Monday, July 13, 2015

The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey, by Louise Borden (ages 9-14)

I have often wondered how to share the enormity of World War II with my children and students -- how to help them start to understand the enormity of the war, its complexities, and also its impact on individual people. My own family fled from German occupation of Czechoslovakia and Austria, and many who didn't leave were caught and killed.

I feel strongly that children should learn about the upheaval that World War II caused, but how do we do this in a way that they can absorb? As parents and teachers we need to consider children's developmental stages as we introduce the terrifying and tragic aspects of war.

In The Journey that Saved Curious George, Louise Borden shares the true story of how Margret and H.A. Rey escaped Paris two days before the Nazis invaded. It is one of the best introductions I have ever read with children to this tumultuous time period in European history.

The Journey that Saved Curious George
The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey
by Louise Borden
illustrated by Allan Drummond
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005
Google Books preview
Your local library
ages 9-14
Borden writes in her introduction that she had heard for many years about Margret and H.A. Rey's escape from Paris on bicycles in June 1940, just as the Germans were occupying France, but that no one could share many details.
"The story felt incomplete. I wanted to know more. I wanted real images. I was curious, just like the Reys' famous little monkey, George." 
And so Borden embarked on her own journey, a journey of research reading the Reys' papers, notebooks and diaries, speaking to the Reys' friends and colleagues, and traveling to many of the places where the Reys lived between 1936 and 1940.
map showing the Reys' journey in 1940, escaping Paris by bicycle and train
Margret and H.A. Rey were both born in Hamburg, Germany in 1906 and 1898, respectively, to middle class Jewish families. Borden helps young readers understand the context of their lives, by combining clear text, photographs and illustrations. Readers immediately get a sense of Margret and Hans as young people, but also the times and places they lived.

The Reys returned to Europe for their honeymoon in 1936 and ended up living in Paris for four years. During this time, they began writing and publishing children's picture books. As the Nazis began invading European countries, the Reys became concerned. When the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and then northern France, it became clear that the Reys needed to make plans to flee--and quickly.

I especially love how Borden shows actual visas, passports and pages from Hans' diary to help readers see how she found the information to piece together for their story. This helps create a palpable sense of being there alongside the Reys, especially as they frantically tried to prepare for their departure.

Alan Drummond's illustrations also convey the chaos, but the line drawings give more life and energy and the soft colors keep the mood from becoming too somber. The illustration below show how Margret and Hans eventually were able to flee Paris on bicycles--two days before Paris fell to the German invasion.
Through this story, children are able to get an appreciation for both the chaos that war brought to ordinary people throughout Europe, as well as the frightening experience of one couple. As Louise Borden writes,
"Everywhere there was confusion and noise: grinding gears of overheated cars and the frightening drone of German scout planes. Constant and relentless were the honking to speed up the crawling procession of the largest motorized evacuation in history.

More than five million people were on the roads of France that day. Among this sea of humanity were two small figures: Margret and H.A. Rey."
This is an excellent nonfiction for elementary students--especially those who profess disdain for nonfiction. The text is broken up into short lines, creating plenty of white space for the illustrations to tell their part of the story. The descriptions bring you right into the action, and the pacing keeps readers moving until the dramatic climax of the Reys' escape.

For more interesting information, definitely check out this Q&A with Louise Borden, from the publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I purchased these review copies for my personal library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. That looks like a great book. I've struggled as well with finding good children's books that deal with difficult topics such as World War 2. I'm adding this book to my to-read list. Thanks for the review.

  2. Thanks for sharing about this book, Mary Ann. I just finished The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, which is set in German-occupied France during WWII. A section of the book focuses on the exodus from Paris and the heartbreakingly brutal reality of it. Borden's book looks amazing--I will definitely have to check it out! I am so thankful that the Reys escaped to create Curious George!