Sit back. I'm going to tell you one of my favorite children's book publishing stories.
Picture Paris, in June of 1940. All around you is complete chaos as millions of people desperately try to leave the city before the Nazis arrive. Let's focus in on one particular couple amidst the sea of refugees.
It's a husband and wife, both Jewish and both born in Germany. Long before the war started they had moved to Brazil and become Brazilian citizens. They fell in love with Paris on their honeymoon and decided to move there. They were both artists and enjoyed living in the heart of Montmartre. As the German army loomed ever closer, they realized they were no longer safe in Paris. But leaving wasn't easy. They waited in endless lines for updated passports, visas and train tickets.
At last they were ready to go, but they had no way to get to the train station in Orleans in the midst of the rising panic. In desperation for any mode of transportation, the husband went to a bicycle shop where he found that there were no bikes left. But they did have spare parts. He bought these and with no training, he built a bicycle for himself and one for his wife. They put a few of their belongings into baskets attached to their bikes, including the manuscripts and illustrations of several children's books they were working on.
And off they went with all the other people fleeing Hitler's army. They biked through small towns and villages and rode overcrowded trains to reach the south of France. They slept wherever they could including on the floor of a public high school, an empty restaurant, and in a barn with cows.
With their money running low, they finally got permission to cross into Spain. On the train journey, an official checking passports and visas became suspicious of the large amount of paper the couple carried. He demanded to see it and then shoved it back when he found it was just drawings for kids.
They went from Spain into Portugal, and in Lisbon they boarded a boat for Brazil. After a two month wait in Rio de Janeiro, they finally got on a boat bound for America and arrived in New York City in October, 1940. About a year later, one of the manuscripts they had trundled through Europe and South America was published.
I want to tell you another children's publishing story. This one happened just a few years ago. An editor flew to London to pick up a manuscript. She was stopped by airport security on her flight home. Just like the train conductor so many years before, the security officer was suspicious of the enormous amount of paper in the editor's carry-on bag. She looked through it and then eventually allowed the editor to continue on her way.
You may have heard of that book too. It was the unpublished manuscript of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and at that moment in 2007, it was the most valuable pile of paper in the world. The editor's name is Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic.) She told me that she was so nervous that at any moment the security officer was going to look down and see the words Harry, Ron and Hermione. Cheryl had a good story ready, though. If that happened, she was going to claim it was her own (rather extensive) fan fiction.
Cheryl wasn't the only one that happened to. In August 2006, J.K. Rowling was flying back from New York after a charity reading with Stephen King and John Irving. She was stopped by security for the large pile of paper she had with her, which turned out to be the handwritten and unfinished manuscript for Harry Potter Book 7. Fortunately, she was allowed to take it with her.
Moral of these stories: don't travel with large piles of paper.
For more about the Rey's incredible adventure, read The Journey That Saved Curious George.
Through exhaustive research, author Louise Borden was able to bring this classic publishing story to life with the help of the extensive archive of the Rey's papers at the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. The book is fully documented with letters, maps, archival pictures and notes from H.A. Rey's diary.
Sometimes the story behind a book can be as exciting and interesting as the book itself.