My son, like so many other children over the years, took to Richard Scarry like a duck to water. Children who like cars, rockets et al can't get enough of Scarry's books - Cars and Trucks and Things That Go is a classic in our house and Planes and Rockets and Things That Fly is on the present list. But a more rounded and enjoyable book for grown ups too (more stories, slightly fewer cars) is the Best Story Book Ever. I'm looking at my own 1980 edition right now – today, thankfully, it's still extremely popular.
This is a perfect, humorous compilation of all the elements which distinguish Richard Scarry's work. Cute, 'retro' from today's perspective, pictures – it's all very 1960s. The main characters are all animals – the rabbit family, Little Bear, Hilda Hippo, Charlie Chipmunk...an elephant in a sailor suit pedals a tiny tricycle; Mother Cat feeds visitors a jar of jam (no organic quinoa in the 60s; isn't that refreshing?). Some of the illustrations have stayed with me all my life – like Father Mole in his cassock, marrying Mister and Mistress Mouse. And the boa constrictor wrapped around a plane. And the baby bunnies all tucked up in one very long bed.
This, like Scarry's other books, is effectively a mini-dictionary for small children. Scarry delighted in picking out tiny details of everyday life, so on Mother Cat's table we have two dozen foods labelled; in When You Grow Up, children learn the names of different jobs, from shopkeeper to musician. Other tales teach the colours and seasons and numbers.
But it's not just simple words and notions which children glean from Scarry – it's also how to behave, always with a sweet irony. One of the unforgettable spreads in this book, A Castle in Denmark, teaches children 'some rules that you must obey if you live in a castle; or even if you live in a house.'
Little mice who live in the castle are shown following or breaking the rules with captions like: 'Don't let the drawbridge down to strangers' and 'All ghosts must put their sheets in the washing machine when they get dirty'. I remember gazing at that single picture for hours as a child.
For some, the 1960s American hunky-dory-ness gets too much. I was amazed recently to hear a parent saying how irritating they find Richard Scarry books. To me, they've been a godsend, and the clean, healthy, happy 60s world they depict is what makes them so nostalgic and charming.
Apparently Richard Scarry (1919-1994) was always a child at heart and if anyone asked him his age, he would reply 'five!' He remains one of the world's favourite children's author-illustrators, with global sales of more than 100 million books.
As a young commercial artist in New York, he showed his portfolio to an editor at Golden Books, who started commissioning him. It wasn't long before Scarry created his own characters and books – in the end he wrote more than 300. Patricia Scarry was a children's textbook writer and the couple met when they started collaborating. They had a son, Richard Jr, who is also an illustrator and continues his father's work today under the name of Huck Scarry. Here's a lovely recording of Huck reading from The Best Lowly Worm Book Ever, a picture book published in 2013 after Huck found the unfinished manuscript beneath his father's desk, and completed it.