Curious George Celebrates 75 Years

The year 2016 will be known for the Rio Olympics and the Presidential election, but it will also be known as the year our favorite monkey, Curious George, turned 75. Curious George is one of the most beloved characters from children’s literature and has been loved by many for generations. The University of Southern Mississippi’s de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection holds the literary estate of H.A. and Margret Rey, curators of Curious George, and hosted events this fall to celebrate his milestone birthday.

Curious George and the papers of H.A. and Margret Rey came to Southern Miss through Dr. Lena de Grummond’s steadfast work of collecting original materials from authors and illustrators to use as resources for students. She achieved her goal by sending handwritten letters to authors and illustrators, including H.A. and Margret Rey. The image of Curious George headed to Hattiesburg with his manuscript was hand drawn on a letter from H.A and Margret Rey to Dr. de Grummond. Correspondence from authors and illustrators often included hand drawn images, which made the letters even more personal.

The Reys created Curious George—then called Fifi—possibly while staying at Chateau Feuga in the Dordogne region of France in early 1940. He was based on a character from their Rafi et les 9 Singes (1939). When the German army approached Paris in June of 1940, the Reys fled on bicycles to Orleans where they boarded a train for the Spanish border. They moved on to New York City via Spain, Portugal and Brazil between June and October. Settled in New York City, the Reys sealed a contract with Houghton Mifflin of Boston for four children's books in February 1941. They published Curious George later that year, although it would not become popular for another decade.

To celebrate George’s 75th birthday, University Libraries at Southern Miss and the de Grummond Collection implemented a challenge that was titled Go George Go, to walk 75 miles in eight weeks to bring recognition to Curious George and the de Grummond Collection while encouraging health and fitness. "Since Curious George has managed to travel around the world, making friends everywhere he goes, we decided to celebrate his 75 years by encouraging walking and health,” says Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.

University Libraries reached out to the local community in Hattiesburg, the Southern Miss campus and all fans of Curious George around the country to encourage participation. Over 150 individuals, from as far away as Texas, Nevada and Cuba, signed up for Go George Go and began their own journey to walk or run. Using a tracking site, Challenge Runner, participants were able to log their mileage each day either manually or by syncing their fitness devices, such as FitBit or Garmin. Participants were able to view an anonymous leaderboard to see how their progress stacked up with the competition. Each week during the challenge an email was sent with updates and health and fitness tips to keep the walkers motivated. At the end of the challenge, participants received a Go George Go challenge shirt as a reward for their success.

Over the course of the eight weeks, challenge participants logged over 19,000 miles. Awards were given to the person with the most miles, the most “experienced” participant (oldest) and the participant from the farthest away. The overall winner, Katie Kitchens, walked 489.91 miles during the eight weeks. To get her miles, Kitchens says she walked before work, took extra steps during the work day and then went for another walk after work. Her goal wasn’t to win but to increase her physical activity for overall good health. Virginia Butler, a proud 77 year-old, was the most “experienced” participant, with 112 miles, and Marilyn Bennett, all the way from Reno, NV, completed 188 miles.  

The challenge, which began on September 15, concluded on November 12 at the Hattiesburg Zoo with a community birthday party for Curious George. The party, sponsored by the Hattiesburg Zoo, kicked off at 10 a.m. when the zoo opened, and Curious George himself, along with the Man in the Yellow Hat, greeted an estimated crowd of over 800. Families and fans of all ages were treated to an animal show featuring a hedgehog, a snake and a rabbit, all friends Curious George encountered during his journeys around the world. Following the animal show, a Hattiesburg fireman read Curious George, the original book written in 1941. The party concluded with birthday cake and Curious George blowing out his birthday candles while his friends sang Happy Birthday. All children were treated to a free train ride, courtesy of the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival, and were able to take photos with George and the Man in the Yellow Hat.

“We couldn’t be happier with the success of the events surrounding Curious George’s 75th birthday. The enthusiasm of the challenge participants was more than we could have imagined, and the birthday party was a huge hit. Curious George has not only been around for 75 years, but he has been loved for 75 years so it is no surprise we had the participation that we had,” said Dawn Smith, University Libraries Assistant to the Dean for Publicity and Outreach. “Curious George will continue to be beloved for a long time, and we hope that one day, his 100th birthday will be an even bigger celebration!”