When Rae Lynn Schwartz-DuPre, Western Professor of Communication Studies and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, pulled out the first Curious George book to read to her children, she found herself awestruck.
“When I first read that book to my two young children, it became evident that this was a problematic text,” she says, noting the way that The Man in the Yellow Hat tricks George and traps him in Africa before bringing him home to New York, where he often leaves George alone to fend for himself. “I assumed there would be lots of scathing criticism about Curious George and went looking and only found one article.”
That bedtime story and the research that followed led to her newest book “Curious about George: Curious George, Cultural Icons, Colonialism, & US Exceptionalism.”
“The question I came to the project with was, in an age when we are banning or criticizing books, at a heightened age of racial awareness, why is this book still on the shelves?” says Schwartz-DuPre, who writes about post-colonial theory from both a rhetorical and feminist perspective. Her past projects have included works about the Afghan girl featured on the cover of National Geographic and the adoption of Palestinian scarves into popular fashion.
When approaching her research on Curious George, she looked at examples of how George is marked in popular culture: as a STEM ambassador, introducing children to science and tech concepts in programming on PBS and streaming apps; holocaust remembrance (authors H.A. and Margret Rey fled Paris in 1940 and came to America as Jewish refugees) and nostalgia for the original stories.
“My mother was the first to remind me to be careful,” says Schwartz-DuPre, who is Jewish and aware of the incredible importance of telling the stories of holocaust survivors. “I think I did the most due diligence to the holocaust chapter to really make it clear that while I respect Margret and H.A. and denounce Nazism, the stories we tell our children have a responsibility to bear witness and this does not do that.”
Similarly, she believes that the books’ treatment of George doesn’t hold up well under scrutiny.
“Just because you’ve been a victim of violence, it doesn’t justify your writing about another victim of violence as if it’s a whimsical adventure,” she says of George, whose kidnapping from Africa she sees as analogous to slavery.
In her research for the book, Schwartz-DuPre went to the Curious George archives at the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection in Mississippi, digging through texts and fan mail the authors received over the years. See found that what children remember about the story was how disobedient George was — mischievous and funny as well, but also disobedient — but no culpability for The Man in the Yellow Hat, who leaves George on his own in every book.
“The man in the yellow hat always gets a free pass.”
Despite the critical eye with which she examines the book, Schwartz-DuPre doesn’t think it needs to disappear from shelves.
“Let me be clear: I’m not advocating for a ban. I think this is a great opportunity for younger children to learn critical reading tactics,” she says, suggesting that parents ask age-appropriate questions about George’s desire to help animals and why The Man in the Yellow Hat continuously leaves. “I’d like to see children learn critical reading practice. I’d like see parents not haphazardly go to the bookshelf and pick their childhood favorites. Take time to read them first.”
Learn more about Rae Lynn Schwartz DuPre’s latest book and see her Ted Talk on the subject at her website.