Author-illustrator Scarry touched kids if not critics

May 05, 1994|By David Mehegan | David Mehegan,Boston Globe

Children's author and illustrator Richard Scarry, who died last Saturday in Switzerland, was a writer who had a direct wire to children's hearts, the disdain of serious critics notwithstanding.

Scarry's more than 200 books have great variety -- counting and alphabet primers, first readers, books about good manners, madcap celebrations of daily life. But a few things are constant in them, things every child looks forward to: a merry outlook on life, busy and detailed drawings, brisk stories and an abundance of interesting information about real-world places or things.

"His drawings had hundreds of things going on in them," says Anita Silvey, editor of The Horn Book magazine, the Boston-based review of children's books. "He could pack as much as was possible into a double-page spread, and do it again on the next spread. It seemed to work like a charm with children."

Scarry's books are "peopled" by animals -- anthropomorphized pigs, rabbits, dogs and cats -- and so are nonracial. The animals are always cheerful, bright, snappy and energetic, with lightly sketched yet distinct personalities. A few of these animals come up in more than one book: The most famous is undoubtedly Lowly Worm, who wears a Tyrolean plaid hat and can often be found in some obscure corner of a complicated drawing. Long before the "Where's Waldo?" books, generations of children learned to search cluttered Scarry drawings for Lowly.

One of Scarry's best-beloved and most typical books is "Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World." Set in all the famous cities of the world, the book tells a short story of a character in each city.

Pip-Pip the cat in London, for example, longs to serve the queen. However, he cannot get a job as a Beefeater in the Tower of London or get the queen's staff to notice him. Then he reads in the newspaper that the queen has lost her ring. He spots the ring in a public fountain and gives it to a policeman. As a reward, he is appointed official Guard of Her Majesty's Fountains, scooping out the pennies, which of course are used as relief for poor stray cats.

There is Cous Cous the famous Algerian detective, a master of disguise. He captures Pepe le Gangstair and his "band of dirty rats" by posing as Fatima the Pretty Dancing Girl, who blindfolds her appreciative criminal audience, then leads them into a police van. Simple stories and cliche characters, but they make children howl with laughter.

Some of Scarry's books simply explain things. "Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day?" describes different kinds of jobs by showing "people" -- animals, of course -- at work: bricklayers and bakers and policemen and ship captains, with all the tools of their trades. One two-page spread shows a cutaway view of a fanciful ocean liner, with dozens of characters on deck or in the engine room, kitchen or crew's quarters, every item labeled.

"Children can pore over those books," says Maeve Visser-Knoth, children's librarian at the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Library, "and see so much going on. It is fascinating for them to figure out the world around them -- naming things, knowing how things work."

Though he is best-known for his illustrations, Scarry's books are meant to be read. His writing is droll, and though it does not rhyme it has sonorities all its own. "Richard Scarry's Best Read-it-Yourself Book Ever" offers 12 simple stories for beginning readers. Typically, the stories concern work life: "Farmer Pig's Busy Day" or "Smokey, the Best Fire Fighter Ever."

"His books have clever texts," says Betsy Schulz, children's librarian at the Brighton branch of the Boston Public Library. "Children love to hear language and to repeat it, and there is a lot of learning in his books."

"When his books appeared," says Stephanie Loer, who reviews children's books, "he was immediately popular with children. Rather than critics saying that this is wonderful, he was the popular choice of children and continues to be."

He is indeed no favorite of critics, perhaps partly because he shows none of the dark side of life and so is in a sense not realistic. Adversity in his books is always brief and readily overcome, and there is never any violence, pain or death.

This clearly is no deficiency in children's eyes, nor in those of their parents, who buy his books in staggering numbers. Scarry has sold 100 million books in dozens of languages, and though one might say it is the same book over and over, at least it is a well-filled book, brimming with activity and charm.

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