Curious George goes to the mosque
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Curious George goes to the mosque

Originally created by Jewish WWII refugees, a new adventure sees beloved children’s book character celebrate Muslim holiday of Ramadan with the Man in the Yellow Fez

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

A scene from the original 'Curious George' book by H.A. Rey. (YouTube)
A scene from the original 'Curious George' book by H.A. Rey. (YouTube)

For the past 75 years, the children’s book character Curious George has had adventures taking a job, riding a bicycle, flying a kite and going to the hospital. Now the famous little brown monkey is going to help a friend celebrate Ramadan.

In May, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will release “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” by Pakistani-American writer Hena Khan, who has authored two other picture books introducing Muslims and Islam to American children.

In the book, neither Curious George, nor his captor-turned-friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat, personally observe Ramadan by fasting or praying in a mosque. They do, however, help their Muslim friend Kareem and his family as they prepare for the holiday.

The book depicts how the friends partake in the evening meal in which Kareem and his family break their fast. And for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan, Curious George is given a new vest, and the Man with the Yellow hat swaps out his tall, brimmed hat for a yellow fez.

Detail from cover of 'It's Ramadan, Curious George' by Hena Khan. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Detail from cover of ‘It’s Ramadan, Curious George’ by Hena Khan. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Khan told the New York Daily News that she was excited about the opportunity to give Muslim children a chance to personally identify with a beloved literary character.

She was also pleased that the lovable simian character would help teach American children about Muslim culture.

“The idea of working with a character that is so well known and beloved was a little intimidating at first, but those feelings quickly gave way to the thrill of of introducing George to new concepts and traditions that I hold dear, and to know that he would in turn bring them to other children and their parents,” the author said.

In “It’s Ramadan, Curious George,” Khan deliberately portrayed Islam in a diverse and inclusive way. Some of the women are shown covering their hair, while others do not. When Curious George helps Kareem break his fast, the two friends indulge not only in traditional Middle Eastern dishes like kabobs, but also in pizza and chocolate-covered bananas.

‘I wanted to reinforce the message that American Muslims are just as American as anyone else’

“I wanted to reinforce the message that American Muslims are just as American as anyone else. Some of us are descended from immigrants and have other cultures and other foods that we embrace. We still love pizza and burgers as much as the next person,” Khan explained.

Of course, George the monkey stays true to character and gets into all kinds of trouble. For instance, he steals all the shoes that worshippers have left at the entrance to the mosque before heading inside to pray. Thinking that people have discarded the shoes, George gives them all away to charity. The imam makes George return the shoes, but praises him for giving him the idea of adding a charity drive to Ramadan observances the next year.

The new “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” joins a large collection of Curious George books dating back 75 years ago to the publication of “Curious George” in 1941. That seminal book was followed by six other titles in an original series of Curious George adventures created by Margret and H. A. Rey. Tens of other Curious George books, workbooks, toys, films and educational television shows have since followed.

Cover of 'The Journey That Saved Curious George' by Louise Borden. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Cover of ‘The Journey That Saved Curious George’ by Louise Borden. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Interest in the history behind the books and their creators’ biographies increased in recent years with the publication of “The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey” by Louise Borden. The book told how illustrator H.A. Rey and his author and artist wife Margret (both born to Jewish families in Hamburg, Germany) met in Brazil, married and ended up in Paris in the years leading up to World War II.

In 1939, the couple published “Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys,” in which a monkey named Fifi appeared. Fifi was to later become Curious George.

However, when the German invaded France in 1940, the Reys fled Paris. In mid-June of that year, they cobbled together bicycles from spare parts and rode them for four days until they reached the French-Spanish border. From there, they continued by train to Portugal, where they set sail for Brazil. After several close calls, they eventually made their way to safety in New York in the fall of 1940.

In a year when anti-Muslim rhetoric has been part of election campaigns, Khan said she is prepared for negative feedback

The Reys managed to smuggle out of Europe the manuscript they were working on, which was published as “Curious George” by Houghton Mifflin in 1941. The couple went on to jointly illustrate and author some 30 books, most of them for children.

In 2010, The Jewish Museum in New York staged an exhibition about the Reys’ escape that featured nearly 80 of their original Curious George drawings.

In a year when anti-Muslim rhetoric has been part of election campaigns, Khan said she is prepared for negative feedback about “It’s Ramadan, Curious George.” At the same time, she said she couldn’t imagine a more teachable moment for the book to come out.

“I think it’s important as a Muslim writer now to share our cultural traditions and show that the things we care about as humans — family, community and living a good life — are the same across the board,” she said.

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