Children’s books are meant to be read in short doses: the time required, under drapery of night, to lull a child to sleep. For this reason, it is a bad idea to plow through the collected works of a children’s book author as if they were actually “collected works.” Only in rare cases—the output, say, of Beatrix Potter, beginning with The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)—have the authors of such volumes produced them with a novelist’s eye toward the arc of a career, or with serious thought devoted to the evolution of key characters.
This principle I violated a year ago, when my son, Aaron, then three, discovered a book called Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (1974). Someone gave him a new, reissued edition as a gift and, eager to stimulate Aaron’s interest in reading—even if it meant deepening his preoccupation with trucks, diggers, cranes and asphalt compactors—I acceded to his demands that I read this colorful, densely illustrated and unrelentingly tedious volume to him over and over.
Actually, I read it to Aaron in nightly installments because Things That Go is both long for a children’s book (69 pages) and lacking in plot. It’s more travelogue than storybook, chronicling the daylong road trip of Ma and Pa Pig and their two piglets as they drive through improbably diverse environs, weather patterns and mishaps (pileups, snowstorms, spilt bag o’nails). “Pa is all worn out from changing the tire”, reads a typical passage. “He is taking a nap in the backseat while Ma drives. All right, everyone! Slow down! There is road construction ahead.” Mostly, Things That Go is a vehicle for Scarry, who died in 1994 shortly before his 75th birthday, to show off his draughtsman’s mastery of vehicles, machines and contraptions imbued with anthropomorphized teeth, faces and willfulness.
Scarry had been a fixture of my childhood years—the era of Ali and Frazier, the Watergate hearings and “Band on the Run”—but not, really, of my childhood. His books never clicked with me. Their titles, where the author’s unusual name always appeared first, put me off. Were his books meant to be scary? If so, they failed. Then there was Scarry’s illustration style. His animals were cloyingly cute and vaguely anonymous. His rabbits too closely resembled the Nestlé Quick bunny, which I hated. And he exalted clutter over cleanliness, his teeny-tiny mice in carrot cars drawn solely to fill the remotest corners, and free white space, of every page. It struck me, even then, as messy, undisciplined.
In retrospect, I see Scarry’s style as part of a contemporaneous vogue in commercial illustration, the exemplar of which was Jack Davis, whose work for Time and Mad appealed to Madison Avenue and magazine editors by applying this scattered, things-are-popping-all-over-the-place!! effect to staid subjects like pest control and national politics. I favored Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts”, with its iconic, melancholy characters and austere economy of line; the unparalleled realism of Neal Adams’s run on Green Lantern and Batman; and, later on, David Levine’s literary caricatures, with their precise lateral lines and near photographic results.
I also know now that my reaction to Scarry’s work was atypical. Biographical entries routinely credit him as the author of some 300 books that have sold more than 100 million copies, with translation in more than thirty languages. These achievements rank him, at least quantitatively, ahead of all competitors, including Dr. Seuss and Schulz, in a country where children’s books are taken more seriously, and make more money for authors and publishers alike, than any place else on earth. I wondered how such an unexceptional artist and storyteller proved so wildly successful—including with my own son.
So once Aaron started digging Richard Scarry, I started buying up old Scarry titles, thirty in all, reckoning they would help make of my son a lover of books and perhaps satisfy my curiosity. But the dangers of absorbing so many children’s books by one author in a concentrated period—of violating the principle—were soon manifest. First, as when one devours a humor book in one sitting, it tends to “break the spell”, to lay bare the narrative devices and other sorcerer’s tricks that mesmerize the judicious reader but which, when chugged indiscriminately, transform the novel and the startling into the familiar and the repetitive. Worse still, the adult reader is swiftly embarked on an involuntary tour of the grimy, unsanitary sausage factory that is the business of children’s book publishing, with side excursions into the entwined worlds of contracting, marketing, forgery, political correctness and even censorship.
Richard McClure Scarry was born in June 1919 to a prosperous shop-keeping family in Boston. The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry (1997), the lone biography of the artist, co-authored by Walter Retan, Scarry’s longtime editor, and Ole Risom, stalwart art director for “all” of Scarry’s “eighty major books”, records that Scarry abhorred real work. In World War II, First Lieutenant Scarry killed time in Algiers, happily writing and illustrating manuals, maps and propaganda. Back home, he washed out in art department jobs at Vogue and a Manhattan ad agency.
