by Karen Fang
Today, Curious George shows us the stars. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
One of my family's favorite children's book characters is Curious George, the friendly little monkey invented by husband-and-wife team H.A. and Margret Rey. We all know George's famous curiosity--but did you know that H.A. Rey is also the author of a groundbreaking book on astronomy?
Cover to The Stars: A New Way to See Them (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016).
Rey's 1952 astronomy guide, The Stars: A New Way to See Them, revolutionized amateur astronomy by depicting the constellations in easy-to-understand diagrams. Before, most star charts and astronomy manuals were stuffed with complex data like Greek symbols and the alphanumeric codes that scientists use for official star names. This kind of information is meaningful mostly to specialists, and no help for beginning stargazers just trying to find shapes in the sky. Rey, however, along with his wife ran a successful advertising business, so he was adept at making visual information intuitive and memorable. Redrawing existing star charts for accessibility, Rey devised new ways to find and identify the constellations. Gemini, for example, sometimes looks in older astronomy manuals more like a horseshoe than the "twins" for which it's named, if you just connect the dots between the main stars. But Rey's new Gemini diagram includes additional stars to flesh out arms, legs and torsos, so that the horseshoe becomes recognizable as two human figures, holding hands.
Left: traditional diagram of the Gemini constellation. Right: Rey's alternative diagram of Gemini (from Wikipedia).
In 1954 Rey also adapted his star charts for Find the Constellations, an astronomy guide specifically targeted for children, but if you know Curious George it's easy to see his similarities with Rey's book about stars. Both start with wonder, and use simple scenes to share discovery. They also both were born from adventure. H.A. Rey grew up in Hamburg and learned to read the stars while serving in the first World War. He and Margret fell in love in Rio, where they kept two monkeys as pets, and the couple started writing Curious George when their Parisian honeymoon stretched into a four-year stay.
Margret and H.A. Rey, the creators of Curious George.
But adventure isn't always fun or wanted. The Reys were Jewish, and in 1940 fled Paris on handmade bikes, two days before the Nazis came. Margret had the first drafts of Curious George stuffed in a bag, and the couple hid in barns and relied on strangers, in a perilous journey across Europe and back to Brazil, before finally settling in New York.
These upheavals, too, can also be seen in Rey's books. George is torn from his home and journeys by ship to a New World he doesn't know. His friend, the Man with a Yellow Hat, may often save him, but he's also the reason George is no longer with his original family. Amidst such trauma, sometimes the only thing that is familiar are the heavens above.
My boys are too old for Curious George now, and phone apps now do what once required star charts. But the lessons of all of H.A. Rey's books still ring true. Wonder keeps us alive and connected. We first learn that as children, but that lesson should reach as far as the stars.
Illustration from Curious George Gets a Medal, H.A. and Margret Rey. First published in 1958 by Houghton Mifflin. (Photo from edition owned by author.)
I'm Karen Fang, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Louise W. Borden, The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2010
Rivka Galchen, "The Unexpected Profundity of Curious George". New Yorker, June 3, 2019.
H.A. Rey, The Stars: A New Way to See Them, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016
The Stars: A New Way to See Them. codex99.com. April 11, 2009.
This episode was first aired on April 6, 2021