The Problem with Curious George

The Problem with Curious George June 29, 2016

The Spanish version of the original “Curious George” found its way to our bookshelf via hand-me-downs and my three-year-old daughter discovered it after diligently searching for a “new, new, new book that I’ve never, ever read.”

It’s not that I didn’t remember Curious George—and have my suspicions about its message—but, I opted to store on our bookshelf since the book is a “classic,” and I had read it as a child.

I opened the book and read the first lines to my daughter: “This is George. He lived in Africa.”

Already, I paused. At the beginning of my teaching career, I had the opportunity to experience professional development with anti-racist educator and author, Enid Lee. One of the many things I learned relates to Enid Lee’s “Rethinking Africa in the Curriculum” which, in its most simple terms, encourages us to “name Africa” in the way I “name race” as a way of “un-invisibilizing” the African continent and demystifying the ignorance of “Africa = jungle.”

And so, I spoke to my daughter about Africa: “Africa is a huge continent with many different countries. Let me show you.” I took out the small world map my mom had given her to show where Argentina and China are located (countries where her grandparents are currently residing) and pointed to Africa. “And the majority of the people who live in Africa have brown skin.”

So far, I could think of “Curious George” as an opportunity to speak about Africa to my daughter, but very quickly, the plot thickened. I continued to read as the Man in the Yellow Hat makes his first appearance on the scene: “What a nice monkey. I would like to take him home with me.”

Again, I paused and looked at my daughter. “Do you think the man should take George home with him?”

“No,” my daughter ascertained the answer I was going for.

“I agree,” I say solemnly. “George looks very happy in Africa. Africa is his home and he has all the space he wants to play, and find food, and be free.”

Though the comparison is obvious to me as an adult, I did not share the history of White men going to Africa and taking as their own what does not belong to them.

Nevertheless, George is shortly “trapped”  and I asked my daughter: “How do you think George is feeling right now?”

“Sad,” she told me. “And scared, too,” I added.

As George is being transported to the Man with the Yellow Hat’s boat, I point out the Whiteness of the Man with the Yellow Hat (in addition to the majority of the sailors and officers that follow in later pages).

Several pages later, George is in the United States getting into trouble with the fire department and lands himself in jail. Once again, I asked my daughter, “How do you think George is feeling now?”

“A little lonely,” she told me. “Very lonely,” I agreed. “Because a jail is a horrible place to be. In Africa, George was free, and now he is trapped in this jail. That is very unfair and very sad.”

By the end of the book, George finds himself happily at his new home in the zoo, surrounded by other animals.

Lingering on the last image, I asked my daughter: “Do you think George is happier in the zoo or in Africa?” I flip back to the first page’s image so she can compare the two pictures.

“In Africa,” she replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I think he looks happier at the zoo than he did in jail, so that’s good. But in Africa he had all the room he needed in the jungle to move around and find his own food and play with friends and his family, and the zoo doesn’t have as much space as in the jungle and it isn’t his home.”

“Maybe we can find another book where George goes back to Africa!” my daughter suggested.

I affirmed and suggested we check it out at the bookstore later that afternoon; however, we sadly learned that George never gets to go back to Africa in the book series. There is a more recent movie that features “Curious George” in Africa.

Unfundamentalist Parenting

Of course, there is much more I could have explained to my daughter about why I don’t like “Curious George.” One additional example: the negative stereotypes attributed to George have a connection with historical stereotypes of people who have brown skin from Africa.

For now, I take some solace in the fact that this “classic” children’s book (that continues to be recreated on the silver screen), will not be consumed by my daughter simply as a fun-loving book about a curious monkey.

In a subsequent reading of “Curious George,” I asked my daughter:

“So, what do you think about the book? Do you like it?”

“Not so much,” she told me matter-of-factly, “because it’s very sad.”

In the following days, my daughter began to act out the book on her own, assigning the part of “George” to her teddy bear, the part of “George’s mommy” to me, and “The Man in the Yellow hat” to herself.

“I am grabbing George and putting him in a bag and bringing him to the zoo!” she exclaimed.