He found his niche as an illustrator of others’ texts, starting with Little Golden Books’ Two Little Miners (1949) by Margaret Hurd Brown, the author most famous for her classic, Goodnight Moon, published two years earlier. By 1951, Simon & Schuster, parent company of Little Golden, published The Great Big Car and Truck Book, the first volume boasting Scarry’s own text. Two years later, the company released six titles featuring his illustrations, including his first collaboration with wife Patricia (Danny Beaver’s Secret).
Scarry’s artwork then was competent but unremarkable. Rendered in colored charcoals and Winsor & Newton Designers paints, his large-headed bears, bunnies, pigs and owls were dressed respectfully in the hound’s tooth jackets and festive aprons of the Eisenhower era, with results that even Retan and Risom saw as “rather derivative . . . scarcely indicative of the really creative work to follow.” No doubt eyeing the success and acclaim then accruing to Schulz, a two-time winner by 1964 of the coveted Reuben Award for cartooning, Scarry tried his hand at recurring characters: Tinker and Tanker, a rabbit and hippopotamus, respectively. But their progression was almost comically predictable, with Tinker and Tanker swiftly followed by Tinker and Tanker Out West, Tinker and Tanker in Their Space Ship, and so on. Years passed before Scarry created his most resonant characters: Lowly Worm, Huckle Cat, bumbling detectives Sam and Dudley, barking Sergeant Murphy and Mr. Paint Pig. The period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, when Scarry achieved his greatest sales and advances, also marked his artistic peak. In Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World (1965), What Do People Do All Day?, The Great Pie Robbery, and The Supermarket Mystery (all in 1968), Richard Scarry’s Great Big Schoolhouse (1969), Richard Scarry’s ABC Word Book (1971), the aforementioned Things That Go and Richard Scarry’s Great Steamboat Mystery (1975), his pencil line for the animals loosened considerably, even as he matured into an expert drafter of deceptively whimsical tanks, locomotives, snow plows and grain harvesters.
Now these machines, rendered in bright watercolors, sported excited eyes and snarling teeth. And Scarry’s plotlines grew more sophisticated. Some titles remained explicitly didactic, intended solely to acquaint readers with their ABCs and Arabic numerals, but others—particularly the mystery trilogy with Sam and Dudley, a cat and pig, respectively—hinged on the use of complex narrative devices: ruses, disguises, blind alleys. Scarry’s whodunits were soluble only if the reader recalled events and objects fleetingly mentioned many pages prior: trousers torn, an alarm clock set.
Scarry’s magic touch persisted as late as Richard Scarry’s Peasant Pig and the Terrible Dragon (1980), wherein Busytown, the recurring setting for Scarry’s most popular characters, was converted into Busylande, a medieval English village in which royalty and peasantry happily co-exist. (The frontispiece reads, “Ye Olde Book Belongeth To: .”) Across 46 pages, aspiring knight Peasant Pig bravely rescues the king’s daughter, Princess Lily, from a band of kidnappers masquerading as a dragon. Near the dénouement, Lowly Worm, Busylande’s genial jester—anachronistically clad, as always, in feathered trilby, itself a token of Scarry’s relocation of his studio to Gstaad, Switzerland in 1972—hatches a plan that could mean his own death: He will drop, at dragon’s snout, a bag of sneeze-inducing peppers. “Lowly told Sheriff Murphy to shoot him at the dragon with his crossbow”, writes Scarry, adding: “You’re a good arrow, Lowly.”
Beyond his distinctive line work and gentle WASPy humor (“Oh, dear!” goes a typical exclamation)—and the author’s penchant for “in” jokes (a copy of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? can be spotted in Miss Honey’s classroom in Richard Scarry’s Great Big Schoolhouse)—my prolonged visit to Scarrytown also provided a reminder that one can, as all children learn, have too much of a good thing.
