Last week B. came home from a book event at work with a couple of bargains and treats; among them The Hairy Dieters’ book (from which we’ve been liberally sataying and schnitzeling), and a 10-title bumper-pack, Richard Scarry’s Best Collection Ever!
Two biggest data points ever about Richard Scarry: firstly, that I grew up with his books; learned to read with them, learned to draw and to think, to imagine and to joke; second, that my wife did too – and our being together was bumped along enormously well by the single simple moment at work when I made a passing mention of the flower ‘black-eyed Susan’ (nothing to do with our innovation or new flavouring programmes at the time, but an anecdote about obscure classroom refererences), and B. jumped right at it, with a cry of ‘Richard Scarry!’
Factoids: Richard Scarry, prolific children’s author and illustrator, born Boston, Mass, 1919; died Switzerland, 1994: in a list published in 1989 he was the author of eight of the top fifty best-selling hardcover children’s books of all time (a link to the NY Times obituary is here).
The carry-handled Scarry-fest that B. brought into the house, it should be said, was not a total ‘oh-my-god-I-haven’t-seen-these-for-years’ affair, for both of us have placed onto shared shelves throughout the home the originals from our childhoods, with occasionally more added as retrieved from eaves and lofts – some (ebay or US-trip) finds later across the years. But it was a force of focus. Within the 10-book collection is the Richard Scarry Mothership, his Best Word Book Ever.
This once quite massive tome (published in Britain ’63 and ’64), – the wall of an under-table fortress even – was the thing I poured over as a pre-school kid. Laying on the back-room carpet, mouth-breathing and fixated, light-headed from the twin brilliance of exactitude and the exotic.
In the former, Richard Scarry’s illustrations are my illustrator’s ‘in’ – the simple precision of the most helpful, often detached perspective; the inter-relation of two or three points on a background of white and nothing; the busy or luxurious spacings of a page; cartoonly technical anatomies of egg-beaters, bulldozers, hockey sticks and drums. The rabbits are pretty; bears exude goodness – and funnily the pigs aren’t averse to some bacon.
In the latter, the exotic of the still-new world of America. Child-me, absorbing an appetite that will emerge forty years hence, sucks in the mystery of otherness – rye bread, maple syrup, waffle-iron, pickle barrel, pumpkins, sweetcorn and peanut butter. The pancakes and the cutlery and the too-thrilling, too-generous coffee pot, do not quite resemble our own. Real-estate agents drive station wagons.
Editions of his books have and do change across the decades (there are sites that showcase the differences and some socio-cultural tales therein) and there’s no doubt the edition I adored – and it’s my wife’s own childhood copy* I now refer to here on the kitchen table (while the big coffee pot gurgles on the stove) – was heavily anglicised; but the little foreign-to-me wonders remained in place enough to be transporting. Fall may offered up as Autumn, but there’s no getting away from the intrigue embedded on the page; of maize cobs, cider and bonfires – and the (to me) inexplicable turkey, inexplicably driving a car, and driving away from it all. My thanksgiving is that so much of his ‘native’ content and detail stayed put.
Having looked this weekend through the new book collection, I showed some favourite bits to B. In turn she flipped to hers – I knew and know; the tiny things collected and counted; the pea, the bead and the baby mouse – the same rascal mouse beneath the elephant’s beautiful bed. And B. stops on another page too, points to an apple that’s falling from a climber’s knapsack. And then to the fact that on the fabulous page spread of ‘Little Things’, among them is a ‘dot’ – a small black circle – hardly an object, a tangible, holdable thing – and says how this is why she loves Richard Scarry too. Expansive thinking, she proposes – that something as simple as the inclusion of a ‘dot’, sited right next to the bean, the safety pin, and the baby mouse – is evidence of such a clever and coaching talent – how it’s okay, it’s great, to think wide and long and otherwise – and brilliant, the best ever, to think so as a child.
*Hamlyn, Twelfth impression, 1975 – all images respectfully used. Copyright Western Publishing Co. Inc. 1963.