Who doesn’t like him? ‘Old librarians’
Brambles, the vain warthog, primps for a hard day in the forest by setting his hair in curlers the night before. Baron von Crow travels not as the you-know-what flies but in a single-engine red plane. Lowly Worm favors a Tyrolean cap on one end and a sneaker on the other. “To me, they’re not animals,” says children’s author Richard Scarry of his anthropomorphic creations. “They’re real people living normal lives.”
In fact, he titled the classic of his 177 works to date What Do People Do All Day and, never given to understatement, called his latest The Best First Book Ever. The best? Well, if not, it’s just behind Dr. Seuss. Eighty-seven whimsical, detail-crammed Scarry books are still in print, and his sales now total 60 million copies in 25 languages. “The experts tell me I reach an age group from 2 to 10,” says Scarry, 60. “But I see babies looking at the pictures, even if they’re holding the book upside down. And plenty of teenagers, too, sneak back to my books when they think no one is looking.”
Characters like Pickles Pig, Hilda Hippo, AM Cat—not to mention Wild Bill Hiccup, Cous Cous the Algerian detective and Pépé le Gangstair—have an enduring appeal with their madcap, accident-prone antics. Only librarians, “old librarians, especially,” he notes, have had any qualms. “They say I include too much violence, but it’s not true violence, it’s fun,” he contends. “I have cars pile up and people get into trouble. It’s the old banana peel or custard pie in the face. The only thing that really suffers is dignity. Kids love that—and they’re right.”
That Marxist (Brothers) philosophy evolved spontaneously. “I don’t talk with psychologists,” says Scarry, “and I don’t do testing either.” He did, however, grudgingly bend to pressures against sexism by creating Flossie the policewoman. Lately, to forestall feminist ire, Scarry has mischievously clad some of his previously sexually stereotyped animals in trousers, but put the buttons on the left side of the jacket as women wear them.
The son of a Boston department store owner, Richard preferred sketch pads to books. “I tried to go to Harvard and all that, but no college would have me,” he shrugs. After graduating from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and a stint in the Army during World War II, Scarry worked as a free-lance illustrator of children’s books in New York.
During this period he met Patsy Murphy, a Canadian writing the commercials used on the Ozzie and Harriet radio show. They married in 1949. Twenty years and zillions in royalties later, the Scarrys, long avid skiers, moved to a mountain chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. They return to the States one month a year—to flog his latest book and boost sales in Richard Scarry T-shirts, furniture and toys. Patsy now writes children’s books of her own, which she sends to New York to be illustrated. After two tries at collaboration with her artist-writer husband, she explains matter-of-factly, “We can’t work together.” Their son, Richard Jr., 26, has just published his first kids’ book, Steam Train Journey.
Scarry himself claims to be most interested in the simple pleasures of producing his books. “I write for everyone, the parents and the kids,” he muses. “But most of all, for myself.”