childtasticbooks

Great books for great readers

The wonderful world of Richard Scarry

on August 17, 2012

I’ve been waiting to write this post for a little while now as it deals with one of my favourite children’s authors: Richard Scarry.

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Image courtesy of amazon.com

Holly likes him too but perhaps with not the same zeal. Or maybe I felt the same as her when I was young but have a new-found sense of fondness now I am older and returning to books that appeal to my love of the comic and surreal.

Because this is what makes Richard Scarry’s books so good. That and the amazing cast of anthropomorphised animals who regularly appear in his books, such as:

Huckle, the cat…

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Image courtesy of http://www.ismoyo.com

Lowly, the worm…

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Image courtesy of blog.schoollibraryjournal.com

and a whole raft of other funny characters who frequently drive fruit- or vegetable-shaped cars…

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Image courtesy of http://www.thingamababy.com

Many of these animals live in a place called Busytown, where life is manic and crazy disasters befall most of the characters at one point or other. Take, for example, Mr Raccoon, who gets up one morning and announces, with cheery optimism: ‘It looks like a good day.’ However, it soon transpires that it will be anything but:

The Unlucky Day, part of The Funniest Storybook Ever, by Richard Scarry (a wonderful understatement in light of what’s to come)

Bad luck hits poor Mr Raccoon from the moment he utters these ill-fated words, from a broken tap, burnt toast and the door coming off to embarrassingly ripped trousers as he tries to fix a flat tyre, an an errant hat going walkabout in the wind. The dreadful day ends with him and his wife eating cold pickles in the middle of a flooded house, as Mr Raccoon is unable to buy groceries because Warty Warthog tricks him into buying him lunch and eats everything on the menu. (Holly particularly liked this story because of the ripped trousers…)

Busy, busy, busy…

Richard Scarry’s books are often criticised for being too ‘busy’, ironic when you think that he named one of his fictional towns ‘Busytown’. I can see why the accusation has been levelled at him: there is always an incredible amount of detail on every page, as well as narrative. Normally both Holly and I don’t like comics for this reason but in Scarry I don’t really mind it. Perhaps because the paper behind is clean and white, rather than boxing the action into separate frames. We find the stories easy to read, and the intricate detail means there is always something to point at and see for the first time. The expressions on the animals’ faces are particularly entertaining – they always look rather surprised at the world or jolly or optimistic. Unless someone is driving a pickle-shaped car at them. Or stealing loads of bananas and trying to smuggle them through a cafe selling banana soup.

Another less than favourable comment against Scarry is that he was primarily an illustrator and not a writer and that his books are best read by looking at the pictures and ignoring the narrative. I disagree with this.

Poor Mr Raccoon…

Image taken from The Funniest Storybook Ever

The narrative above seems pretty matter-of-fact but this style makes the pictures more hilarious. For example, the way he nonchalantly reports Mr Fixit’s cheerful parting comment “I’ll come back tomorrow to fix the leaks” as Mr and Mrs Raccoon stare hopelessly on, half-immersed in water. What more does the story need than that? Occasionally, Scarry talks to the characters, begging them to be careful or trying to cheer them up with a positive thought or two. This usually makes Holly and I laugh as the animals stare open-mouthed at the irony of it.

Passing down the love

What has been lovely is sharing my love of Scarry’s books with Holly. I saved a couple of my books from my childhood and we’ve read those through time and time again.

Richard Scarry’s Animal Nursery Tales

The Animal Nursery Tales are a humorous retelling of classic stories we’ve all grown up with but with animals taking the lead in many cases where humans might have before. Little Red Riding Hood becomes a cat, as does Goldlilocks (but the three bears stay the same…). One of my favourites from the collection is: The Teeny Tiny Woman, who appropriately takes on the form of a mouse in Scarry’s retelling. It is a marvellously funny tale of a mysterious voice in a cupboard calling out to the Teeny Tiny Woman in an increasingly loud voice for a bone. When I was young, I demanded that my mother read it to me night after night. When I first read it to Holly, she became so enamoured of it that she demanded similar repetition… and I could see why my mother’s face would fall in dread at the request, as mine would! Repetition is appealing and entrancing to a child: to an adult it easily becomes tedious. Perhaps it’s because a child likes the familiar and finds comfort in it, whereas adults prefer the unknown.

Another of Scarry’s books that I saved was Tinker and Tanker: Tales of Pirates and Knights. I proudly scrawled my name in it when I was around five or six, and Holly added hers to mine:

Holly has added her signature to mine, thirty years apart.

The book was printed with black and white illustrations, as well as colour. I decided, as a young artist, that they needed some colour:

You can probably see from this why I never made it as an illustrator or painter…

I see that Richard Scarry is still selling strong, and am delighted by this. I think that his particular brand of storytelling and drawing are timeless, despite adults’ attempts to rewrite some of the stories since Scarry’s death in 1994 to make them more PC. Hopefully Holly’s review will help show that children still delight in his wacky tales and that there is no need to rework his stories to meet a modern adult ideal of what should be in children’s literature.

Holly’s review: The Funniest Storybook Ever is a funny, entertaining book full of fun. I liked this book because it was funny and amusing the way the author wrote the book and also the pictures. I recommend this book to all ages, especially children between four and 12. Enjoy this fascinating book and thank you for reading!

PS: Sam’s review: When I was little, I had to write a review of a Richard Scarry book: unfortunately I can’t remember which one. I remember though writing that even though the author was called Scarry, his books weren’t scary!

 

Have you read any Richard Scarry? Which are your favourite stories?

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7 responses to “The wonderful world of Richard Scarry

  1. Sam is clever.
    I love Richard Scarry – the detailed drawings and colour were wonderful–this takes me back twenty years to when my kids were little – thanks for the jog down memory lane

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  2. You’re welcome. I think Scarry is timeless and I never tired reading his books (though I used to get exhausted trying to read The Teeny Tiny Woman night after night!).

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  3. Zoe says:

    We’re big Scarry fans too. One of my favourite books is his kids’ dictionary – it was the first that got my eldest into thinking of dictionaries as something useful (and even enjoyable!) and it’s full of all the lovely drawings and silly little stories typical of his work.

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  4. mother courage says:

    Thanks for the fond memories of Richard Scarry and bedtime stories. Don’t forget The Gingerbread Man!!

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    • Ah, how could I forget that one! His version is still the best – the other ones I have read are all rather nastier in nature (of course, any tale where one of the protagonists is gobbled up is inherently nasty…).

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  5. [...] of these accusations, particularly against books that we had both read, such as those written by Richard Scarry. This is what she had to [...]

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