Books That People Have Worn Out, Or Are Held Together By Scotch Tape
June 4, 2019 5:45 PM   Subscribe

5 June 2019 marks a hundred years since the birth of American artist and author Richard Scarry (1919-1994), best known for his series of books about Busytown, which was adapted into 1990’s animated series The Busy World of Richard Scarry and the 2007-2010 Busytown Mysteries. A

As noted previously on Metafilter, Scarry updated his iconic books in the early 1990’s to reflect changes in gender roles and occupations. His 92nd birthday saw him further immortalised with a Google-doodle, and 1993 saw the release of the Busytown game. Published since our last visit to Busytown, here’s 12 Busy Facts about Richard Scarry, and if you’re that keen, you may as well head into the TV Tropes hole or review the several previouslies where Metafilter has shown its love for the author and his style.
posted by jjderooy (39 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
I loved his books as a kid, probably picking up on the thick thread of anarchy, hoboing, civic dysfunction and everyday chaos - coupled with cozy community - that runs through almost all of them.

Rereading them as a parent, I noticed things that I overlooked before - one of which is that parts of Busytown are declining and becoming urban prairie.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:57 PM on June 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

Oh Dingo Dog, what a terrible driver.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 6:09 PM on June 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

Lowly Worm 4evah!!!1
posted by supermedusa at 6:31 PM on June 4, 2019 [29 favorites]

I loved those books as a kid, but I loved them even more as a parent. They have so many layers and levels. I buy all of my new parent friends a copy of Richard Scarry's "Best Little Word Book Ever". It's got something from toddler to elementary schooler.

- For the little ones just learning to speak I could ask them to point to different objects
- Next, we would look for repeating characters, especially the Lowly Worm on every page
- Eventually I could have them count things and point out colors
- When they were older we would talk about what they liked best on the page and why. What would they buy at the grocery store? What means of transportation would they like least?
posted by Alison at 6:34 PM on June 4, 2019 [9 favorites]

wait wait wait

the "12 busy facts" link is the first time I've noticed his name isn't "Richard Scary"

is this some kind of Berenstain Bears situation????
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 6:47 PM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

A sobriety checkpoint in Busytown would probably cut way back on the amount of fruit spilled on the roads.

Also, I want a Broom-O-Cycle.
posted by corey flood at 6:54 PM on June 4, 2019 [11 favorites]

Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day? is the best. There has never been a more amenable division of chaos and order. It is the 20th Century Pilgrim's Progress, Busytown is a secular paradise congruent with the quotidian.

What could be better than Stitches the Tailor paying the workers who just built his new house by rolling up with a giant bag of money. And on the next page it only has a single coin left in it. He brought just enough!
posted by lefty lucky cat at 7:01 PM on June 4, 2019 [12 favorites]

What could be better than Stitches the Tailor paying the workers who just built his new house by rolling up with a giant bag of money.

Also, as I recall, pigs making sausages.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:16 PM on June 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

When my sister was little someone got her “Babykins and his Family” by Scarry. We clamored for it every night. Such lovingly rendered chaos!
posted by Biblio at 7:32 PM on June 4, 2019

I had that Busytown cd-rom game (well, my little cousins had it) but I played it all the time because we didn't have that many games. Now that I'm remembering it it was a lot like many phone games of today. There was one game where you fill orders at the restaurant and any time I hear or say "hot chocolate" my brain repeats it as "and, a haht chahcklet"
posted by bleep at 7:52 PM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

First story I could ever read on my own, Pig Will and Pig Won’t Pig Me Too.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:36 PM on June 4, 2019

Team Lowly Worm!
posted by sammyo at 8:40 PM on June 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

I once came across the giant Lowly Worm book when in my twenties. It was about 3 feet long and I was gripped with such nostalgia. I also once saw a hot dog car for real. I think it may have actually been a promo for a hot dog company but all I could see was this.