For starters, there is the punishing repetition to which the artist—like the legions of hourly-wage workers whose ranks he swore, as a young man, never to join—subjected himself. Dozens of times he belabored the workings of Busytown’s school, hospital, post office, firehouse, airport, vegetable farm and sawmill! Dozens of times he reproduced the alphabet—plain, cursive, capital, lowercase!—for Miss Honey and her motley students! Ditto Doctor Lion, with his bandaged tail, waving a tongue depressor at some apprehensive piglet or kitten, and Joe the Janitor, that inept wolf, endlessly losing his tools and slopping the paint! And how reliably every street-sweeper Scarry ever drew featured a right-end nozzle askew, dousing a hapless victim one lane over!
If it is fatiguing to read the same thing over and over, imagine how mind-numbing it must be to write and draw the same thing over and over. Why did Scarry torture himself this way? Yes, it is axiomatic that children require repetition to learn, but no such mandate binds children’s book authors, especially one taking in advances upwards of $100,000. Perhaps, for Scarry, repetition was the easy way out, a lucrative form of sleepwalking—the children’s book equivalent of Elvis in Hollywood.
Roaming Scarry’s busy, busy world also afforded a glimpse of its dark side. In this unattractive place—visited, at times, by all parents—the beloved children’s book author was not endlessly delighted by the cherubs and their antics, but was often exasperated and maddened by them, enraged, ready, with a primal scream and sudden lunge, to throttle the little bastards…
The mask of Endless Beneficence comes down in Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You Book (1973). In the penultimate chapter, a taxonomy of annoying children entitled “Lowly Worm’s Horrid Pests”, Scarry begins with the objectively damnable: the “Selfish Pest” who won’t share; the “Litterbug Pest”; the “Bully Pest”; and so on. As his catalogue of Pests expands, Scarry’s tone becomes unusually reproachful. He even talks of how Lowly, probably the most irrepressibly cheerful character in all of Scarrytown, “hates” these children:
Don’t start to talk when others are already talking. You will be an Interrupting Pest….And don’t be a Cry Baby Pest when you lose at games or don’t get what you want….Whining Pests are very annoying, too. Don’t whine and carry on if something doesn’t work the first time you try it.
“Well, that’s enough pests”, Scarry states abruptly, as if jolted from his malevolent reverie. “Let’s look at some Good Friends and Neighbors for a change.” But even here, where playmates always cover their noses when sneezing and visitors always politely thank their hosts, Scarry’s repressed contempt for children, the alligator cruising the lagoon, resurfaces. At the end of this otherwise placid story, he inserts the jarringly stern admonition: “Go to bed as soon as your parents tell you it is time. No one should have to be told a dozen times.” Then come the book’s last words, a coda that conveys the author’s secret view of children as innately irritating, and the chief cause of his professional torment: the unquenchable consumers who kept him chained to his studio in Gstaad, drawing the same things year in and year out. “Just a minute!” says a little green bug—children as pests!—as he strolls off the final page, escaping the reach of parents and readers alike. “I have to get a glass of water!”
The mistake I made in reading too many Richard Scarry books was compounded when I started reading about Richard Scarry. It brought back Dr. Zaius’s admonition to Charlton Heston, in Planet of the Apes (1968), when the latter unwisely sets out for the Forbidden Zone. “You may not like what you find”, Zaius correctly prophesies, shortly before Heston stumbles across the half-buried Statue of Liberty.
Case in point: Retan and Risom, Scarry’s worshipful biographers, credit their hero with eighty “major” works (“Inexplicably”, they note dourly, he “never won a major children’s book award”), but they list only 63 titles in their fastidious appendix of selected works by Scarry. What gives?
The answer lay in copyrights, revised titles and other publishing sleights-of-hand, which showed how wantonly Scarry’s work was sliced, diced and repurposed over the years to fatten his publishers’ coffers. In 1968, when the author left Golden Press for Random House, the former began aggressively repackaging, reissuing and otherwise cannibalizing its share of the Scarry canon. The first manifestation of this cloning, cleaving and cluttering process, ultimately to result in 300 titles—the making of a bibliography busy, busy, indeed—was a compilation of previously published tales called Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever (1968). Random House swiftly followed suit. Readers grew confused. Scarry deposited the checks.
