Obituary: Richard Scarry

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The Independent Online
Richard McClure Scarry, writer and illustrator: born Boston, Massachusetts 5 June 1919; married 1948 Patricia Murphy (one son); died Gstaad, Switzerland 30 April 1994.

RICHARD SCARRY's zany characters have informed, entertained and moralised for almost 50 years. Without an apparent superfluity of literary or even graphic talent, Scarry managed to create a style of picture-book for children which has lasted in the midst of changing tastes.

Launched in the United States in the early 1950s, almost coincidentally with the rise of children's television, Scarry's style reflected that contemporary influence rather than the traditions of previous generations of picture-book creators. It is, perhaps, for this reason that he was never much appreciated by the children's book literary establishment who have always dismissed his work as 'popular'. Not that this worried Scarry, whose success with children was quite enough to justify his enormous output - somewhere in the region of 150 titles, which have sold more than 100 million copies.

Throughout his works, Scarry's illustrative style changes hardly at all. Typical Scarry books such as What Do People Do All Day? (1968) and Busy Town, Busy People are, as their titles suggest, 'busy' books. The pages are crammed full of action surrounding a particular place or activity, carefully created on a miniature scale. Mostly the pictures speak for themselves but Scarry also included accompanying descriptive texts adding informative detail. On the whole, Scarry's books lacked plot or narrative but his repeated use of the same characters gave his books homogeneity and a sense that the reader was finding out more about the characters from one book to another.

Scarry's characters were usually animals, some of whom, most notably Lowly Worm, developed personalities of sorts through a number of titles. Scarry used his animal characters to teach. His cosy cartoon style of drawing attracted a pre-school audience who could learn from his accurate but comic small-scale reproductions of how a garage, fire station or car works. More specifically, titles such as ABC Word Book and Early Words, Best Counting Book Ever and Busy-Busy Counting Book provided a picture-book introduction to the rudiments of learning to read and count respectively. Morals were tackled in Please and Thank You Book and Pig Will and Pig Won't: a book of manners. However, both of these revealed an unattractive, preaching tone which was out of keeping with the ebullience of the illustrations and of Scarry's previous titles.

Scarry's success was founded in the US but his style worked almost equally well in Britain. His books spoke directly to children, cutting out the need for adult introduction. Scarry titles are pored over by pre- school non-readers who enjoy looking at all the fiddly little details. Scarry titles are invariably dog-eared in homes, schools and libraries as a result of their frequent re-readings and the interactive nature of their pictures which demand much pointing out of favourite items.

Adults, on the whole, are less happy both with the illustrations and the texts, regarding them as little more than comic books.

Scarry's success was also his limitation. Having hit on a formula that worked so well he did little more than tinker with it throughout a long and highly profitable creative career.

(Photographs omitted)

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