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Richard Scarry

"I'm not interested in creating a book that is read once and then placed on the shelf and forgotten. I am very happy when people have worn out my books, or that they're held together by Scotch tape."

Richard McClure Scarry (1919 - 1994) revealed to children the secrets of everyday life. His worlds were easily understood, populated by polite, well-mannered animals with a keen eye for absurd human behavior. Scarry himself bumbled his way through a charmed life of good luck and fortunate circumstance, pretty much doing whatever he liked until the day he died.

First editions of his 19-cent books presently fetch hundreds of dollars. He wrote and illustrated over three hundred major picture books for children, each one dense with slapstick and visual humor. More than three hundred million copies of his work have exchanged hands, some of which were translated into thirty languages. This qualifies him to be the most popular children's book author of all time, and it can be argued there are two types of people: those who grew up reading Richard Scarry, and those who remain perpetually maladjusted to society.

Richard Scarry hated school, and he never paid attention in class. He'd find slithering garter snakes in the grassy courtyard and set them wriggling on smooth tabletops at the library. He delighted in the terrified screams of little girls. The head librarian screamed once or twice too often, and finally she banished him from the library forever. That was the beginning of the end for Richard, and his on again / off again love affair with traditional education. A fitting irony, it can be acknowledged, that years later the children's section of the Boston Public Library would be permanently stacked full of his work, and extremely popular with troublemakers of equal or greater attention deficit disorder.

The young master Dick received D's and F's on homework assignments with such regularity that his poor performance nearly caused him to drop out of junior high. When he finally reached the upper grades, he often skipped school to attend burlesque shows in downtown Boston's Scollay Square.

Scarry discovered the mysteries of sex at a very early age. Perhaps too early. To him, any girl who took off her clothes while slinking about the stage was worthy of intense scrutiny. More so than Algebra, anyway, which he was forced to repeat twice before passing. During these mind-numbing extended math sessions, he practiced copying his mother's handwriting in order to forge notes from home. Dear Miss O'Conner, one note read. Richard couldn't attend school yesterday. He had a bad cough. Signed, Mrs. Scarry. After his frequent absences were finally tallied up, it took him five years to complete high school.

He drew countless pictures of one girl in particular (during his "alone time") and inevitably these crude, charcoal nudie pics were discovered by his parents. His father, a serious and conservative businessman, was convinced his son's obsession with women, artwork, and ditching school would lead to a sad, pathetic life in a attic, with nothing but canned spaghetti for breakfast. One evening he seized one of Richard's early illustrations - a half-naked girl swinging tassels from her nipples - and confronted the boy directly: "What's going to become of you, Richard?"

"If I'm going to be an artist, sir, I have to learn how to draw the human form," came the reply.

Possibly Richard needed a real father figure. Some kind of male influence who could help him win as many girls as possible. He listened intently to his Uncle Arthur, a white-haired, sun-tanned ladies' man kinda-guy who lived in New York. Arthur told truly tall tales about the many women who swooned for him, and Richard took to heart one piece of his uncle's wisdom: "Buy a natural linen suit at Brooks Brothers, with a pale blue shirt to wear under it. This is the only thing you need to learn in life."

Richard purchased just such a suit, and paid for it by putting in long hours selling neckties at his father's department store. Unfortunately, it failed to impress the admissions officer at Harvard University, where his father was hoping he'd enroll and eventually get accepted. Double-unfortunately, Richard's grades had been terrible from the very start, and certainly not ivy league material, to say the least.

At his father's request, Richard attended a local business college, but his agonizing, indelible hatred for school compelled him to drop out before the end of his first year. Eventually, his father gave up. He abandoned any pretext of having control over Richard's mind, and shipped him off to art school at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. And wouldn't you know it, Richard flourished in the welcoming atmosphere of nude models, drawing pencils, and paint. It was supposed to be a new start for the young man - but World War II broke out, ending his art studies permanently. One year shy of graduation, Richard was drafted into the army. He would never receive his diploma.