I have so many fond memories of these books from my childhood. The babysitters and make explosive fudge. Oh No! The terrible puns... like when tiny rat pirates steal the pie and become "you terrible pie-rates". And from my son's childhood, finding gold bug on every page. Oh, and how in What do people do all day mom is also a worker, which I appreciated. Although all the non-mom jobs seem to be men (well, male dogs and pigs, etc)

And of course the haunted bread. Thank goodness lowly had the presence of mind to eat his way thorugh to find the missing doll.

Oh thank you for this post. My word!
posted by chapps at 8:46 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I refuse to purchase an Apple Car unless it looks exactly like Lowly Worm's. Let's be honest though, it'll probably be a rounded white slab or something with a single button in place of the steering wheel.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:48 PM on June 4, 2019 [4 favorites]

Wonderful books. And that Busytown game is really really fun.
posted by gryphonlover at 9:03 PM on June 4, 2019

It's not a Busytown book, but my favorite Richard Scarry artwork is actually in the toddler book I am a Bunny, my son's favorite when he was very small. It's a beautifully rendered story of the changing seasons and the bunny is so sweet. I've read it probably over a hundred times.
posted by potrzebie at 9:13 PM on June 4, 2019 [17 favorites]

Bugdozer’s pretty rad too.

Although Lowly has such a wonderful disposition for an orphan worm with one shoe and no apparent family. I do believe he was a child because he hung with the children and maybe also went to school.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:23 PM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I can remember poring over every picture in Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World, taking in all the little background details.

That book was my introduction to the comedy convention that all French people carry baguettes, and the reason every black cat I know gets nicknamed "Schmudge" at some point.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:35 PM on June 4, 2019 [3 favorites]

For some reason I never bought these for my kids. I will have to atone for this oversight with nieces, nephews, and grandkids.
posted by mecran01 at 9:51 PM on June 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have read "Busy, Busy World" or "Cars, Trucks, and Things that Go" to one of my kids at least twice a month for the last 7 years. I still love them.

I Am a Bunny is also wonderful. My kids and I spent a while trying to identify all the flowers and species in the book.

Shortly after the birth of my oldest son I was standing on a corner in Manhattan in front of a construction site where the foundation to a Whole Foods was being excavated by a giant excavator with all kinds of other machines in attendance, when a police car drove by slowly, then fire truck (again slowly), some kind of giant sewer-pumping truck covered with gauges and siphons, and a vintage automobile. I suddenly realized I was in a live-action Richard Scarry book and started looking hopefully around for a pickle car. Alas, there was none to be found.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:34 PM on June 4, 2019 [15 favorites]

Although Lowly has such a wonderful disposition for an orphan worm with one shoe and no apparent family.

posted by Chrysostom at 11:07 PM on June 4, 2019 [8 favorites]

I loved Richard Scarry books when I was a kid, to the point where my mother was so tired of reading them that she didn't want to do it any more. She convinced me that it would be just as fun to find all of the pickles on the pages instead. That entertained me for a while, but I still wanted to know what Lowly Worm was up to.
posted by Quonab at 11:22 PM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

I am a Bunny. Oh my heart.
posted by vverse23 at 11:57 PM on June 4, 2019 [2 favorites]

American?!? I could swear I read before that all of his busytown stuff was Swiss themed?
posted by Meatbomb at 12:33 AM on June 5, 2019

I miss Busytown and being a kid and seeing all my friends there 😩
posted by gucci mane at 12:40 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

i thought that too so i bought What Do People Do All Day for myself a few years ago and it was an excellent decision
posted by poffin boffin at 1:07 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

As a Brit, the books were my introduction to American culture from a time before I knew what America was. The world Scarry drew was both familiar like mine - and different in many remarkable ways. Why did their "corn" grow in such a funny plan? Why to the fire engines looks so different? Given the huge number of languages the books were translated to - I guess this was not a unique experience.

