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Published: Friday, 11/4/2005

'Curious George' and the great escape

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU
The book is written in Louise Borden s spare style. The book is written in Louise Borden s spare style.
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Like the famous monkey named George, children's book author Louise Borden was curious.

The year was 1995, and she had just read an article detailing how Curious George creators H.A. and Margret Rey, both German Jews, narrowly escaped the Nazi take-over of Paris by pedaling to southern France on bicycle.

Tucked into the basket of one of their bikes was the manuscript for a children's book called The Adventures of Fifi. Two years later it would be published in America as Curious George and become one of the most popular children's books of all time.

Fascinated by the Reys  escape, author Louise Borden traveled to France several times and spent months deciphering diaries. Fascinated by the Reys escape, author Louise Borden traveled to France several times and spent months deciphering diaries.
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The story of the Reys' escape fascinated Ms. Borden. But she had a million questions: What route did they take as they pedaled southward? How far did they go each day? Where did they stop along the way?

Ms. Borden, 56, spent the next decade researching the answers to those questions, becoming a literary detective as she searched for clues to the Reys' journey to safety. Ms. Borden, who majored in modern European history at Denison University, traveled to France several times and spent months deciphering the handwriting in H.A. Rey's tiny diaries.

The result of her years of work is a spectacular new nonfiction book for children, The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey (Houghton Mifflin, $17, ages 8 up). The book, which is 70 pages, features lively watercolor-and-ink illustrations by Allan Drummond, whose style is reminiscent of Mr. Rey's while remaining uniquely his own.

Published in an unusual, sturdy "paper over board" cover, The Journey That Saved Curious George is written in Ms. Borden's trademark spare style. The text reads like a prose poem and leaves lots of white space on the pages, making the book less daunting for many young readers.

The first part of the book details the growing up years of each of the Reys in Germany, tells how they met and married, and talks of their work together creating children's books.

The book's second section focuses on the Reys' escape. Ms. Borden explains how Mr. Rey fashioned bicycles for the pair from spare parts and then began a journey that would take them to southern France, by train through Spain to Portugal, then by boat to Brazil and finally the United States.

"When I first read about their escape, I immediately envisioned the exodus of refugees from Paris, which I knew about," Ms. Borden said in a telephone interview from her home in Terrace Park, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati.

"I started asking around to people who knew about children's books. I wasn't planning on writing a book about the Reys. I wanted to read a book about them. But there was no book."

So Ms. Borden determined to write one herself. After all, she already was a published author for children, she was interested in doing nonfiction books for children, and she had a college degree in modern European history.

Little did Ms. Borden know what she was getting herself into. "Cracking the code" of Mr. Rey's diaries was particularly difficult, Ms. Borden said, adding that she had to use magnifying glasses at times to read the tiny handwriting. "I knew I could find a lot of information in them. Still, it was a bit daunting. I was writing history, and I'm not a professional historian."

She found snippets of information here, and other snippets there. Ms. Borden took several trips to France to track down more facts about the Reys' life there. And it took her almost a year to locate the 500-year-old French chateau where the Reys actually wrote The Adventures of Fifi - now Curious George - in 1939.

"It's now owned by a British couple - they didn't even know that Curious George was written there," Ms. Borden said.

The Journey That Saved Curious George is just the latest nonfiction book that Ms. Borden has written for children. Her other nonfiction books include Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude, Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman, and Touching the Sky: The Flying Adventures of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Ms. Borden also has written several books that are fictionalized historical accounts, including: The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands, Sleds on Boston Common: A Story from the American Revolution, and The Little Ships: The Heroic Rescue Story from the Netherlands.

And she's written some children's fiction, including books like The Day Eddie Met the Author and Good Luck, Mrs. K!

"I never thought I would write nonfiction," Ms. Borden said. "And each time I write one, I swear I'll never do it again. I go over every detail and every line - I don't have to have anything be inaccurate."

In fact, Ms. Borden never planned on writing books for children. Growing up as the middle of three daughters, she's been an "avid reader and lover of history" for as long as she can remember. She's also an inveterate journal writer, and still has notebooks from her childhood in which she recorded her thoughts and descriptions of people and events in her life.

"I always was fascinated by the ordinary person in history against the canvas of what was going on," Ms. Borden said.

Now that the book is done and is attracting quite a bit of attention, Ms. Borden is enjoying her newfound celebrity, including a recent write-up in The New York Times. She's got two new books due out next year: Across the Blue Pacific, which is based on her uncle whose submarine was lost in World War II, and The Last Day of School.

"I feel very lucky. I go to schools and see the impacts of my books on children. I'm hopefully helping to grow future readers, drawing them into history, showing them tales of courage, friendship, and perseverance - things that I value in life," Ms. Borden said.

Contact Karen MacPherson at:

kmacpherson@nationalpress.com

or 202-662-7075



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