recess radio program

06/08/05
Busy, Busy Richard Scarry
    by John Cech

One of the most prolific of all creators of children's books isn't, as one might guess, J.K. Rowling or Dr. Seuss -- but the late American writer/illustrator Richard Scarry. He has published over 300 books, many of which have sold and have kept selling million copies over the past fifty years. If you've had young children in your home in the last half century, you've probably read and reread to pieces one of Scarry's over-sized picture books like Busy, Busy World, The Best Word Book Ever, or Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. Each of the books comes with an extensive cast of animal characters -- cats and dogs, pigs and rabbits, hippos and gorillas, giraffes, and a recurrent, one-footed character named Lowly Worm. The small water colored pictures of these anthropomorphic creatures fill the large pages of Scarry's books with their quotidian adventures and often over-lapping and inter-woven plot lines -- going to school, the store, the beach, the bank; traveling around town, the country, the world. They make their way in almost every kind of vehicle you can imagine (including a pickle-mobile); they build houses and cities; they have accidents and go to the hospital. Every now and again, a house will even catch fire -- but there are always friendly, efficient rescuers to sort things out. Every one survives -- and thrives. Life goes on and on, despite its small calamities, in a rather predictable, protected way. Richard Scarry's world is a little -- maybe a lot -- like Switzerland, where he and his family lived from 1968 until his death in 1994, at 75 years of age.

Some of his books were touched by controversy, but he revised them with an eye toward eliminating what were perceived as gender and ethnic stereotypes. Female characters moved out of the kitchen and the nursery to run the bulldozers while males started doing the cooking and teaching the kindergartners.

Scarry was born in Boston on June 5th, 1919, and belonged to a generation of gentlemen children's book artists -- like Dr. Seuss, Robert McCloskey, Crockett Johnson, and William Steig who arrived in children's books almost by accident. Children's books became a growth industry in post-World-War II America, and a welcoming shelter for their temperaments that didn't relish the pressures of the commercial art scene. New York was inexpensive for a young, struggling artist to live in, and the publishers generally supported promising artists with work (Scarry illustrated Little Golden Books to begin with) until they developed their own distinctive styles. Scarry and his colleagues went on, in their quiet, quirky, often comic ways to redraw the face of modern children's books -- especially books for younger children. Life was good. And like events in Scarry's busy, busy world, everything worked out fine.

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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Monday, 02-May-2005 10:36:55 EDT


"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."