"The Journey That Saved Curious George : The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden (Houghton Mifflin, $17).
It was a truncated tale, repeated in the hallways of publishing houses, printed on book jackets: On a rainy day in June 1940, the creators of "Curious George" fled Paris on bicycles, hours before the Nazis seized control. H.A. Rey and his wife, Margret, carried with them nothing but food, clothes and a pile of papers, including the manuscript of what would turn out to be one wildly successful children's book. The End.
That was it.
"There was never anything about what happened to them during that journey," said Louise Borden, herself the author of 20 books for children. "I wanted to read a book with visual images of how they escaped and where they went, and there was no book."
So Borden wrote one.
In "The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey," the 55-year-old author fleshes out the couple who created the beloved, mischievous monkey.
The 70-page children's book chronicles the Reys' narrow escape from Paris on homemade bicycles, as the German army marched toward the French capital. Fleeing among a "sea of humanity," the German-born Jews "pedaled ... and pedaled ... and pedaled," Borden writes, until arriving in southern France.
Relying on H.A. Rey's diary, ticket stubs, photographs, letters and newspapers, Borden recounts the journey from France to Portugal to Brazil and, finally, to the United States.
Borden calls her book a sort of "travel journal" for its presentation of archival materials, such as diary pages and letters to editors, along with watercolor illustrations.
"As you turn the pages, that's kind of what my desk looked like when I was trying to sort through all this information and find the story," Borden said.
To illustrate, she chose a Brit, Allan Drummond, because the humor in Drummond's drawings and the way he used vibrant reds, yellows, greens and blues seemed to "echo" the drawings of H.A. Rey. She needed a "European sensibility" and "whimsical" style that nevertheless "conveys the seriousness of the times."
In her research, Borden traveled to France, visiting the Paris hotel where the couple lived and the countryside chateau where they stayed for four months at the beginning of World War II.
She began uncovering details in the life story of Hans Augusto Reyersbach (H.A. Rey) and the woman, Margarete Waldstein, who became his wife and collaborator. Reyersbach grew up in Hamburg, Germany. As a boy, he liked to paint, and he loved animals, the zoo and the circus. Like the Man with the Yellow Hat who would lure the monkey from the jungle in "Curious George," Reyersbach smoked a pipe. After serving in the German army in World War I, Reyersbach took his sketchbooks and pipe to Brazil.
Waldstein (Margret Rey), who also grew up in Hamburg, had studied art and photography at the Bauhaus, the German school of design famous for its influence on modern architecture. Looking for adventure, she followed Reyersbach, a family friend, to Brazil.
The two began working together on artistic projects. Reyersbach would come up with the ideas and illustrations, while Waldstein would write. They balanced each other according to Borden's book: "Hans was the gentle one. Margarete, with her red hair and artist's spunk, was never afraid to speak her mind."
In 1935, they got married. It was just the two of them -- and two pet monkeys, which "were always getting into mischief," Borden writes.
Although Waldstein's father and Reyersbach's grandfather were rabbis, the couple lived as secular Jews, according to Lay Lee Ong, executor of the Reys estate.
To make his name easier to pronounce in Portuguese, Reyersbach changed it to "H.A. Rey." Waldstein shortened hers to "Margret Rey."
On their honeymoon, the Reys stopped at a hotel in Paris. What was supposed to be a two-week stay stretched into four years.
By the time the Reys left Paris, they had already published some children's books. But it wasn't until the fall of 1941, after they had reached the United States, that "Curious George" debuted.
Not until 1958 did it sell more than 10,000 copies a year, said Anita Silvey, who used to oversee children's book publishing at Houghton Mifflin Co., which publishes the "Curious George" series.
"It was only when those who had read the book as a child began to share it with their children that the book started to achieve classic status," she said. Now, the series has sold more than 27 million copies and been translated into 16 languages, including Yiddish.
The "Curious George" books have achieved such success because they capture "the curiosity, the spontaneity, and joy of living as young children experience it," Silvey said. "George is the surrogate of every small child -- he gets into trouble, he explores, and then he is always saved in the end."
What readers can now learn is how George was also saved in the beginning.
On Sunday, Sept. 25 at 2 p.m., Louise Borden will speak about her book at the Museum of Tolerance Family Day. No charge. For more information, call (310) 772-2526 or visit www.museumoftolerance.com.