The Big, Busy World of Richard Scarry

While most people cite Dr. Suess as their favorite children’s author, they often overlook another childhood favorite, Richard Scarry. Surprisingly though, Scarry is the number one selling children’s book author in the world and his titles are far more popular than the good Doctor’s. With a career spanning over four decades during which he wrote and illustrated more than 300 books that have been translated into 30 languages, Richard Scarry is the widely successful, but often overlooked, children’s book author that most of us have grown up reading.

It’s time to celebrate the not-so-scary Mr. Scarry in honor of what would have been his ninety-first birthday this June 5. Image via Amazon

The Great Teacher Was A Horrible Student

While most Richard Scarry books are incredibly educational for kids, he was a terrible student and hated school. He excelled at scaring the girls in his school in Boston and was permanently banned from the library after bringing in too many snakes to slither along the tables and bookshelves. He received so many poor grades that he almost dropped out of school in junior high and ended up taking five years to finish high school after being held back due to excessive absences. During this period, many other children were dropping out of school to help keep their families afloat during the Depression, but Richard’s family owned a successful shop that helped keep them living comfortably despite the economic downturn.

Around this time, his artistic talents began blooming and on top of practicing his mother’s handwriting for excuse notes to get out of class, he also started finding himself quite able when it came to drawing the human form. Unfortunately, his parents were far from excited when they learned about his new talents --as they made the discovery by finding his stack of charcoal drawings depicting nude girls. His dad asked him, after discovering an image of a beautiful woman with tassels on her breasts, “What's going to become of you, Richard?” A born artist and trouble-maker, he already had a response ready, “if I'm going to be an artist, sir, I have to learn how to draw the human form.”

While his father desperately wanted him to go to an Ivy League school like Harvard, Richard’s terrible grades and bad attitude ensured that was little more than a pipe dream and he instead was sent off to a local business school where he again did miserably and he dropped out within his first year. After long last, his father gave up hopes of having a child do anything more than be an artist and he finally sent the boy to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he flourished until he joined the army to fight in World War II. Scarry never did obtain a college diploma.

Image via Gwen [Flickr]

Artistic Advances In The Army

When Richard first joined the army, he listed his occupation as artist, which caused them to put him in radio repair school. Angered at the prospect of more schooling, he bombed the entry test and earned the esteemed reputation of having the lowest score ever recorded on the test --a negative 13. He later joked, “My exam mark was minus 13, so they decided to make me a corporal." Because he did so badly, he was instead assigned to be a military art director and was instructed to tell the troops why they were fighting and to share news from home. To do this job, he paraphrased clips from Time magazine and illustrated them and then sent them off as fliers.

He impressed his superiors enough that they soon promoted him to be the editor and writer of Publications for the Information and Morale Services section of the Allied Force Headquarters. With his new position, he was given enough leisure time to visit Africa, Algiers, Italy and France, an experience that left him with a lifelong drive to travel. When the war ended, Scarry’s job had provided him enough experience developing content for a publication with over one million readers every week and he was able to get great positions in the New York art world without ever having to work his way up.

Big Success In New York, New York

Immediately upon moving to New York he was given an illustrator job at Vogue, but he was fired three weeks later, when they claimed he just wasn’t right for the position. He was soon able to get a few positions at other magazines but really made a name for himself doing freelance children’s illustrations. It wasn’t long before he submitted his impressive portfolio to the Artist and Writers Guild, a subsidiary in New York that was just about to start mass-producing a new line of children’s books that would sell for 25 cents each. He was immediately hired and started out doing artwork for other writers, including his future wife, Patricia Murphy, who he married in 1949. By the early fifties, Scarry was inspired and experienced enough in children’s books that he decided to start writing his own titles. His first book, The Great Big Car and Truck Book, was published in 1951. It did moderately well and featured many of his interests, such as travel and technology, but it was most notable for being his only title to use humans instead of athropomorphized animals.

His second book, Rabbit and His Friends, introduced his use of talking animals, but his true success didn’t take place until the 1963 title The Best Word Book Ever. This groundbreaking work served as a sort of picture dictionary that was broken up by word type, rather than being organized alphabetically. This was also the first place he featured many of his famous anthropomorphic characters that would later be the backbone of his Big Busy World and Busytown. Image via Senor Ryan [Flickr]

The Secret Behind Scarry Success

The reason the classic Scarry books have done so well to this day is because they are so complex, yet so easy to follow. Children love that they can flip through the pages before they can even read and make up stories about the characters. At the same time, there is so much going on in his pictures that they often re-read the books over and over to make sure they catch all the action on every page. This seems to be what Scarry was going for. He once said, "I'm not interested in creating a book that is read once and then placed on the shelf and forgotten. I am very happy when people write that they have worn out my books, or that they are held together by Scotch tape. I consider that the ultimate compliment."