On his first day of service, the army told him to list his occupations on a questionnaire. When Richard scribbled the word ARTIST, he was shipped off to radio repair school in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Goddamnit! More fucking school! Jesus Christ! He failed the exam miserably, of course, earning the unheard-of lowest score in the history of the class: minus thirteen. The barracks were enormous and dismal, the lessons in proper bedmaking ridiculous. His drill sergeant was loathsome. Learning how to walk again, left - right - left - right. Richard had no idea how his life had come to this.

In no time at all, he was ordered to report to the major's office. Wondering what he'd done wrong, Richard tried delivering a smart and snappy salute, but he was so nervous his hand trembled.

"I see you're an artist, Scarry," said the major. "Can you paint letters? A, B, C - that sort of thing?"

"Yes, indeed, sir," Private Scarry answered.

And so. Richard was assigned two sloppy buckets of paint, silver and black, both thicker than tar. He flung the paints from their buckets and spread them with a broom. He was ordered to paint a sign nearly thirty feet long: WELCOME TO THE SEVENTH ENGINEERS OF FORT MONMOUTH, NEW JERSEY. It was a task which could easily keep him busy for the entire war, but after a few weeks the paint had dried. Dick's talents as an artist were finally being recognized! By the United States military, no less!

After that, everything changed for Richard. While his less fortunate army buddies were running laps with heavy backpacks in the hot sun, Richard got weekly passes to take a bus to New York, where he'd dance with young women at the U.S.O. Assigned to Special Services, Scarry relocated to Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, a beautiful campus with p-l-l-lenty of innocent, excitable girls in perpetual attendance from the nearby Red Cross and the Nurses Corps. Not only that, he received a medical discharge excusing him for from any strenuous physical activity. No forgery required this time, it was like getting a ninety day vacation for free.

Shortly thereafter, he was assigned the daunting task of being the military's "art director". A colonel from headquarters had informed him that his new job was to tell the troops why they were fighting, and send them news from home. Richard had no idea how he was meant to accomplish such a task. When he asked the colonel how, the colonel shouted, "By post!" and slammed the door behind him.

How could an inexperienced young soldier like Richard Scarry possibly bolster the morale of the entire American fighting force stationed around the world? By plagiarizing Time magazine, of course. He had copies flown in; he paraphrased the important parts, created some illustrations, and turned it into a flier duplicated by mimeograph. It was the best assignment he'd ever had, and soon he was editor and writer of Publications for the Information and Morale Services Section of the Allied Force Headquarters. This job gave him even more leisure time, enabling him to travel around the world to Africa, Algiers, Italy, and France. He took long walks, sat in cafes, studied ancient ruins, visited art museums and churches. The experience instilled in him a great love of travel and foreign culture which would later be reflected in his best-selling children's book Busy Busy World.

Scarry would later declare to his colleagues that World War II was - in his opinion - the "best war ever".

When Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, World War II came to an end. Richard was now a 27 year-old civilian who could honestly report he'd had experience developing entertaining content for an audience of more than one million readers each week. He looked forward to getting a "real" job, and he was hired to work in the art department of Vogue magazine, a Condé Nast publication. Hooray!!

Three weeks later, he was fired. D'oh. No reason was given, apart from the fact that Richard "just wasn't right for the position." When he asked why they'd bothered to hire him in the first place, the personnel officer said - no joke - that she'd been impressed by his white linen suit and blue shirt.

He found a small apartment in Manhattan's East Side, for which he paid - again, no joke - fourteen dollars a month. During the mid 1940s, a person could live on $1000 a year - and Richard lived well, despite being a child of the Depression years. He secured a job in an advertising agency pasting up photographs for layouts, but the work was uncreative and boring. He lasted three months, eventually devoting himself to free-lance illustration. He maintained an active social life, going to parties, good restaurants and chasing after attractive young women. When Holiday magazine paid him $2000 for a single assignment, he relocated to an even better bachelor pad in Washington Square, where the cocktail parties were nearly a hundred times more elaborate. It was in this neighborhood that he met a particularly charming young lass by the name of Patsy Murphy, who would later become his one and only wife. His days of womanizing were over, and he proposed to her efficiently, by telegram:

