Richard Scarry: Naming the Busy World

Cover of "Cars and Trucks and Things That...

Cover via Amazon

I recently had the chance to see a now two and a half year old friend of mine enjoy a book that I had bought him for his second birthday.  This particular birthday party was bus-themed, and this particular birthday boy is already a book lover, so it seemed necessary to include Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go among his birthday presents.  Six months ago, he was able to look at the book and give it a few appreciative words, but at that point it was a bit of a hard sell.  The book is huge, both in its dimensions and its length, which made it a little too long for a bedtime read aloud.  The pages are paper, which seemed awfully delicate to hands that were used to board books.  And the story … well, there wasn’t really a story, per se.  Nevertheless, I was sure that in a few months it would become a Favored Book.  And here we were, six months later, poring eagerly over the pages together on the couch.

I had such utter faith in my gift all those months ago because I have such fond personal memories of Richard Scarry books in my own childhood.  Not being a transportation-obsessed little boy, my taste tended more towards Best Word Book Ever and Busy, Busy Town, but I liked them all.  I remember leafing through those satisfyingly big pages, totally immersed in the world on the page.  (Most likely during these reading sessions I was also clutching my felt Lowly Worm doll, which I “helped” my mother sew.)  That sense of immersion is my most clear memory of the books, in fact – the sense that the pages were bigger than life, and that I could fall right into them.

Watching my young friend with the book, though, I had the chance to be a little more analytical about the appeal of these stories.  What is it that feels so magnetic about these books for little guys?  And how can someone with a board-book attention span enjoy a book that is closer to a novella in length, each page packed with details and labels and … well, busy-ness?

Ultimately, I think it’s because Richard Scarry books do for little guys what nonfiction research does for third graders.  They fill an information gap.  They answer questions and provide facts that make the world both a bigger place and a more understandable one.  For third graders, that desire for information tends to be filled by Jeopardy-like trivia.  (Did you know that hummingbirds can fly backwards?  If you spend any time in a third grade classroom, you soon will.)  For toddlers and other little guys, the desire for information tends more toward that favorite game: What’s That?  It seems most toddlers spend their days trying to slap verbal labels on everything in sight, developing their understanding of the world by developing their language for it.  Ultimately that’s exactly what Richard Scarry books do: they freeze one busy moment in time and play a giant game of What’s That? with labels on almost everything on the page.

Not only do these books offer names for all sorts of objects, they offer those names with a level of detail that is pretty impressive.  As a toddler, if you ask a parent (particularly one who is driving at the time) “What’s that?” and point to a fire truck, you will probably be told that it is a fire truck.  Only Richard Scarry would carefully differentiate the hook and ladder truck from the water pump truck … and include the fire chief’s sedan on the page as well.  The idea that there are so many things in this busy world, and that each of them gets its own special name must feel satisfying and a little reassuring to those readers who are just starting to see how big the world can be.  I also love the fact that, along with the incredible specificity of each object and vehicle, there are whimsical details pitched just right for younger readers.  Alongside the “old-time roadster” and “tank truck” on the pages, you might also find an “alligator car” (a car shaped like an alligator, of course) and a “pickle truck.”

Parents who might be intimidated by the length of these books (they do seem like an excellent nighttime read aloud to avoid bedtime) can be reassured that they are not stories designed to be read cover to cover. In fact, although I’m glad to see that the characters are staying part of Kid Culture with the Saturday morning cartoon based on Scarry’s work, the idea of an episodic plot seems a little beside the point.  Before bed, my young friend and I chose two pages to look at closely, and then put the book away happy and satisfied.  Yes, there is a general story line of a pig family going on vacation, and some engaging things to look for along the way.  We had a good time hunting for the hidden Goldbug on each page and watching the intrepid policefox chasing after a dog labeled “a terrible driver.”  But ultimately this is a book to be dipped into, as are almost all of Richard Scarry’s books.

Lowly Worm

Lowly Worm (Photo credit: Walt Jabsco)

Perhaps the thing I’m most excited about is watching this book grow up with my little friend.  It seems such a perfect fit for him at his age, but I remember reading these books when I was quite a bit older, when I had long since outgrown the need to name everything I saw and could enjoy other elements of the story.  I’ll keep the book-repairing tape nearby and hope that this book survives many, many rereadings to become a lasting favorite for my friend, just as it was for me.