But I was late to the dance. How excited I was, at first, to score a beaten copy of Richard Scarry’s Hop Aboard! Here We Go! (1972).Another Scarry title from the era of his great run, I thought. But something was wrong: This didn’t read or look like Scarry. The title consisted, uniquely, of two sentences. The text departed from Scarry’s typical literary style, under which even the most didactic works always clung to the fiction that they were also advancing some rudimentary plot. Indeed, Hop Aboard! features no narrative at all. Instead, each racecar, locomotive, biplane and Apollo-era spaceship flies solo, carrying Roger and his dog Flip above an equally isolated one- or two-sentence caption. Humans appear, too—even though Scarry’s books by 1972 were strictly populated with anthropomorphized animals. To cap it off, the artwork looks weird. Unlike the animated faces that brighten all other Scarry characters, Roger and the other humans in Hop Aboard! possess only two dots for eyes, and, for the middle features on their beige faces, a slapdash horizontal stroke of red.
In fact, Hop Aboard! was a compilation of four novelty books Scarry had produced in 1967. This I learned only by reading Retan and Risom, those devoted Boswells who, no less confused than me, mistakenly placed Hop Aboard!’s date of publication as 1974. Revised editions! Abridged editions! New titles! Anything goes, in Scarrytown! The publishers’ butchery even applied the “resized and reformatted” treatment to such acknowledged classics as What Do People Do All Day?
It gets worse. After reading later entries in the canon, like Richard Scarry’s Busiest Fire Fighters Ever! (1993), Busytown Boat Race (1997) and Sergeant Murphy’s Busy Day (1998), I wondered if I had observed a marked decline in Scarry’s artistic skills during his final years—carried over into the realm of posthumous publishing—similar to the trembling hand, and ensuing shaky line, that had plagued Schulz, and “Peanuts”, in those same years. The freewheeling penciling that had defined Scarry’s great run from 1965 to 1975, his extravagant expressions, cluttered crosshatching and mechanical detail, were supplanted by line work and coloring that was far simpler and cleaner, almost one-dimensional, more obedient to the imperatives of animation than to the old “busy, busy” style.
It turns out Scarry’s artist son Richard, Jr. (also known as “Huck”, like Scarry’s famous cat), had decided, as Retan and Risom gingerly put it, “to carry on the Scarry creative tradition.” The son took over the franchise—but never told the readers. Thus many of the later books, bearing titles like Richard Scarry’s This! or That!, are not the work of Richard Scarry at all, but rather of Richard, Jr., working without attribution and without, it must be said, one-tenth the natural talent of his Dad. No one familiar with the Huckle of Richard Scarry’s ABC Word Book (1971) would even include him in a police lineup for the Huckle on display in Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy Town (1994) or X-Rays and Other Fun Things (1998). This latter book is a flimsy, square-shaped paperback, 23 pages long, its cover festooned with no fewer than three promotional tag lines: “Lowly Worm’s How, Where, & Why Books”, “The Busy World of Richard Scarry™”, and “As seen on NICK JR™ and Showtime®.”
Doubtless Huck sees himself as honoring, enhancing and extending the Scarry legacy, or “brand.” But in most other contexts, particularly in the art world, this kind of impostorship would carry a simple label: forgery. In this case, the crime’s irony resides in its setting: a precinct where every dweller and visitor, every child except Scarry’s, knows right from wrong, and the appropriate boundaries when they decide to pretend.
Authors and publishers are not the only busy busybodies. Online sleuthing turned up complaints, in the full-throated cry of political correctness, against Scarry’s earlier illustrations—and craven responses by Scarry and his publishers. Just click on the Scarry page maintained at www.rotten.com, a site that boasts of marshaling “images and information from many sources to present the viewer with a truly unpleasant experience.” Lavishly illustrated with (stolen?) selections from the Retan and Risom book, rotten.com reports that Scarry first started receiving “hate mail” after joining Random House. Feminists complained that his depictions of “women”—a bunny in an apron, say, or a hippo in pearls—were too often limited to housewives, teachers or dowdy society matrons. “Random House urged [Scarry] to change with the times”, the site says, “and he wasn’t too difficult to persuade once he learned sales were being affected.” Racial issues then surfaced, the site continues,
when Random House re-released Busy, Busy World. This picture book had been a pinnacle of achievement for Scarry. . . . But changing times and buckets of hate mail at Random House suggested that characters like Manuel of Mexico (with a pot of refried beans stuck on his head), Ah-Choo the near-sighted panda bear from Hong Kong, and Angus the Scottish bagpiper were no longer acceptable role models for children. Random House quietly subtracted some of Scarry’s best stories from future distribution, including the much-loved vignette of Patrick Pig, who shouts “UP THE IRISH” after kissing the Blarney stone.