MUST MOVE GRAND PIANO. HEAVY. NEED HELP. COME IMMEDIATELY. ...DICK

If you can call that a proposal. Patsy and Richard were married September 11, 1948, and so intent was he on becoming a competent artist that his personality began to change. He grew quiet and withdrawn, and he wasn't much of a talker. Meanwhile, Patsy was outgoing, a drinker, a smoker - very extroverted and gregarious. She loved entertaining, she loved people and parties. It was a perfect arrangement; Patsy guided him through tedious social engagements, often acting as a buffer between him and his publisher. Scarry was turning into a disciplined worker, rising shortly before eight each morning, and drawing in his studio until four in the afternoon. An hour break for lunch. Patsy wasn't allowed to talk to him during this time; she simply set a ham sandwich and pickles on his desk and went back downstairs.

That summer, he got his first big break. The Artists and Writers Guild, a small editorial subsidiary in New York financed by the Western Printing Company was producing mass-market activity books and games. One of their creations were Little Golden Books, which sold for twenty-five cents each. After Scarry submitted his portfolio - which at that time consisted mostly of cartoonish human characters - they signed him to a one-year exclusive services contract worth an astonishing $4800.

It wasn't until 1959 that his animal characters emerged as real people. Naughty Bunny told the story of a little bunny who constantly tracked mud all over the carpet and kept his room in a state of perpetual disaster, driving his poor mother to tears. Scarry wanted to create a different kind of world for children, one with equal parts humor and pathos. He had a secret plan to develop a new kind of dictionary which arranged words by categories instead of the alphabet. This format would allow him to draw over fourteen hundred solo panels of slapstick anthropomorphic behavior, introduce lots of new characters, and write short amusing texts for each category. The result was Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, hardbound at 10.5 x 11.7 inches in oversized format. It truly dwarfed all others, selling seven million copies in only a few short years. The Scarry genius had broken loose.

He didn't write stories, he drew them in pencil on frosted acetate. Then he painted through the entire stack color by color. First he'd colorize everything meant to be red, then blue, yellow, and so forth. He'd do all the pigs, then all the cats, then all the dogs. He preferred a bright, simple palette of Winsor & Newton Designers Colors: Flame Red, Carthamus Pink, Cadmium Orange and Primrose, Golden Yellow, Linden Green, Permanent Green Middle and Deep, Winsor Green, Sky Blue, Winsor Blue, Burnt Sienna, Raw and Burnt Umber, Chinese Orange, and Spektrum Violet.

When the blueboards and pencil sketches were finished, he juxtaposed alongside them blocks of text affixed with Scotch tape meant to carry readers along through a loose narrative. He punched his ideas out on an old portable typewriter, usually by way of the hunt-and-peck method, and many of these paper scraps contained typos, spelling and syntax errors - even poor grammar. But an editor could fix that up. Being smarty-smart all the time wasn't necessary for a guy who hated school. Richard Scarry was a slapstick make-'em-laugh funny man first, an "educator" second. His singular purpose: entertain the kids. Be funny without being stupid. Don't do it in a way they've seen a million times before. And whatever the cost, don't be boring.

He hated white space, deliberately filling up each page with as much pictorial matter as possible. By doing so, young readers would want to scan the books over and over, possibly finding something new with each reading. Exploded views and simplified cut-away diagrams became commonplace throughout his work. Editors noticed that Scarry's "children's books" were becoming more complicated - his illustrations had grown so dense that even a single page required endless hours of fact-checking and research. Scarry's personal library (and by proxy, that of his editors) contained encyclopedias, travel books, cardboard boxes filled with pictures torn from old magazines, restaurant menus, vacation snapshots from every corner of the globe during his military travels, and rubber-banded rolls of architectural diagrams. He would outdo himself time and time again, from What Do People Do All Day to Richard Scarry's Great Big Schoolhouse. At this stage of the game, his advances were upwards of $105,000.

One day some of these sketches were sitting on Scarry's editor's desk, and Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) unexpectedly strolled into the office. Dr. Seuss wandered over to the table and began idly leafing through Scarry's preliminary drawings. He didn't ask whose work it was. Seuss and Scarry were two very different men. Seuss worked primarily with words, Scarry with pictures. Suddenly Seuss stopped flipping and asked, "Does this sort of thing sell?" It sold very well indeed. In fact, Richard Scarry's books had been outselling Seuss's for years. But neither author would ever really know that, due to the "good diplomacy" management style strictly upheld at Random House.

