smuggled out of France while escaping the 1940 Nazi invasion. On the eve of the German takeover of Paris, the Reys rode bicycles out of the city, taking with them only what they could wear or fit in saddle bags. (The original "Curious George" manuscript was also in that auspicious collection.)
There is evidence that over the years, the Whiteblack manuscript was readied for publication under the able editing hand of Ursula Nordstrom. For some reason, however, the final revisions were never returned for publication.
After the passing of H.A. in 1977 and Margret in 1996, these unpublished materials entered the de Grummond collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Late last year, the curator of the collection, Dee Jones, mounted a show of the Reys' work. She invited Houghton Mifflin's children's book editor, Anita Silvey, to the opening of the exhibit. (Houghton Mifflin is publisher of the Curious George series.)
At a recent gathering in Boston, Ms. Silvey described the fortunate string of events that led to the rediscovery of "Whiteblack": "As I viewed the exhibit, I noticed a case labeled 'unpublished work of H.A. Rey.' I commented on how beautiful the work was. Dee asked - very understatedly - if I'd like to see the whole book. And, as they say, the rest is history."
Little Whiteblack the penguin is chief storyteller at radio station WNOS (Snow, spelled backwards), and he's run out of stories. So with the help of his friends Seal and Polar Bear, he's off on a travel adventure to find new tales to tell. An iceberg, a military ship (flying the French flag), a desert-dwelling camel, a high-flying airplane, a fully loaded fishing boat, and good friends in Penguinland all contribute to the appeal of this sweet book. Particularly endearing is Whiteback's cheery disposition. His response to almost every situation, however dire, is: "I've always wanted to [do that]."
H.A. Rey's artwork is clear and bright and full of fun. A note at the end of the book explains that in 1937 he was working across from a penguin exhibit at the Paris World's Fair. There, he often drew the little flightless birds, and that's when Whiteblack's story began. This book would have been welcome whenever it appeared, but to have it now, years after we thought the Reys' last original work had been published, is a very special gift.
*Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society