I was reading “Curious George Goes to the Hospital” to my older daughter last night, doing the thing I normally do when reading interminably long books to her–speaking the words while letting my mind wander off to something more interesting. (Yes, I know that probably loses me Good Daddy Points, but c’mon, man, that book is long.)
But I noticed something during this read-through that I’d never caught onto before. As George and his yellow-chapeaued friend sat in the waiting room of the hospital, a little girl sits crying near George. The girl’s mother points to George and tells her daughter, “Look, dear, it’s Curious George! He’s not crying.” (Or something along those lines. Like I said, I wasn’t paying much attention.)
Setting aside the questionable tactics of using celebrities as role models for children, or the fact that no one in the hospital seemed to find it the least bit strange that a small monkey was there for treatment, I found myself wondering…
…how, exactly, did this woman (or, presumably, her daughter) know who Curious George was?
“Hospital” wasn’t the first in the “Curious George” series, of course; it was, in fact, the seventh, published in 1966, some 25 years after the first book hit the stores. So let us posit for a moment that all of George’s adventures from the previous six books–his kidnapping from Africa and forced relocation to the unidentified Big City, his job as a newspaper delivery monkey and his brief stint in the circus, his ether addiction, all of it–had happened in the same world. Let us say all of the books in the series took place in the same universe, not an unreasonable assumption to make (though we’ll be revisiting this topic later).
Would all of George’s various misadventures have made the news? Might that be how the mother and daughter knew of him? Did he find himself in the newspaper for the “escaping from jail, flying through town holding on to a bunch of balloons and ultimately causing an enormous traffic jam” incident? Perhaps he did–but buried somewhere toward the back of the paper, if at all. It’s far more doubtful that he would have ended up on the television news at that time for something so inane. There were far fewer news outlets back then, and less need to fill air time with inanity–George wouldn’t even have qualified as a human interest fluff piece.
The way I see it, there are two likely answers to this conundrum:
One. It seems quite likely that the mother and daughter both recognized George from the “Curious George” books. This scenario has interesting metatextual implications: does each new story starring George spawn its own new universe, one in which all of his previous adventures exist only as children’s books? The girl’s mother recognized George from the books she read to her daughter at bedtime, never realizing that she herself is only a bit player in one of George’s adventures.
And does that mean that those of us reading the “Curious George” books are ourselves nothing but simplistic cartoons to be found in future volumes? Might I someday see a little monkey driving a carjacked Duck Tour boat raggedly down Tremont Street in Boston, narrowly missing pedestrians and cars alike on his way toward crashing harmlessly into the Frog Pond in the Common? And then might someone ultimately turn my page?
Two. He’s the victim/focus of some spectacular merchandising in his own world. In addition to the books, George’s likeness is featured on other products directed at kids–in one particularly disturbing turn, the jigsaw puzzle from which he swallows the piece that sends him to the hospital shows the scene where he’s first captured by his “friend” in the yellow hat. Can we assume that it’s The Man who’s responsible for selling George to the youth of America (or of whatever country in which the stories take place)? Is he the Colonel Tom Parker to George’s Elvis?
And does George profit from the expolitation of his image? George seems to be a smart little monkey, and always very curious, but would even a smart monkey like George realize he was being swindled by his management? The Man does indeed buy him a new bicycle for a gift at one point (though we won’t count the gift of that fateful jigsaw puzzle–since George’s image is on the puzzle, we can assume The Man likely got it for free). How many millions of dollars must The Man have made off of this poor little monkey, this monkey he stole away from his home and family in Africa? And the best he can do is to give George a fucking bicycle? Shameful.
Whichever option above turns out to be correct (and it can only be one of the above options), I clearly cannot let my children read the “Curious George” books any longer. Doing so would either be contributing to the exploitation of a kidnapped and abused young monkey…or would mean that this entire existence is a lie. Either way, those books are going in the trash tomorrow.