Richard Scarry: an Appreciation

Richard Scarry is the “Kashmir” of children’s book illustrators; he’s so ubiquitous it can be easy to let rote familiarity blind you to how good the work itself is. Like any child who grew up in the 70s, I had a Richard Scarry book or two. My recent re-exposure to his work, though, is via a few books of my wife’s that we brought back home with us from a recent trip to her parents’ house: What do People do All Day? and The Great Air Book. I’ve had (to put it mildly) ample opportunity to get reacquainted with his work since my daughter has since become infatuated with those books and has asked to have them read to her ad nauseum. So, a few rambling observations:

Richard Scarry is a truly amazing character designer.

Right about the time I wound up reading Richard Scarry books over and over to my daughter, I started teaching a character design class for the Savannah College of Art and Design. This put me in a mode of hyper-alertness for all things related to character design and as I read these two books over and over I came to really appreciate Scarry as a top-notch character designer.

His animal characters actually look like animals. Don’t all animal characters? No, not really. Many of them look like “furries”: a human body with an animal head stuck on top and a tail. Scarry’s characters, while anthropomorphic for sure, definitely retain a lot of their animal trappings, which is why he can pull of such a dizzying array of odd-ball animals–from goats to hyenas and everything in between.

This goat and fox are fantastic design-wise. Their faces have character and expression and they’re walking upright, but they’re still clearly animals: they have haunches, hooves, antlers, snouts.

Another great example here. Anyone who’s ever had a cat recognizes how purely cat-like those hands and feet (or “paws” more accurately?) are. Yet this character is clearly operating a spinning wheel, turning cotton into thread.

Amazingly, even within the confines of these characters’ decidedly animal-like designs, Scarry can depict a broad range of emotions. Whereas most artists would rely on a very human-like visage “grafted” onto an animal-ish head, look how Scarry is able to show the whole gamut of expressions here on a character that’s got a full-on fox snout.

(The middle image above also exemplifies another thing I love about Scarry’s drawings of Busytown, the fictional town where these characters live: his drawings make it look like there’s a near-constant low-level explosion going on. The whole town is drawn as if it’s going to burst apart at the seams from pure, unbridled excess energy at any moment!)

Richard Scarry is a damn good illustrator. Period.

Scarry’s not someone whose name immediately comes to mind when one thinks of drawing “chops”… but he’s got ’em. Click through to the full-size image of this amazing illustration of the goings-on in an ocean liner:

This is just a straight-up beautiful cut-away drawing. Every room is packed with fun, interesting stuff and he’s done great technical drawings of things like the pistons and crankshaft cams, valves, air intake/exhaust, etc. Richard Scarry don’t play; note that the four pistons are drawn such that they sequentially depict the stroke cycle of a four-stroke engine: intake, compression, power, and exhaust.

Richard Scarry has a great sense of action and timing.

Scott McCloud be damned; you don’t need sequential drawings to depict the passing of time comics-style. Look at the amazing sequence of events that Scarry masterfully shows here in this single image:

Left to right, just like reading words on a page, Rudolph Strudel crashes his plane… which makes the food fly out of the salad bowl… both of which send the female bear bursting off to the left… which prompts the male bear to run in, clearly moving left-to-right.

These old Scarry books are sometimes hilariously non-P.C.

For the time they were written, I actually think these books are fairly progressive, but you definitely catch some things that make you double-take occasionally. My favorite character, for example, is this guy, “Wild Bill Hiccup”:

I can’t really articulate it exactly, but I’m pretty sure in a modern children’s book you couldn’t have a character named Wild Bill Hiccup who’s a raccoon dressed like a native American and who rides around terrorizing the town in his “Buffalomobile.”

All of the flight attendants are “stewardesses.” All the doctors are men, all the teachers are women, and in stories about families the dad goes off to work every day and leaves mom home with the kids. Ah, the 70s!

This image is from a story from the Great Air Book that’s all about the negative aspects of smoke and pollution, but still:

Uh, yeah…

Special bonus!

I noticed two character names that are also the names of bands I like: Dr. Dog and Janitor Joe.


4 pings

  1. Douglass Smith says:

    Can’t agree more! Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Thanks so much for the memories.

  2. Meredith says:

    There was an article a while back on how the new versions of his books have been edited to be more PC: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/09/22/social-change-and-richard-scarrys-best-word-book-ever/

  3. Ben says:

    @Meredith – Thanks for the link! Really interesting stuff. I’ve noticed some interesting discrepancies between modern and older versions of a lot of Dr. Seuss stuff as well.

  4. Jessica Churchill says:

    We had my old version of Richard Scarry’s ‘Best Storybook Ever’, and read it to the kids when they were little, along with a few others of mine from the time. As that started to get more run down, we bought a current version. The biggest change is there was no “Pierre Bear” story in the new one. Pierre Bear lived in Canada, and in one portion of his story he goes hunting for seals to make nice new seal coats for his family. Needless to say, that isn’t there any more. There are a few more subtle changes … Couscous the Algerian Detective is now Couscous the North African Detective, for example, but still a very solid book, with even a few stories from his wife.

    His attention to detail and his more adult humor and context helps make them a joy to read and explore. Like the little mouse bread maker, Able Baker Charley… ;-)

  5. Ben says:

    @Jessica – In one of the comments above there’s a link to a blog post that shows tons of subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in some Scarry books. I’ve noted some odd changes in Dr. Seuss books between my old ones and ones recently-purchased. Those changes are harder to figure out, though; they’re not just P.C.-ing things up.

  6. Daniel Michaud says:

    Lived in Maine all of our lives and in bringing up our son Jonathan we often read the Pierre Bear story to him. This story inspired us so much it lured us to move to Alaska, where Jonathan is an avid hunter and fisherman and loves the outdoors. Jonathan is due to have a baby boy in a couple of weeks and the best thing I can think of is to pass along the Pierre Bear Story to my grandson. Does anyone have the story written down so I can sit by the fireside in our remote Alaska cabin and read this story as it should be read?
    Dan from Wasilla, Alaska.business phone 907-892-7131, cell 907-232-0063.

  7. Leslie Banta says:

    Ben, I cannot thank you enough for posting this about Richard Scarry! I gladly shared it yesterday on my shop’s facebook page, in honor of the anniversary of Richard Scarry’s death (April 30, 1994). Glad to find another kindred spirit in Scarry Fandom! Cheers, Leslie Banta

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