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Anxious, coddled, uncurious George

Did the parenting theories of the '40s and '50s turn the once madcap monkey into a didactic bore?

ISN'T IT JUST LIKE those snooty academics to try to take American cultural figures down a peg, just when their reputations are peaking? The latest to get the revisionist treatment is Curious George-riding high after the solid box office performance of his Universal Studios film ($55 million in six weeks) and poised to star in a new PBS series this fall.

The cartoon monkey, the creation of onetime Cambridge residents H.A. Rey and Margret Rey (and the literary property of Boston-based Houghton Mifflin), is not only popular, with some 33 million books sold, but even fashionable: The trendy L.A. retailer Kitson sells $98 T shirts and $316 cashmere sweaters bearing his smiling monkey mug.

Yet in a recent issue of the Journal of Social History, Daniel Greenstone, an American high school teacher now working at the Taipei American School in Taiwan, undertakes a serious debunking project. He tells a sorry tale of a monkey who burst on the scene with great energy in 1941, but who was soon straitjacketed by the child-raising theories of the 1950s, ending up a meek, easily scared dullard.

In ''Frightened George: How the Pediatric-Educational Complex Ruined the Curious George Series," Greenstone suggests that the Reys lost faith in their original madcap vision and hitched George to psychological theories that viewed children as sensitive flowers and potential neurotics. In all, Greenstone writes, the changes in George across the seven volumes of the original series-the last volume appeared in 1966, though many spinoffs followed-provide ''an unusual and revealing window into the profound changes in child-rearing that swept across middle-class America in the 20th century."

Lest anyone think that Greenstone comes to this research project with an anti-George bias, he explains by e-mail from Taipei that George was his favorite stuffed animal as a kid. But while reading the series to his son (now 4) and daughter (now 2) he was struck by the shift in tone from the first to the last books and nagged by a question: Why did George become such a wuss? ''My essay," he says, ''is an attempt to answer that question."

. . .

For anyone used to today's often-lively but carefully vetted kids' books, the original ''Curious George" can seem a bit shocking. (Coincidentally, this month my wife's parents bought the original ''Curious George" for our 20-month-old son, perused it, got vaguely disturbed, and then returned it to the bookstore.) In Africa, George gets stuffed into a bag by a gun-wielding man in a yellow hat. He's carried across the Atlantic-during which voyage he jumps overboard in an attempt to ''fly"-and, upon his arrival, smokes a pipe. In a subsequent adventure, he gets tossed into a dank jail and, during his escape, traipses across electrical wires.

If anything, George and the reader are coddled less in the second book, ''Curious George Takes a Job." Fleeing angry painters in an apartment building at one juncture, George jumps from a fire escape and breaks his leg. ''He got what he deserved," a woman opines. At the hospital, George stumbles across a bottle of ether and, in an episode played nonjudgmentally, he embarks on a brief psychedelic odyssey.

The third book, ''Curious George Rides a Bike," is much gentler, as if someone had told the Reys their first two books were too scary. And what dangers there are in the next one, ''Curious George Gets a Medal"-chiefly a space flight-are treated as ''suspenseful, not funny," Greenstone writes, and they ''produce anxiety and fear in the story's father figure," something new in the series. But it's with the fifth volume, ''Curious George Flies a Kite" (1958), that the Reys really started listening to the experts, he argues.

The most obvious change was that the Reys-for this one book-limited the vocabulary to 200-odd words, jumping on a ''phonics" trend that Margret Rey later called ''nonsense." But Greenstone sees other trends at work, too, though his evidence is largely circumstantial. He points out that scholars like Peter Stearns, a historian at George Mason University, have demonstrated that the 1940s and '50s were a time of upheaval for theories of child development, with a common thread being newfound belief in the fragility of children's psyches. Even the reasonable Dr. Spock was not immune. ''He said, 'Relax. Only know that if you make a mistake, you may be dooming your child for the rest of his life,"' notes Ann Hulbert, author of ''Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children" (2003).

The idea that children need their worries ''validated" and expressed permeates ''Flies a Kite." As George is borne away by the titular object, the narrator says: ''George was scared. What if he never got back?...Oh, he would never, never be so curious again." Contrast this with what he thinks in the second volume as he rides atop a bus: ''If only he could go riding like this forever."

Even the once-inscrutable yellow-hatted man starts to share. ''I was scared," he tells George, once he's returned safely to earth, ''and you must have been scared, too." Boo hoo hoo.

That kite flight is the last hint of anything ''remotely adventurous" in the series, Greenstone writes. ''Curious George Learns the Alphabet" is a pedestrian ABC lesson, while ''Curious George Goes to the Hospital" was written explicitly to comfort children who needed medical care. (The Reys even consulted with administrators at Boston's Children's Hospital.)

Does art always lose its vitality when it ''subordinates itself to larger social aims," as Greenstone concludes? The movie sanitizes George a bit-he follows the man, he doesn't get kidnapped by him-and George teaches the ''lesson" that uptight people should loosen up. But it's the producers at WGBH who really must confront the didacticism question, as the forthcoming PBS series is supposed to spark kids' interest in engineering, science, and math. Carol Greenwald, the executive producer, assures that the series ''won't lose anything of George's charm." The cartoons will be lighthearted, with a mere glance at scientific issues-and then short segments featuring live actors will drive home the lesson of the day. We'll see.

But even Greenstone admits didacticism has its uses. The flat, incurious George of ''Curious George Goes to the Hospital" ''depresses" him, he says. But when Greenstone's son, Finn, reacted badly to penicillin last year and got rushed to the hospital-he's fine now-guess what book Dad talked about during the ride?

Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail

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