George’s mommy, as you can imagine, was very upset and after a long negotiation on the telephone, the Man in the Yellow Hat allowed George’s mommy to come to the zoo via boat and bring George back to his home in Africa.

It’s nice to know that in the world of imaginary play, “Curious George” can find his way back home.


Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.

*This post was originally published at Raising Race Conscious Children.

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  • Brandon Roberts

    look it’s nice you taught your daughter about africa and stuff. but you dislike curious george cause of the negative stereotypes (which i’ve never seen) and cause of the paralels to slavery (which are only in your mind) seriously this is comedy gold

  • jekylldoc

    In some of the later books it becomes clear that George is a stand-in for children, a bit like Cookie Monster or Elmo. Curious George gets into trouble, like children get into trouble.

    It’s fine to point out the fundamental sadness, especially in the first story, but it does distract from the usual function of the story, which of course only works in the naive mindset that doesn’t bother questioning why monkeys are kept in zoos. How politically aware do we want our children to be?

    Answer: so politically aware that they can deconstruct the sad parts and still get the naive point. Can it be done? Maybe it is okay if they deconstruct Curious George, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Mowgli, when they are a little older.

  • You made me cry.

  • Ben

    Wow.

    This is a children’s book meant to be enjoyed innocently. It’s great to teach your children about race, and raise your children to be race conscious and respectful of others, but you don’t have to take a children’s book out of context to do so.

  • Jack Crevalle

    Its so nice that you took the time with your daughter to equate brown skinned people of African ancestry with monkeys and white skinned people of European ancestry with slavers. I’m curious, do you attempt to ascribe racial or ethnic stereotypes to every character in every children’s book on your shelf or is it just the ones that remind you of black people?

    • jekylldoc

      Jack –

      Sachi Feris explicitly did not share such equations with her daughter. The fact that she understood how “White guy does what he pleases with African monkey” resembles “White people enslave Africans” does not mean she pointed that out.

      Are you, perhaps, protesting too much?

  • lollardheretic

    This is really interesting. I’m going to disagree a bit with the commenters who suggest the book is innocent, that they’ve never seen the problems with the books. Because it is meant for children, and because you’ve never seen the problems does not mean that either of those things are true. Indeed, a white guy trapping a wild animal and bringing it back is problematic, period. You don’t need to read it as a metaphor for race and imperialism to get that far. Animals are not our toys and shouldn’t be treated that way–esp. wild animals. But connecting a book written decades ago to the historical (accepted for a long while) equation of African with monkey isn’t a stretch at all.

    Moral of the story: it’s totally cool for a rich white guy to take a healthy and happy creature from its home and put it in a (very very nice) cage.

    Remember when all the people got mad at that rich, white dentist for killing that lion? Similarities here? Yup.

    Is this book deliberate propaganda for racism? Probably not, no. But it does reflect some really interesting ideas about Western culture and its relationship to other places. If we want to understand how we ended up with such massive racial conflicts as we have in our nation right now, it is a good idea to look at things like children’s literature. What are the unsaid, unchallenged, and unnoticed suppositions behind the stories?

    And for everyone who says “it’s just a kids book! come on!” I say, the books that affected me most, that I remember as being functional in how I defined my relationship to the world, are ones I read when I was a child (under 18). Some were “children’s” books–the Velveteen Rabbit, for example–and some were in high school–Clive Barker’s the Thief of Always made me want to be a writer. I didn’t solely develop my ideas from books, obviously (Star Wars was a factor, too). Kids have a lot of free space in their heads–they haven’t had time to fill their heads up. We should be aware that they’re filing stuff away in the “permanent” files more than we think they are.

    • jekylldoc

      Ever seen Disney’s “Song of the South”?

  • Ann

    For more on these connections, see this article:

    Cummins, June. “The Resisting Monkey: ‘Curious George,’ Slave Captivity Narratives, and the Postcolonial Condition.” A Review of International English Literature 28.1 (1997): 69–83. ARIEL. Web. 12 April 2015.