Richard Scarry, Ingenious Kids' Book Author and Illustrator

Oct 20, 2006

   Bugdozer! Pickle car! Pumpkin truck! Richard Scarry's imagination must have been working overtime for his whole life. He observed the everyday, normal things around him and transformed them into cheery, detailed creations and short stories that kids of any age could enjoy. (I'm particularly fond of the Bugdozer and the Apple Car, small machines with a smiling "Lowly Worm"as operator.) One of his most famous creations was Busytown, the small-town setting that crammed his book pages with smiling, charming animal characters in action; running, flying, jumping, working, reading, shopping and playing. It is still in popular demand. And all the while, the kids reading Scarry's books were learning about living. In his lifetime of work, Richard McClure Scarry created a prolific library of more than 300 books of pure delight, but received no awards.

    Born on June 5, 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts on the cusp of the roaring twenties, Richard Scarry hated school, even as a little kid. He was unhappy in the classrom and his marks proved it - Ds and Fs were his usual grades. By the time he was in high school, he was skipping classes to visit burlesque shows. (Yes. Burlesque shows. It was definitely a different time and place.) Caught by his parents drawing pictures of nude and half dresses women, with appropriately-placed tassels even, Richard gave the saucy but indisputable excuse to his father that, "If I'm going to become an artist, sir, I have to learn how to draw the human form." *(1)

    After graduation from high school, which took five years instead of the usual four, Richard donned a cool white linen suit with a pale blue shirt and made an effort at gaining admission to Harvard University. His grades would not permit such an endeavour. Instead, he enrolled a local Boston business college. Formal education still did not thrill Richard and he dropped out during first year. His father made the brilliant choice of sending his son to the Museum of Fine Art, an art school in the city. Richard fit right in, already familiar with nude models, after all. The fun did not last; Richard was drafted into the Army to fight in WWII, and did not return to school.

Scarry Cars 2

    Assigned to radio repair, Richard was a huge failure. He was transferred into the signage department where he "flung the paints from their buckets and spread them with a broom" to create a 30-foot long sign that said Welcome to the Seventh Engineers of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. *(1) Somehow, this became the beginning of his artistic career. He was still the ladies' man, perhaps more now that he was of age, enjoying the attentions of nurses and students. Richard was promoted to Captain and the equivalent of Art Director while in the the military, creating morale-boosting publications for soldiers. His job took him to destinations around the world; from his base at the Information and Morale Section, Allied Forces Headquarters in North Africa.

Still a young man at age 27 when the war ended, Richard took a position in the art department of Vogue Magazine in New York City. (His white linen suite got him in the door.) No doubt the job was as different as night and day from his military position, and he was fired after only three weeks. He worked briefly for an ad agency but boredom soon set in. Richard began sending out freelance illustration work and soon picked up profitable jobs. (Holiday Magazine paid him the rich sum of $2,000 for one assignment. Not bad pay when your apartment is only $14 a month.)

    While attending one of many cocktail parties, Richard met Patsy Murphy. The attractive, outgoing young woman was an author of children's books and so the pairing was serendipitous for both. They married on September 11, 1948 and had one son, Richard Jr., called "Huck", in 1953. Richard and Patsy collaborated on other things too, she writing and he illustrating children's books, such as "Good night, Little Bear". *(3)

Scarry Bedtime

    In 1948, Richard received a one-year renewable contract with Artists and Writers to produce artwork for Little Golden Books and Golden Storybooks, at that time subsidiaries of Western Publishing and Simon and Schuster. He completed six books during that year and his contract was renewed. (Originally using human-like characters, he drifted toward creating humanized animal characters by 1959.) Richard wrote and illustrated his own book, The Great Big Car and Truck Book. From his successes, he was able to negotiate his own book and royalties contracts with Artists and Writers. He was still permitted to work on LIttle Golden Books that were marketed at twenty-five cents each. *(2)

    Needing more income, Richard created Tinker and Tanker, a series of books with Doubleday Publishers in 1960. He began work on what was to be his most popular book, Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, published in 1963. It was a larger book that sold over 7 million copies in 12 years. He then created Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World and Richard Scarry's Storybook Dictionary (In 1965 and 1966 respectively, through Golden Books.)

    Richard Scarry was becoming a household name.

He took his work and his small readers seriously. His kind-hearted philosophy was to never be boring, never treat his readers as stupid and never leave white space. (Thus the action everywhere on the page.) He believed he should be funny first and a teacher afterwards. His books were filled with facts that had to be checked by editors and researchers. He believed the animal characters would be more easy for children to relate, without obvious differences.

    But, twenty years into the business of creating books, Richard found himself on the receiving end of angry mail. His female characters were still housewives in dresses. He was accused of being racist by creating characters such as Manuel of Mexico who toted a pot of refried beans and Ah-Choo, a Hong Kong panda bear. His new publisher, Random House, took out some of the "trouble spots" when the books were reprinted and allowed Richard to modernize the art to depict females in non-traditional work roles and eliminate racial stereotypes.

Scarry Word Book

   By this time, the Scarry family was living in Switzerland, making their home in a chalet in Gstaad since 1972.

    The health of the now-famous author began to slip in the 1980s. He suffered first with vision loss from macular degeneration. Then he developed esophageal cancer. The operation, chemotherapy and accompanying complications lead to a heart attack. Richard Scarry died on April 30, 1994 at his Swiss home, aged 74. His wife Patsy died a year later.

    Three hundred books. Three hundred million copies sold. One would think this enormously-creative man would be well respected and adorned with awards aplenty. He received none. Not one. He was considered too commercial, too popular, and that success alone should be his reward. But, he did receive the love of generations of children who adored his books, intently poring over page after page and learning something new every time. Perhaps that was reward enough for Richard Scarry.

    The Scarry standard lives on through Richard's son, Huck. Also a fine-artist, Huck writes and illustrates under the Scarry name, carrying on the legacy of great books for kids.

Scarry Please

    Artistic notes on Richard Scarry:
*  Richard did not draw stories on paper. He used pencil on frosted acetate.
*  When the story was complete, he painted factory-line style, painting all the blue items, all the red, etc.
*  He used Winsor and Newton Designer Colours paints.
*  He clattered out the story lines on an old typewriter, then taped the scraps of paper in place.
The editors were left to correct grammar and spelling, and smooth it all out. A small price to pay to keep such an author. Richard's desire was to create books that were loved and enjoyed. "I am happy when people have worn out my books, or that they're held together by Scotch tape." *(1)

   Well done, Mr. Scarry.


*(1)  See for more rollicking information about Richard Scarry - Link no longer working

An enormous number of statistics and information:

*(3) A few details about Patsy Scarry's career:

Brief information about Huck Scarry: - Link no longer working

Scarry Lowly Worm
© Susanna McLeod 2006