Richard also admired the work of Beatrix Potter, but he made every effort not to copy her style. Yes, they both put articles of clothing on anthropomorphic animals, but she spent countless hours studying them and making realistic drawings. The reader never thinks of her characters as human. Scarry would occasionally emphasize a particular animal habit (Bananas Gorilla likes bananas and tries to steal them, Lowly Worm pokes his way through apples, and there's always a hole in the roof of a bus to accommodate a giraffe's long neck) - but these characteristics are a source of incidental humor, not as a means of establishing a figure's identity as an animal.

The real reason he worked this way was that drawing animals was more fun than drawing humans. Fun to draw, fun for kids, and fun for the adults compelled by their children to read these books over and over. "If I show a human father falling off a ladder or getting into a monstrous auto crash," he remarked, "it suggests danger and getting hurt. If I show Father Pig in the same situation, nothing more is hurt than his dignity. Also, a chocolate cake can explode out of Mother Bear's oven."

To Richard, pigs, cats, bears, hippos, giraffes, lions and so forth were not animals. They were real people living normal lives, performing everyday tasks like. He made every effort to completely subtract elements of delineated racial characteristics, believing that even a simple illustration of a girl with blonde hair could not be fully related to by a girl with dark hair. But both girls might relate and respond to bunny rabbits.

After twenty years with Golden Books, Scarry moved across Madison Avenue to Random House. While the publishing company was pleased as punch to receive him, it was here that Richard Scarry started to receive his first batch of hate mail.

Letters of complaint poured in about the roles played by women in reformed-gigolo Scarry's picture books. The increasing importance and acceptance of the feminist movement in the United States called into question why a large percentage of Scarry's female characters were depicted as housewives: cooking, cleaning, washing dishes. Scarry, now a significantly older man, was a bit incensed. He maintained that because his characters were animals, and because most wore trousers, it was difficult to discern whether or not a worker was a man or a woman. Besides, most of the women characters dressed just like men anyway, a trait arguably mirrored by the feminists themselves. Random House urged him to change with the times, and he wasn't too difficult to persuade once he learned sales were being affected. His Best Word Book Ever was still his number-one bestseller, and it was accused of being the worst offender. And so he drew new art, using women workers on the job, and depicting men taking a more active interest in household duties.

Then, more scandal. Racial issues began to surface when Random House re-released Busy, Busy World. This picture book had been a pinnacle of achievement for Scarry when he was at Golden Books. It was a labor of love, incorporating his fondness for travel and appreciation for other cultures. But changing times and buckets of hate mail at Random House suggested that characters like Manuel of Mexico (with a pot of refried beans stuck on his head), Ah-Choo the near-sighted panda bear from Hong Kong, and Angus the Scottish bagpiper were no longer acceptable role models for children. Random House quietly subtracted some of Scarry's best stories from future distribution, including the much-loved vignette of Patrick Pig, who shouts "UP THE IRISH" after kissing the Blarney stone. That story can be found in earlier copies of Golden Book's Busy Busy World, in the remainder bin of your local thrift store.

Scarry never received a single award. None of his drawings were ever selected by the New York Times as among the best of the year, and he never won a Caldecott Honor. It was widely considered among awards committees that not only was he too popular, he sold too many books. The millions of dollars he earned were considered his "reward" - his great success disqualifying him from being eligible.

In the 1980's, Richard's eyesight was complicated by macular degeneration, a progressive disorder which attacks the central part of the retina, causing gradual loss of vision. His last book, Richard Scarry's Biggest Word Book Ever was one of his largest accomplishments, weighing in at 15 3/4 x 24 inches. Although Random House was forced to charge $29.00 per copy, the entire printing run quickly sold out.

Richard later developed cancer of the esophagus. An operation to remove the tumor, along with follow-up chemotherapy and evacuation of excess fluid from his lungs was not enough to prevent a fatal heart attack. He died in his home on April 30, 1994, at age 74. His wife Patsy died in 1995. Their son Huck carries on the tradition, writing and illustrating fanciful, educational books for children.


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