Songs for the Struggling Artist

And Now I’m Mad About Curious George

I guess this is a series now.

As you may remember, a short while ago, I was real mad about Kiss Me, Kate when I found out it had been written by a woman but not credited to her as a sole author, even though she was the sole author. Then I learned about the authorship of Curious George. Curious freakin’ George, the kid’s book about the curious monkey. You know you read it as a child. It is one of the most popular children’s books in history. Classic! (Also, problematic and possibly racist – sorry!) And now tell me who wrote it. Your answers will vary according to when you read it. If you read it before or when I did then, like me, you will say, H.A. Rey. Were there photos of him on the back flap to suggest he was like the man in the yellow hat from the book? If there weren’t, I made some some up – because I definitely knew that the author of Curious George was a man.

Surprise! It was a couple. You might know this already if you read it after I did, but married couple Hans Augusto Rey, and Margret Rey fled the Nazis, smuggled out their cute book about George and changed the world of children’s publishing. And here is why they left Margret’s name off the book: because they had “too many women” writing children’s books around then. Gah! It’s infuriating. Hey – they just used H.A’s initials. They couldn’t have ALSO made hers initials? H.A. Rey and M. Rey? Come on. It’s so easy. All they had to do was obscure both their names and genders if they were so worried about it. And listen, I know this was a long time ago – like my experience of Kiss Me, Kate, this decision got made decades ago, in a different time and all that – but holy macaroni, Batman. I just found out that one of the iconic stories of my childhood was co-written by a woman. I found out from a silly Facebook post. Shouldn’t they have put out a bulletin at some point? Like maybe when she finally got her name back on the books? That would have been a good time to talk about the entire erasure of an artist/writer. But, by the way, I cannot find evidence of this moment anywhere. In every mention of her getting her name on the books added, it gets framed as if it was some magical thing that just happened “at some point.” Here’s how she described it, “As Margret told it, “When we first came to America, our publisher suggested we use my husband’s name because the children’s book field was so dominated by women. They thought it would sell better. After a time, I thought, ’Why the devil did I do that?’ so since then my name has appeared also.”” (“Since then” – when is then?!?!)

And, also – it’s not over. Just because they added her name whenever it happened to be, that change was not reflected everywhere. It still isn’t. I did a Google image search of Curious George and only a handful of the book covers I saw had the full “new” credit.

It’s not surprising really because Curious George is likely handed from one generation to the next. We remember the one that was read to us and the stories about it from our youth. There’s a nostalgia there – even for the arrangement of the typeface on the cover. I can picture the font and the placement of H.A. Rey’s name on the bottom of the page.

I’m glad they finally fixed this one but for me it’s too late. Margret Rey got erased and bringing her back takes effort. And I guess I need to be mad about it so I can use it as fuel for my fire to remember the accomplishments of our foremothers. Partly what burns me up about it is the way these erasures lead further generations to think women “didn’t do anything” in history. It makes it seem like we’re always starting from the bottom when it turns out women broke that glass ceiling generations ago – that Margret Rey was a best-selling children’s book author, that Bella Spewack was the author of a wildly successful Broadway show. Dawn Powell was a best selling author whose books went out of print and was forgotten for decades, despite being an absolutely glorious writer and even more successful than her peers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway in her lifetime. (She’s not one of these authors who were hidden by a husband like the other two; I just included her because I love her like crazy and she was a bit lost to time, probably BECAUSE she was the sole credit.)

This story has a happier ending than Bella Spewack’s as far as I’m concerned because Margret did, in the end, fight for credit and did manage to assure that her name was on the covers of future generations copies of Curious George. This hopefully means that kids encountering this classic story now grow up knowing that it was written by a woman and illustrated by a man. There is progress. And fight for your credit, ladies. Always fight for your credit. We need you to.

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