Scarry, Richard McClure

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Scarry, Richard McClure

(b. 5 June 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 30 April 1994 in Gstaad, Switzerland), author and illustrator of more than 250 children’s books, which have sold more than 100 million copies in thirty languages.

Scarry was one of five children born into the comfortable Boston home of John James Scarry, who successfully operated a small chain of department stores, and Barbara McClure, a homemaker. John Scarry taught his children the value of keeping regular hours and working hard. The lesson initially appeared lost on Richard, who seemed to lack direction and self-discipline. The Green Meadow stories and nature lore of Thornton Burgess made a deep impression on his imaginative landscape, along with Harrison Cady’s illustrations of Buster Bear, Bobby the Raccoon, Little Joe Otter, Danny the Meadow Mouse, and all the inhabitants of Paddy the Beaver’s Pond. Richard was particularly fond of explanatory stories found in the Mother West Wind “How,” “Why,” and “Where” series.

Scarry’s curiosity did not extend to the classroom. He was an unenthusiastic student and took five years to finish high school, graduating in 1938. At his father’s urging he enrolled in the Boston Business School, but the art of making money didn’t engage him. Instead, he studied drawing and painting from 1938 to 1941 at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. He was attracted to the unorthodox art of Alexander Archipenko and practiced drawing “dinner-table art for the tired businessman” at Archi-penko’s art school in Woodstock, New York. At Eliot O’Hara’s Watercolor School in Gooserocks Beach, Maine, Scarry painted clouds and crowds and remembered “fourteen lessons in making the brush behave.”

Scarry’s acute myopia didn’t stop the U.S. Army from drafting him in World War II. He trained as a radio repairman but served throughout the war as art director in the Morale Services Section, based in North Africa, Italy, and France, and he rose to the rank of captain. Meanwhile, his military work making maps and graphic designs sharpened his skills as an illustrator. After separating from the service in 1946 he moved to New York City to become a freelance commercial artist. Golden Press put him to work illustrating Joan Hubbard’s children’s book The Boss of the Barnyard. The assignments that followed, in which he illustrated the works of other authors, were not altogether to Scarry’s liking. He found it repetitive, “dull, cut and dried, and without lightness.”

One assignment Scarry did find to his liking was working with Patricia (“Patsy”) Murphy, a children’s-book author from Vancouver, British Columbia. She could write but couldn’t illustrate. He could illustrate but found writing laborious. They married two weeks after first meeting on 7 September 1949, when Scarry proposed in a telegram. “Must move grand piano,” it read. “Heavy. Come immediately.” The couple disdained urban living and settled on a farm in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where they collaborated on children’s books and on starting a family. Their only son, Richard McClure Scarry, was born in 1953 and was nicknamed “Huck” by his father because of his resemblance to Mark Twain’s adolescent hero. Like his father, he would become an author of children’s books.

Scarry’s career as both author and illustrator began in 1951, the year that Golden Press published The Great Big Car and Truck Book What would become his delightful cast of animal characters plays only a supporting role in this tome to suburban sprawl. A tabby cat proudly escorts her kittens across an intersection while a smiling police officer holds up traffic. In another scene, a spotted dog reaches over from the backseat of a convertible as a smartly dressed housewife extends a treat. The same attention to detail that would later enthrall a generation of preschoolers can first be seen in these pages. A “hi-test” fill-up at the Blue Star service station involves a cleaned windshield, a tire-pressure check, and a friendly wave from a tanker-truck driver. Scarry’s busy workmen are a testament to America’s can-do postwar positivism. A telephone company crew strings poles newly pounded into place. A coal-truck team happily makes its rounds. A postman collects six-cent airmail, and the driver for Daisy’s Flower Shop hurries off to a delivery. Kids and cars and men in uniform abound.

Scarry wrote and drew in relative obscurity for a dozen years. His most popular work during the decade was the Tinker and Tanker series that took a rabbit and a hippopotamus out West, through Africa, up in space, and to a construction site. The Scarrys moved in the 1960s to suburban Westport, Connecticut, where Scarry, in his third-floor studio, worked with daily diligence on his ideas for a benign animal kingdom. The breakthrough came in Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever (1963), a four-million-seller that depicted 1,400 objects of everyday life arranged in thematic groupings. Humanized animals ride tricycles, build with blocks, race with scooters, construct sand castles, rock horses, drink tea, run to catch electric trains, and fight with toy soldiers. On other pages, twenty-eight recurring animal characters play instruments in an orchestra, kindly compete in games, bake cakes, go to doctors, safely navigate through busy city streets, and say goodnight.

