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Richard Scarry, the life of a Master Illustrator

1919 – 1994

“I’m not interested in creating a book that is read once and then placed on the shelf and forgotten,” Richard Scarry once said. “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.” Considering the propensity of Scarry’s preschool-age readership to ask for their favorite books again and again, it’s a compliment he must have received often during his tenure as one of the most popular children’s authors of all time.

Richard McClure Scarry was born in Boston, Massachusetts, where his parents ran a shop and the family lived in comfortable circumstances, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Scarry was raised in the atmosphere of love, care and respect, which is reflected in his books. Following High School graduation, Scarry enrolled in a business college but soon dropped out, finding it not to his liking. In 1939 he enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he remained until being drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. The army, Scarry joked, “thought I would make a good radio repairman. My exam mark was minus 13, so they decided to make me a corporal.” He served in North Africa during the war, acting as an art director, editor, writer and illustrator in the Morale Services Section of Allied Forces HQ, eventually rising to the rank of captain.

Following the war, Scarry worked for the art departments of various magazines while at the same time beginning a career as a freelance illustrator, drawing pictures to accompany the text of books by children’s authors such as Margaret Wise Brown, Kathryn Jackson, and Patricia Murphy (who became Patricia Scarry when she married Richard in 1949). She was a writer of children’s textbooks who met Richard during collaboration when he was a textbook illustrator. She is credited with writing many of the stories in his subsequent children’s books, such as Good Night, Little Bear, The Bunny Book, and The Fishing Cat.

It was in that same year that Scarry got his major career breakthrough with the publication of his first book, Two Little Miners, by Little Golden Books. It was followed by five other children’s books, published by Simon and Schuster in the same year. His early efforts at writing his own books, The Great Big Car and Truck Book (1951) and Rabbit and His Friends (1953), already suggest some of his interests as an author: travel, technology, and talking animals.

But it was the 1963 publication of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever that put Scarry on bestseller lists, and established his signature style. The large-format book, with more than 1400 objects identified with labels along with simple introductions to concepts like sharing and helping sold seven million copies in twelve years. Its densely packed pages are populated by anthropomorphic animals at work and play, in drawings that reward multiple readings with details children (and parents) may not notice at first glance.

In Busy, Busy World (1965), Scarry’s animals star in a series of international adventures in such far-flung locales as Paris, Rome, and Algeria. Well before multiculturalism was an educational buzzword, Scarry believed he could use animals to help children imaginatively enter others’ experiences. In a Publishers Weekly interview, he explained that “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 pig who transforms from peasant to knight.” However, internationalism seemed not to have fully touched the public’s imagination and Busy, Busy World, Scarry’s detailed work of drawings and thirty-three stories set in different parts of the world did not achieve as much success as his Storybook Dictionary, which was published the next year. In addition to illustrating his own works, Scarry illustrated those of other writers including J.D. Bevington, Jane Werner, Mary Reed, Edith Osswald, Peggy Parish, Jean Selligman, Levine Milton, Edward Lear, Ole Risom, Barbara Shook Hazen.

It is Scarry’s love of animals and their inclusion in just about every one of his books that is probably the most memorable common denominator. While his books are largely populated by common animal species such as cats, rabbits, pigs, and mice, he proved to be quite adept to giving human characteristics to a seemingly endless number of creatures. Beavers, raccoons, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, owls, bears, goats, elephants, foxes, gorillas, crocodiles, dogs, wolves, anteaters, hyenas, baboons, chickens, and bugs were just some of the other animals to be featured in Scarry’s works.

Though Scarry soon abandoned exotic settings in favor of the fictional Busytown, he continued to illustrate different roles in society with cherubic critters like Postman Pig, Huckle Cat, Sergeant Murphy, and Lowly Worm. Once he had developed a cast of characters, he introduced them into everything from picture dictionaries and activity books to mystery stories and manners lessons.

Scarry considered himself above all else a fun-man disguised as an educator. “Everything has an educational value if you look for it. But it’s the fun I want to get across.” In the first book he illustrated for Artists and Writers, he painted in full color. By the time he created his first big book, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, he had devised another method called “blueboarding”. Richard would draw the lines with pencil and these were then sent to the photoengraver, who made black printing film from them. This, in turn, would be used to print the drawings in a very pale blue ink on illustration board, which Richard would then color up, using the pale blue lines as reference. Scarry’s favorite was Winsor & Newton Designers Colors. First he painted all the objects that were to be red, then the blue, and so on. It saved time and materials in preparation for printing.

In the 1980s and ’90s, many of his “Best Ever” series of books were converted into very popular animated videos, which are still available on DVD and VHS. Some of these animated films include Richard Scarry’s Best Silly Stories and Songs Videos Ever and The Busiest Firefighters Ever. The Busytown books were also adapted into an animated series, The Busy World of Richard Scarry, which ran on Nick Jr. from 1995 to 2000. Busytown was also featured at the Carnegie Science Center from June 13 through September 8, 2002 in an interactive exhibit entitled “Richard Scarry’s Busytown.”

In 1972, Scarry bought a chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. Here he founded his studio where he spent most of the day (from about 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) writing and illustrating his books. His studio contained a single desk, lamp and chair. His wife, Patricia, was told not to bother him except for his hour break for lunch. The Scarry’s also traveled extensively in Africa and the Far East, visiting places depicted in his Busy, Busy World. During the 1980s Scarry’s eyesight became worse, but despite the problem he finished in 1985 the drawing for his Biggest World Book Ever. Richard Scarry died in his home in Gstaad on April 30, 1994.

His son, Richard Scarry Jr., is also an illustrator, sometimes working under his nickname, Huck Scarry, sometimes working in his father’s style as “Richard Scarry”. Huck (his nickname matches that of the title character in one of his father’s favorite books, Huckleberry Finn) is also the nickname of Huckle Cat, one of the most commonly recurring Busytown characters. Huck lives in Vienna, Austria and Gstaad, Switzerland.

Scarry’s over 300 books, which have sold over 200 million copies and been translated into 30 languages, always reflected his own curiosity about the world. “Wherever I go, I’m watching,” he liked to say. “Even on vacation, when I’m in an airport or a railroad station, I look around, snap pictures, and find out how people do things.” In relating his discoveries to children, he expanded not only their vocabularies, but their understanding of the “busy world” as a social community in which people work, play, cooperate and share.