That’s not all there is to like. When parents read the books to kids, they enjoy the fact that the questions proposed throughout the pages start getting the children thinking and talking, meaning Scarry’s books help educate youngsters on an array of levels that go far deeper than most children’s books. Another positive aspect of the titles is his use of animals. While they are certainly cute, they also serve to be much more enjoyable and identifiable to children. One of the reasons his books have done so well throughout the world is the fact that animals do not have racial characteristics, which allow all children to connect with the little girl bunny or little boy cat. He explained "children can identify more closely with pictures of animals than they can with pictures of another child. They see an illustration of a blond girl or a dark-haired boy, who they know is somebody other than themselves, and competition creeps in. With imagination -- and children all have marvelous imagination -- they can easily identify with an anteater who is a painter or a goat who is an Indian."

Images via Pinot & Dita and beccaplusmolly [Flickr]

Controversy Quickly Corrected

Of course, that’s not to say Richard’s work was always free from issues revolving around political correctness. While his Big, Busy World books were based around real observations he noticed while traveling, the post seventies world was far less accepting of a near-sighted panda from Hong Kong or Manuel of Mexico with a pot of beans on his head. As a result, he largely stopped writing these titles and Random House stopped distributing the titles. As if that weren’t enough controversy, mothers soon started being offended by Scarry’s decidedly fifties roles of housewives taking care of the children while the husbands go off to work. Really though, Richard wasn’t sexist, he was just not with the times. As soon as he heard the complaints, he happily revised his images to show female farmers and police officers and men pushing strollers and cooking in the kitchen. If you're interested, the differences between the versions are well documented in this Flickr set by user Kokogiak.

The Patented Scarry Work Process

While the artist originally started painting his works in full-color watercolors, his signature books are all done using a work process he perfected throughout the years. First he would sketch out his panels with pencil, then he would re-draw the finalized versions with blue pencil. Then he would color in all the red areas on every page, then blue, then yellow, etc. and at the end, he would draw in all the detail lines with a pen. After he finished the works, he would tape on his narrative texts that quickly pecked out on a typewriter. Many of these contained spelling errors and other typos, but he left that to the editors to worry about.

Despite his popularity, Richard was always an artist first and a writer a distant second. While he always hated leaving white space and loved complicated machineries and cut-away diagrams, his early titles aren’t as loaded with these aspects. When things progressed on though, his titles were increasingly complex. By the time he completed his final work, Richard Scarry's Biggest Word Book Ever, the sixty-six year old Scarry’s eyesight was failing miserably, but that didn’t stop him from finishing the artwork for the monstrous 15 3/4 x 24 inches book. It was so large that Random House had to charge $29 per copy, but it was so popular that the first printing sold out in no time despite the price. Image via Rotten

A Family Affair

In their later years, Richard and his wife bought a chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. Here he worked diligently on his books, sitting at his desk every day between 8 A.M. and 4 P.M. After his eyesight failed, he stopped working on his books, but he still lived happily with his wife until he passed away from a fatal heart attack on April 30, 1994.

These days, his son Richard Scarry Jr. carries on the tradition, writing and illustrating books under his father’s name and periodically under the name “Huck Scarry,” which he adapted from Huckle Cat, one of the most common characters in the Busytown world.

Image via JB Publishing

Sources: Ciao UK, Wikipedia, Barnes & Noble, Carnegie Museums, Kirjasto and Rotten


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I'm a comics creator myself and I've been studying the work of Richard Scarry so I can take on some of his influence in my work. I like his pen work; it's kind of scratchy and angular. In a way, it reminds me of the vintage newspaper comics strips.

Anyway, thanks for sharing this information. I'd never have guessed some of that stuff about Scarry.
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I have a vintage copy of "The Great Big Car and Truck Book" (his first book) that my 3 year old adores. I like it too, because the vehicles and life pictured seems like such a great snapshot on the immediate postwar era. Yes, the images of the happy homemaker wives are really dated, but that's exactly what makes it so charming. It's definitely my favorite of his.
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It's funny, but just a year or so ago, I went and bought brand new copies of my favorite Scarry books. I'm 42 and have no kids. The books are for me. I bought two copies of his Rainy Day Activity book. One to cut up and play with and one to keep (and dare anyone to touch).
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