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April 13, 2011

Old School: Richard Scarry

As parents we tend, when looking back at classic children's books, to concentrate on the ones we loved ourselves, rejoicing in the chance to revisit them with our own kids. Or sometimes it's the undiscovered gems we somehow missed back then but got a second, parental shot at. But there's a third category: the books we knew but didn't care for that much—but now gain the favor of our children.

Which brings me to Richard Scarry. I don't recall having much of his massive oeuvre myself when I was a toddler; I think I encountered his books mostly at friends' and relatives' houses. I was more puzzled than engaged by them; it may be that I didn’t discover their existence until I was a little past the fairly young age level most of them are for. As an only child determined to impress my parents with my reading ability by any means necessary, I'd have tackled Dostoyevsky without blinking despite a nearly complete lack of understanding—and as such, I was self-important enough at four to find Scarry's serious-faced cats and dogs a little silly.

That was unfair, of course, in a very four-year-old sort of way. My son Dash, now six, received Richard Scarry's Biggest Word Book Ever! as a gift some years back, and spent a good deal of the following year with it. This book—at two feet high, as tall as most toddlers reading it—is not one you “read,” exactly; there's no narrative, and it consists mainly of a town full of those dedicated Scarry animals going about their lives in the rather Dutch-looking Busytown. Each spread is devoted to a general theme—construction and building, say, or transportation (all subjects dear to a young boy’s heart), and identifies every item or person briefly. (There are a few throughlines from spread to spread, such as the misadventures of Mr. Frumble, a pig who should definitely have his driver's license revoked.)

And finally, from my adult perspective, I can see what Scarry was up to. Recently two-year-old Griffin has discovered the book, and he treats it almost like a big life-reference manual: There's the fire engine, and that's what their tools are called and what they do with them. That kind of boat is called a tugboat, and that other one is a ferry, and this is what they each do. (Scarry does like to toss some wild cards into the mix, but hopefully Griff won't be too disappointed not to ever see any bananamobiles in real life.)

Griff loves it, and I can see that he's learning from it, just as Dash did. Clearly, my four-year-old self didn't know what he was missing.

[Cover image courtesy of Random House]

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