The problem with “Curious George”
The Spanish version of the original “Curious George” found its way to our bookshelf via hand-me-downs and my three-year-old daughter discovered it after diligently searching for a “new, new, new book that I’ve never, ever read.”
It’s not that I didn’t remember Curious George—and have my suspicions about its message—but, I opted to store on our bookshelf since the book is a “classic,” and I had read it as a child.
I opened the book and read the first lines to my daughter: “This is George. He lived in Africa.”
Already, I paused. At the beginning of my teaching career, I had the opportunity to experience professional development with anti-racist educator and author, Enid Lee. One of the many things I learned relates to Enid Lee’s “Rethinking Africa in the Curriculum” which, in its most simple terms, encourages us to “name Africa” in the way I “name race” as a way of “un-invisibilizing” the African continent and demystifying the ignorance of “Africa = jungle.”
And so, I spoke to my daughter about Africa: “Africa is a huge continent with many different countries. Let me show you.” I took out the small world map my mom had given her to show where Argentina and China are located (countries where her grandparents are currently residing) and pointed to Africa. “And the majority of the people who live in Africa have brown skin.”
So far, I could think of “Curious George” as an opportunity to speak about Africa to my daughter, but very quickly, the plot thickened. I continued to read as the Man in the Yellow Hat makes his first appearance on the scene: “What a nice monkey. I would like to take him home with me.”
Again, I paused and looked at my daughter. “Do you think the man should take George home with him?”
“No,” my daughter ascertained the answer I was going for.
“I agree,” I say solemnly. “George looks very happy in Africa. Africa is his home and he has all the space he wants to play, and find food, and be free.”
Though the comparison is obvious to me as an adult, I did not share the history of White men going to Africa and taking as their own what does not belong to them.
“Sad,” she told me. “And scared, too,” I added.
As George is being transported to the Man with the Yellow Hat’s boat, I point out the Whiteness of the Man with the Yellow Hat (in addition to the majority of the sailors and officers that follow in later pages).
“A little lonely,” she told me. “Very lonely,” I agreed. “Because a jail is a horrible place to be. In Africa, George was free, and now he is trapped in this jail. That is very unfair and very sad.”
By the end of the book, George finds himself happily at his new home in the zoo, surrounded by other animals.
Lingering on the last image, I asked my daughter: “Do you think George is happier in the zoo or in Africa?” I flip back to the first page’s image so she can compare the two pictures.
“In Africa,” she replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I think he looks happier at the zoo than he did in jail, so that’s good. But in Africa he had all the room he needed in the jungle to move around and find his own food and play with friends and his family, and the zoo doesn’t have as much space as in the jungle and it isn’t his home.”
“Maybe we can find another book where George goes back to Africa!” my daughter suggested.
I affirmed and suggested we check it out at the bookstore later that afternoon; however, we sadly learned that George never gets to go back to Africa in the book series. There is a more recent movie that features “Curious George” in Africa.
Of course, there is much more I could have explained to my daughter about why I don’t like “Curious George.” One additional example: the negative stereotypes attributed to George have a connection with historical stereotypes of people who have brown skin from Africa.
For now, I take some solace in the fact that this “classic” children’s book (that continues to be recreated on the silver screen), will not be consumed by my daughter simply as a fun-loving book about a curious monkey.
In a subsequent reading of “Curious George,” I asked my daughter:
“So, what do you think about the book? Do you like it?”
“Not so much,” she told me matter-of-factly, “because it’s very sad.”
In the following days, my daughter began to act out the book on her own, assigning the part of “George” to her teddy bear, the part of “George’s mommy” to me, and “The Man in the Yellow hat” to herself.
“I am grabbing George and putting him in a bag and bringing him to the zoo!” she exclaimed.
George’s mommy, as you can imagine, was very upset and after a long negotiation on the telephone, the Man in the Yellow Hat allowed George’s mommy to come to the zoo via boat and bring George back to his home in Africa.
It’s nice to know that in the world of imaginary play, “Curious George” can find his way back home.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.