Back in the mid-1990s, I worked at a Zany Brainy toy store in suburban Philadelphia for about two years. You may not know the name Zany Brainy; it was never a national chain, and these days, it’s actually a former chain, having gone out of business a year or two ago.
At any rate, for most of its corporate life, ZB featured educational books and toys. There were times, though, when the books and toys were a bit too educational.
Once we received a half-dozen copies of a Georges Simenon novel to put on our remaindered book table. I don’t remember the title of the book now, but I can tell you that it was an Inspector Maigret novel and that it opened with a prostitute, who was also a drug addict, trying to remember what she did the night before and who she did it with. I’m pleased to report that this item didn’t make it out to the sales floor.
On the other hand...
At the end of a shift one day, while I was putting card-backed items back on hooks, I was stopped cold by a set of small magnets bearing drawings of Curious George, the star of the classic picture book series. What stopped me was a picture of George himself, hugging a bottle clearly labeled ETHER, trying to get the biggest toke that his little monkey lungs would allow.
I took the magnets to my manager and asked her if we needed to do anything about them. She said no, although I wasn’t convinced at first. Having worked as a reporter on and off since age 16, I think I have an idea of how little it takes to get people agitated. In this case, though, the manager was right. If we ever received any complaints about promoting the use of drugs, I never heard any.
I guess you could say that I was agitated by the drawing, but not because I wanted it off the shelves. I wanted to know where it came from. It was drawn in the same general style associated with the series, but I thought that would be relatively simple to imitate. I vaguely remembered Curious George shorts running on Captain Kangaroo when I was growing up, but I really didn’t know much about the character in general. Could the drawing actually have come from one of the books? There was only one way to find out.
I went to the books.
Or tried to, anyway. I quickly discovered that there were a lot of Curious George books, and they fell into different categories. George was created by the husband and wife team of Hans and Margret Rey. The website for Houghton Mifflin, the publishers of the Curious George books, says that Hans was primarily responsible for the art and Margret was primarily responsible for the text. The Reys produced just seven books, some credited just to H.A. Rey, some to H. A. and Margaret. But there were other books, adapted from the animated shorts. And still others, attributed to various writers and artists (although the artist’s credit is often followed by “in the style of H.A. Rey.”)
I decided that one of the original books, Curious George Goes To the Hospital, would be a reasonable place to start. But it turned out to be a dry well. George goes to the hospital after he swallows a piece of a jigsaw puzzle belonging to The Man With the Yellow Hat, his companion/owner. George takes a pill that makes him “sleepy” and the piece is recovered. End of story. Published in the mid-1960s, the book was apparently written to help children calm their fears about going to the hospital.
The story about George’s problem with ether turned out to be in a book written by the Reys years earlier: Curious George Takes a Job. This story starts with George living in a zoo but since he is “always very curious. He wanted to find out what was going on outside the Zoo.” So it isn’t long before George is out of his cage, raising havoc.
While avoiding some irate workmen, George breaks his leg. That’s what puts him in the hospital, and leads to his encounter with ether. The Reys regularly point out that George is a “good little monkey,” but they also point out that “little monkeys sometimes forget.” In this case, what George seems to have forgotten is to Just Say No.
Here’s how the incident is described:“Suddenly his head began to swim.
Then he felt as if he were flying.
Then rings and stars danced before his eyes.
Then everything went dark...he was so fast asleep that finally
they had to put him UNDER THE SHOWER!
How surprised he was when he woke up!”
Interestingly, H.A. Rey breaks this sequence into comic-book style panels, and most of the text above is presented as handwritten captions. The overall effect is...well, it’s pretty trippy.
The scene didn’t answer all my questions. How common, for example, is substance abuse among children’s books characters? What does Christopher Robin do up in his room, with his plush animals? What is fairy dust, anyway?
And I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. Several months later, while shopping at Suncoast video store, I found a Curious George T-shirt on display. George was lying in the foreground, a blissed-out grin on his face, while in the background was...you guessed it...that ether bottle.
I may have made a noise. I know I slapped one hand over my mouth. I felt like I had just discovered that I wasn’t wearing any pants.
In order to put this article together, I reread Curious George Takes a Job. On one page, George and the bottle are set in approximately in the pose I just described, as part of a larger picture. It probably would be fairly easy for an artist to adapt the shot, but exactly who adapted it, and how common this T-shirt is...well, they’ve been added to my list of questions.
An animated feature starring Curious George-- old-school, pen-and-ink animation, as I understand it--is scheduled to come out in February, 2006. Will Farrell will be providing the voice for The Man In the Yellow Hat. No word yet on the ether bottle.
The Complete Adventures of Curious George