And I suppose the list of jobs that I would consider aspiring to, probably started out from Scarry's selection too: solid occupations you can explain with an animal in a costume and a short label. In this vein it is interesting to see how Scarry went on to carefully doctor all those pages of Best Word Book Ever so as to update the occupations and their depictions - the "milkman" and "cowboy" career paths have vanished to be replaced by "taxi driver" and "scientist" - for example.
posted by rongorongo at 1:51 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Business Town is my favorite parody. Nobody uses interesting physical tools anymore!
posted by anthill at 4:03 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

My son found a copy of What Do People Do All Day in a free library and read it repeatedly. One day while looking at it I realized that it was missing SO MUCH. He had found an abridged copy. I immediately ordered the Real Thing. He was thrilled to find out that the book was twice as thick as the one he had been reading.

He just turned 10, has read the Harry Potter books twice, the Hobbit, halfway through LOTR, burning his way through the Rick Riordan Olympians books, but Richard Scarry is still his go-to comfort book when he just wants to chill and look at silly pictures of crazy animals doing ridiculous things.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:50 AM on June 5, 2019 [9 favorites]

Show of hands - who else played an early version of "Where's Waldo" with Lowly when they were kids?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:05 AM on June 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Bunny is my nickname, but I totally forgot about "I am a Bunny"! I am too excited to get this book again.
posted by miss-lapin at 6:08 AM on June 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

miss-lapin, you should pick up "Bunnies" too! It doesn't tell a story but the pictures are all wonderful. My favorite page is "Bunnies like to get all dressed up when they are going to be in a storybook."
posted by potrzebie at 7:17 AM on June 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Show of hands - who else played an early version of "Where's Waldo" with Lowly when they were kids?

It's Goldbug you really want to be hunting for.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:49 AM on June 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I just ordered Busy Town, Busy World, and the word book for my toddler. Thanks for reminding me about this stuff folks!
posted by zrail at 12:11 PM on June 5, 2019


I spent hours, literally, staring at the ship cutout in “A Voyage on a Ship.”
posted by Melismata at 1:41 PM on June 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

American?!? I could swear I read before that all of his busytown stuff was Swiss themed?
It is both. Scarry was born in Boston - into a family that owned a chain of department stores. I like to think of the panoramic, backstage access scope of "What do people do all day?" as being inspired by that experience. He first travelled to Switzerland back in 1950s. In 1972 he and his wife bought a chalet in Gstaad, and he lived there for the last 25 years of his life. So Huckle Cat's lederhosen and Lowly Worm's alpine hat - not to mention those half timbered houses - were indeed Swiss inspired.

I think Scarry's war-time training as a cartographer show through in his drawings too. His drawings look like they were done casually but there is some clever stuff with (I believe) axonometric projections going on that let us see so much detail at once.

Scarry's books have been successful in many countries - but have had notable success in China (according to his son interviewed in the second link). Maybe that is because the Chinese consider each of themselves, in some way, as being like their astrological birth animal? Or maybe it is the parallels between BusyTown and so much classic Chinese art - that shares the same interest in depicting complex scenes as a panorama.
posted by rongorongo at 12:05 AM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

What Do People Do All Day was my favorite book as a kid. I had two copies: one for the house, and one for the car. Lots of memories of being in the way-back of the station wagon, poring over the detailed pictures of how paper is made, how firefighters work, how water gets purified, etc etc etc. My first cat was named Huckle. It was the first book I bought for my baby niece, even though it took her a few years to grow into it.
posted by Gray Duck at 6:15 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

The little one loves What Do People Do All Day, but I also got them Richard Scarry's Best Storybook Ever! which was my favorite as a kid. I especially loved the bunny stories and most especially the bunnies mixing colors.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:25 AM on June 6, 2019

No love for Little Golden Book "Tommy Visits the Doctor"? Because man o man we read the cover off that one when I was a kid.
posted by hearthpig at 3:22 PM on June 7, 2019

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