When my son was four, he loved Curious George stories so much that we read them almost nightly. It should be obvious why kids enjoy these stories: George is like a small boy, curious, innocent, naïve and playful. He adores his “daddy,” the man with the yellow hat. He has exciting adventures. Sometimes he has pitfalls, like a broken leg, from which he always comes out on top.
However, there is a darker side to Curious George. In the first story, the man in the yellow hat kidnaps him from Africa to be sold to a zoo. Yet, instead of rebelling or becoming despondent, George’s curiosity and innocence prevail. And he grows to love his kidnapper, the man with the yellow hat.
Glorification of Child Labor
In subsequent stories, a “nice” cook forces George to wash dishes for him. He then donates him to a window washer, who convinces George to clean a skyscraper without pay. A circus man fixes George’s broken bicycle to entice him to become a carny, again without compensation. In another story, a scientist sends George on a rocket ship death mission, because it would be too dangerous or expensive to send a human.
In the real world, of course, animals (and people) are exploited like this. But Curious George is metaphorically a little boy. Most kids would be thrilled to ride in a rocket ship or do tricks at the circus. They wouldn’t think twice about the risks, or lack of compensation, until it got dark and they realized they might never see mommy or daddy again. Soon, the drudgery, pain and anguish of their new life would set in.
There is another sinister aspect to these stories. Like a little boy, George is constantly getting into trouble, usually because he didn’t follow instructions. His adult handlers always forgive him, but not until he risks his life or does something crazy to win back their love. In Curious George Rides a Bike, he must climb a tall tree to rescue a baby bear to win back the circus man’s affection and the right to perform in his show. In Curious George Flies a Kite, he must hold onto Bill’s kite as he is lifted into the sky, in order to win back Bill’s friendship and a pet bunny. He must volunteer to be the first living thing to travel in space in order to win his freedom and the respect of Professor Wiseman In Curious George Gets a Medal.
About the Authors
The title of this post refers to Ariel Dorfmann’s “How To Read Donald Duck.” Dorfmann was born in Argentina to eastern European Jewish parents in 1942. He spent his early childhood in the U.S., then moved to Chile. He lived in Chile until the Pinochet dictatorship, serving as a cultural advisor to Salvador Allende. His most famous play, Death and the Maiden, is about an encounter between a former torture victim with the man she believed tortured her. Roman Polanski made a film of it in 1994, starring Sigourney Weaver.
How to Read Donald Duck is a book-length essay, with illustrations, critiquing Disney from a Marxist perspective. Dorfman cowrote the book with Armand Mattelart, publishing it in 1971. It quickly became a best seller in Latin America. Ironically, Margaret and H.A. Rey, the authors of Curious George, were also European Jews who lived in South America, though they were in Brazil prior to World War II.