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.
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: