Exhibit artfully illustrates Curious George's creators' flight from the Nazis
27 watercolor and ink reproduction prints by Allan Drummond, chair of illustration design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, the YDL’s “The Wartime Escape” is a traveling program of the Mid-America Arts Alliance and the National Endowment for the Arts. It's drawn from the holdings of the DeGrummond Collection of Children’s Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi and taken from the 2005 book Drummond crafted with author Louise Borden, “The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margaret and H.A. Rey.”
On first appearance, the cheerful palette and vigorous line with which Drummond depicts the Reys’ escape from the 1940 Nazi invasion of France seem incongruous to the story’s subject—until the prints are studied closely for their incidental detail.
Obviously making the best of a distressing situation; Drummond creates a vivid travelogue that gives us a keen sense of the danger involved in such a transcontinental flight.
“I did the drawings in two stages,” says Drummond in his artist’s statement, “first, I imagined and sketched what I thought to be the feel and spirit of the drawings. Then I did just enough research to give the work conviction. In this way my own voice came through the illustrations.”
Drummond relays in vibrant images the remarkable escape that saved the cheerful monkey we’ve come to know as Curious George. Indeed, as Drummond relates, it is one of history’s ironies that George likely saved his creators’ lives.
Drummond guides us through the perilous journey that began so innocently enough in 1936 when the Reys went to France on their honeymoon from Brazil. H.A. had been born in Hamburg. He met Margaret in Rio de Janeiro, where he was working as a salesman and where she had gone to escape the rise of Nazism.
Living in Paris with two marmosets for the next four years, the couple sensibly opted to flee south with the mass of humanity seeking to avoid the Nazi invasion of northern France. As Drummond tells us, the monkeys didn’t survive the journey.
But the Reys did just barely survive. H.A. managed to turn a tandem into two separate bikes and because they couldn’t afford a car, the Reys cycled their way south through Boudreaux to Biarritz on the Bay of Biscay traveling through the Pyrenees mountains from the border of Spain to Portugal, where updated Brazilian passports permitted them to leave Europe.
Drummond illustrates the kindness and rapaciousness of those they encountered. And in doing so, he gives the Reys’ tale a riveting balance and astonishing tension.
As Drummond illustrates in his “Across Spain” print, “A (Spanish) official took their passports and asked why they were leaving France.” The Reys then showed him a manuscript they’d been developing about a “curious monkey” based on their beloved marmosets that were carrying in their bags.
“Everyone was enchanted by the stories and pictures,” concludes the gallery tag, “(and) the guard stopped questioning them.” Effectively, as the galley tag notes, the monkey likely “saved the Reys.”
His name at the time was “Fifi” and it would only be when the Reys left Brazil, venturing north to the United States, that “Curious George” as we now know him, would be born in 1941. The seven titles of the original series have now been translated into more than a dozen languages and his mischievous hijinks have enchanted generation after generation of children.
It’s certainly the strength of Drummond’s illustrations that his work bears a similar magic to H.A. Reys’ drawings and Margaret Reys’ stories.
As “The Wartime Escape” skillfully shows us, bravery can come from the most unique of places. And Curious George was a hero if ever there was one.
“The Wartime Escape: Margaret and H.A. Rey’s Journey from France” will continue through April 30 at the Ypsilanti Public Library-Whittaker Road Branch, 5577 Whittaker Road, Ypsilanti. Community Room Exhibit hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday-Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 734-482-4110.