Busy, Busy World (1965) and What Do People Do All Day? (1968) became best-sellers and Scarry’s personal favorites. The first finds his cast of characters embroiled in thirty-three international adventures, laced with gentle slapstick humor in which “only dignity suffers.” The other finds Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm, Farmer Goat, Sergeant Murphy, and Mayor Fox framing houses, piping water, digging coal, grading roads, and baking bread. Together these intensely active texts depict a crowded and comical world celebrating Scarry’s ideal of self-worth achieved through the world of work. His creature kingdom helps to make the moral universal in application. “Children can identify more closely with pictures of animals than they can with pictures of another child,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1969. They had no difficulty imagining “an anteater who is a painter and a goat who is an Indian.”

In the late 1960s the Scarrys moved to Gstaad so that Scarry could be near his beloved ski slopes. Each morning at eight he would arrive at his studio in Lausanne and there continue the eagerly awaited adventures of Hilda the Hippo, the accident-prone Mr. Frumble, Bananas Gorilla, the endlessly patient bear-teacher Miss Honey, and the plaid-Tyrolean-cap-wearing Lowly Worm. The Great Pie Robbery (1969), ABC Word Book (1971), Richard Scarry’s Best Stories Ever (1971), Silly Stories (1973), and Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You Book (1973) cemented his worldwide readership and reputation. Richard Scarry’sGreat Steamboat Mystery received the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery book of 1975.

By the mid-1970s and 1980s, Scarry was a millionaire, and his busy creatures had become a burgeoning multimedia industry, adapted for records, computer software, and television. Feminists decried Scarryland’s socialization of active boys and passive girls. The author admitted “I like mothers to wear aprons” and promised “when father washes dishes he wears an apron too.” Later tales took Ms. Mouse out of the kitchen and made her a painter, plumber, mechanic, and firefighter. Her friend Flossie joined the police force. Concessions were made to environmentalists as well. In Richard Scarry’s Great Big Air Book (1971), Father Cat’s fine suit is spoiled by air pollution he has had a “hand” in making.

Scarry took his opportunities to educate seriously. “It’s a precious thing to be communicating to children,” he believed, “helping them discover the gift of language and thought.” In nearly a half-century of writing and illustrating for children he had won a vast audience by never “talking above them or beneath them.” Young readers wanted to learn about their world and how it worked, just as he had as a dreaming adolescent. He had found that “you have to speak to them within the framework of their learning and experience” in a language that they could understand.

Critics of bourgeois culture complained that Scarry socialized kids into thinking that only production brought personal satisfaction. Scarry’s purpose, however, was to demystify a world that could appear both capricious and enigmatic to young eyes. He treated his devoted readers with respect and infinite care. Those readers paid Scarry the highest compliment. At the time of his death from a heart attack, eight of the fifty best-selling children’s books of all time were books by Richard Scarry.

The Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota has primary materials from the life and career of Richard Scarry. Ole Risom and Walter Retan have written an appreciation of the author’s life, The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry (1997). An affectionate treatment of his contribution to children’s literature is Julie Berg, Richard Scarry/Richard Scarry (1994). Bobbie Burch Lemontt has put the author’s work in critical perspective in “Richard Scarry,” an article in Glenn E. Estes, ed., American Writers for Children Since 1960: Poets, Illustrators, and Nonfiction Authors, vol. 61, Dictionary of Literary Biography (1987). Rob Wilder offers context in “Richard Scarry: The Wizard of Busytown,” Parents’ magazine (Aug. 1980). Scarry’s analysis of his own work appears in Justin Wintle and Emma Fisher, The Pied Pipers: Interviews with the Influential Creators of Children’s Literature (1974). An article capturing the illustrator in his workplace is Arthur Bell, “Richard Scarry’s Best Switzerland Ever,” Publishers Weekly (20 Oct. 1969). An obituary is in the New York Times (3 May 1994).

Bruce J. Evensen