Our writers are (lovingly) foisting pop-culture favourites on their unsuspecting nippers. This week, Taylor Glenn finds that, cannibalistic pig families aside, Scarry’s worlds-within-books never grow old.
I buy my toddler’s books at charity shops. This is partly because I’m trying to be green, partly because I’m cheap, and partly because she’s a Roman emperor when it comes to accepting a new story. My little Caligula will take one look at a book and either demand it gets read over and over until my back gives out in spasms, or else shut it firmly, shake her head, and drop it callously to the floor, never to be revisited. (RIP The Snowy Day.)
Recently I was thumbing through a stack of dog-eared beauties at a British Heart Foundation shop when I saw it: a pristine copy of Richard Scarry’s Funniest Storybook Ever. I don’t mind admitting that my nerdly little heart skipped a beat. £1.99 for a perfect copy of one of my favourite childhood books!
And the cover looked exactly like I remembered: a hotdog stand surrounded by boats, and two cats driving a convertible down a winding road while a worm tries to balance a basket of eggs on his head. Nostalgia times One Billion. And it still made me hungry for a hotdog, even though I hate them.
Lowly Worm, Sergeant Murphy, Huckle Cat… if you grew up with Scarry, these characters will pop right into your brain in all their 1960s/70s-tinged glory. I flipped it open and remembered the hours I’d spend staring at the glorious illustrations of quirky anthropomorphic animals going about their days and having awesome adventures.
Scarry, a war veteran and fine arts graduate from Boston, understood that children adore detail: from a funny little car accident between a mouse and a hippo in the corner, to a satisfying cross-section of a cruise ship with everything labelled, he made the everyday rich, magical and funny.
Scarry’s books have undergone some changes. Best Word Book Ever, for example, was originally published in the 1960s, and suffered from gender, racial and cultural stereotyping. The changes are simple but effective: the removal of an unnecessary Native American headdress on a mouse here, the addition of a male cat pushing a pram there, and hey presto, the Scarry collection grows with the times.
I recall a story in 1968’s What Do People Do All Day called Mother’s Work is Never Done, in which a mother pig goes through the hilarious drudgery of her day: “Daddy gives Mommy money to buy groceries. Mommy gives Daddy a kiss as he rushes off to work.” The pigs, by the way, are all eating bacon for breakfast. Dark, Scarry, very dark.
Although I lacked the sophistication to understand what was being portrayed, I remember making a birthday present for my mother where I redrew the entire story for her but changed the title to ‘Mother’s Work is Always Done’ to let her know that I thought she was on top of shit and should feel proud. (Hey, nobody gave me money, and transcribing a kids’ story seemed both a personal and useful gift.)
The copy of Storybook I recently bought seems unchanged, as there are few females working outside the home and (gasp) a picture of a builder dog smoking a cigarette on site. Let’s face it, he’s cool. But I’ll tell you right now, I’ll take a kid hooked on unaltered Scarry over modern Disney princesses any day.
Besides, dated portrayals notwithstanding, my real worry was whether little Nero would chuck my beloved tome across the room, and whether I’d ever be able to speak to her again if she did.
I’m pleased to say that this story has a very, very happy ending. In fact, as I write this, with the book next to my keyboard as a reference point, she keeps stealing it.
I introduced the book back on the day I bought it, and I don’t know if it was my genuine excitement or Scarry’s timelessness, but she was hooked. “What’s that?” she demanded, pointing at Lowly Worm stuck in a loaf of bread. “THAT,” I began, “is Lowly Worm…”4420 Views
Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.