Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Curious Indeed

As an adult, returning to the beloved books or movies or television shows of our youth with grown-up sensibilities is always entertaining. We no longer find them as mind-blowing, awesome, or frightening as we did when we were children. Such were my adult viewings of Tron, The Dark Crystal, and The Secret of N.I.M.H. among others. However, I still can't watch Watership Down without having a good hardy crying fit.

Similarly, as a parent, it has been interesting to revisit classics from my own childhood. Glimpses of a long vanished world.

On my DVD collection of classic Sesame Street episodes there is one particularly interesting segment intended to teach children the concepts of "up", "down", "over", and "under". It features a group of children running and frolicking through a junkyard and a construction site. In a world where it seems children can't leave their damn house without a helmet, this seems practically medieval.

Last week, Little A and I picked up a copy of Curious George. Originally published in 1941, the book is an origins story of sorts recounting how George came to know and be cared for by The Man in the Big Yellow Hat.

I'm sure it's been a while for most of you since you picked up a Curious George book, so I'd like to take you on a little journey back in time. A time when things in the children's literature world were a wee bit different than they are now:

Our story opens with George, a good and happy little monkey living in Africa.

First, let me be a complete ass and state for the record that George is no monkey. Monkeys have tails, and George does not. George is more likely a chimpanzee. But this was 1941 and what the hell did they know 66 years ago anyway? Probably let kids chew on lead paint back then. And they certainly let them ride bikes without helmets.

One day George catches the eye of The Man in the Big Yellow Hat who decides that our curious little simian would make a great souvenir and sets off to catch him.

So The Man in the Big Yellow Hat is an effing POACHER. Sweet. Now I see the Stockholm Syndrome element inherent in the relationship that will develop between TMinBYH and George.

TMitBYH lures George with his yellow chapeau, and then stuffs him into a massive drawstring bag.

Because transporting wild animals in laundry bags is so safe and humane.

Once on board the ship home, TMitBYH explains to George that he's taking him to live in a Zoo in a big city. 'You will like it there,' he tells George.

Ah, nothing like the sweet aroma of colonialism with slight undernotes of imperialism...

George engages in his usual antics on the ship, resulting in his needing to be rescued from nearly drowning. In the illustration of the sailors pulling George back onto the ship, George is regurgitating a rather large quantity of water along with a few whole fish.

Clearly, I did not read this book as a child. Seeing as I had a paralyzing fear of vomit, an image like that would have haunted me for years.

At TMitBYH's apartment, George gets settled in by eating a nice meal, smoking a pipe, and heading to bed.

Yes, folks, bet you didn't remember old George enjoying a little terbacky! Smoking a pipe may not be the same as puffing away on a Lucky Strike, but I was nonetheless taken aback to see a reference to smoking in children's literature. With the way our current societal views on smoking are slanting, I wouldn't be shocked if in a few years I am no longer allowed to BUY cigarettes in front of my child. Rather, I'll be forced to make my purchase in a small back room, closed off from the rest of the store by a thick curtain. The clerk will put my pack of smokes in a discreet brown paper bag.

I am so prepared for some eager Tipper Gore-wannabe to come across this little gem and campaign fiercely to have it banned from library shelves.

After George watches TMitBYH make a phone call (to the zoo of all places, effing POACHER), he wants to use the telephone as well. He ends up calling the fire department who show up to the apartment and find no fire, only a naughty little monkey.

There is no mention, of course, of the fire department nor any of TMitBYH's neighbors taking issue with an illegally obtained exotic animal living in the building.

George is thrown in prison for his false 911 call.

The illustrations of the prison in which George is incarcerated looks like the Man in the Iron Mask would be in the cell next to George's.

George is a wily little one and escapes from prison. The remainder of the book deals with the George's shenanigans involving a huge bunch of balloons. Setting up a precedent which will run through all future Curious George volumes, TMitBYH saves George's ass. The book ends with George living happily ever after in a Utopian zoo where all the animals reside in harmony.

My son loves this book. He thinks monkeys are grand and is entranced by the picture of the fire engines roaring down the street in response to George's fake emergency call. He's also not yet two years old.

All this subtext I unearth as an adult, he probably won't notice until he is grown with a munchkin of his own. Until then, I will continue to be amused at how much the world has changed, but keep that amusement to myself because I want my kid to have a good time. And if that good time includes such antiquated classics as Curious George and glorious cheeseball fare like Tron or Gremlins, then what an awesome childhood he'll have.


raych said...

I remembered Tron as the be-all, end-all of my childhood years. Then I met a guy named 'Tron,' because his dad loved the movie so much. My husband had never seen the movie, and so we rented it and watched together. It was as terribly awesome as I remember.

Anonymous said...

I bought this for my child thinking to recreate that wondrous relationship I had with CG as a boy. My reaction to the story now was similar to what you describe and how proud am I now that my boy really hates the story. He made me give the book away.

Seriously, was this book really written by Trent Lott?

prairiegirl said...

How funny. I think your blog is becoming my new favorite. My daughter (also "not yet two years old") inherited this exact book from our neighbors in a big box of books they were getting rid of. We sat down to read it a few weeks ago and I too was surprised by many of the things you mentioned in your post. The pipe smoking and decision by TMitBYH to whisk George away from his natural home to live in a zoo were particularly striking for me.

I never read Curious George until this book came into our possession, so it was certainly eye opening for me. She wasn't really into it so we didn't delve too far, but I'm sure one of these days we'll pick it up again.

I personally can't wait until she is old enough to share in the joys of the Ramona Quimby books I adored so much. Then again, I'm sure they probably won't stand up to rereading them as an adult.

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