A middle-aged Scarry fan from Seattle named Alan Taylor then took things a step farther. Posting on Flickr, Taylor uploaded pages from the 1963 and 1991 editions of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever and juxtaposed them to illustrate the sometimes inane changes wrought to Scarry’s original drawings and text. One juxtaposition shows identical images of a bear cub, walking in a tie and slacks, with the 1963 caption reading “He comes promptly when he is called to breakfast” and the 1991 version, kinder and gentler, stating: “He goes to the kitchen to eat his breakfast.” The cat rescued by firefighters from a burning building is identified as a “beautiful screaming lady” in 1963, more blandly as “cat in danger” in 1991.
It is painful to imagine Scarry, the stubborn New Englander who pursued art because he was unwilling to work for anyone else, kowtowing to such demands. The source for the claim that Scarry “wasn’t too difficult to persuade once he learned sales were being affected” goes unmentioned, but the story rings true. Gstaad is an expensive place to live. Remember: We’re talking not about some high-minded dean of Hellenic Studies, unyielding on doctrinal principles of interpretation, but about the author of Richard Scarry’s Best Trace’n’Rub Book Ever (1989). Commerce comes first, and the (Random) House always wins.
The larger question, perhaps, is why Scarry was singled out. Was it his success? It couldn’t have been the severity of his sins. After all, take a look at the work of Maurice Sendak, the living legend who gave the world Where the Wild Things Are (1963), a winner of the prestigious Caldecott Medal. One of his books was censored by various U.S. state authorities because he depicted a little boy in full frontal nudity, but no one has protested the literally monstrous caricatures of Brooklyn Jews on whom Sendak, conjuring relatives he liked and disliked, modeled the wild things that roar their terrible roars and “gnash their terrible teeth.” Nor has anyone forced Sendak to revise his 1962 depiction of alligators, outfitted with headdresses and peace pipe, as “Indians.”
Perhaps the 82-year-old Sendak is next on the PC activists’ list. In which case, tremble for Judith Byron Schachner, author of Skippyjon Jones (2003), a flighty and charming New York Times bestseller about a Siamese cat who daydreams he is a Mexican Chihuahua. Donning a Zorro mask, Skippyjon teams up with real Chihuahuas Don Diego and Poquito Tito to slay an evil bumblebee, stealer of everyone’s frijoles, named Alfredo Buzzito, a.k.a., El Blimpo Bumblebeeto Bandito. If the forces of political correctness overlook that, perhaps Sam and Dudley should investigate what’s happened to them!
For all the disheartening hucksterism and greed of the American children’s book publishing business, I can’t say I fully regret miring myself in it. I am enriched by my fuller appreciation of an artist whose books have captivated young readers across the world, but which had largely passed me by. To be sure, Scarry’s popularity remains puzzling (the reasons for which are unlikely to be found in Richard Scarry’s Best Puzzle Word Book Ever ). Was the phenomenal success of this mediocre storyteller and creator of unmemorable rabbits a reflection of some broader, deeper mediocrity in the parents who bought the books? Are their kids—our kids—accordingly doomed to a like fate?
Luckily, on one important level, none of this matters. Scarry’s soul-killing repetition and repressed contempt for children, the ceaseless repackaging and sanitizing of his words and pictures, and the ongoing misrepresentation of his son’s work as Scarry’s own, never registered on Aaron. His (Lowly) worm’s-eye view and blissful ignorance of the sordid business decisions at play allow my son to enjoy Busytown as a new and repeat visitor, the kind that shouts out at story’s end: “Read it again, Dad!”