In a career that spanned more than forty years, S. produced over 250 titles that have sold over 100 million copies in thirty different languages, and include seven of the fifty top-selling children's books of all time. His early studies at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts were interrupted by his wartime service in North Africa and Italy, where he served as an art director in the Morale Services Section from 1941–46. Initially seeking a career as a commercial artist after his discharge, S. began illustrating other authors' children's books in 1946, before turning to producing his own. His breakthrough came with his still-popular Richard Scarry'S Best Word Book Ever (1963).
Although S. insisted that he wrote with no age range in mind, his books seem designed to entertain and instruct preschoolers about the bustling world in which they live. His counting books, alphabet books, picture dictionaries, beginning readers, and more advanced storybooks are crammed full with his trademark busy details of cartoonlike, anthropomorphic animals. S. believed that children can more readily identify with pictures of animals than those of children, who may look different from them. In this way, he also hoped to avoid racial conflict. S. took great pride in helping young children to discover the joy of learning. He used labeled drawings to explain objects and concepts, letters and numbers; to celebrate the familiar happenings of their daily life; and to help them understand how the larger world around them is organized as in Richard Scurry's What Do People Do All Day? (1968). Purposeful messages playfully offer instruction on such issues as manners, safety, sharing, and sportsmanship.
His books that tell stories also contain overt messages of traditional family values, both in his gentler tales of domestic life, and his more exotic tales of slapstick adventure. In these, his broad cast of pigs, cats, owls, and the like, frenetically dash through farcical plots, notably in the detective chase scenes of his mystery SERIES (e.g., The Great Pie Robbery, 1969), and the fast-paced international romp of Busy, Busy World (1965). S. brushed aside criticisms of the accident-prone antics of these madcap characters, by insisting that the “violence” is gently tempered, and no one ever actually gets hurt. Nevertheless, he was aware of his responsibilities in influencing millions of children, and in later works, he bowed to feminist criticism of his stereotyped “happy housewives,” and began introducing more female characters in traditionally male roles.
It is the chaotic, yet benign, clutter of S.'s miniature humanized animal world that keeps young readers engaged for long periods. To them, the plain language, simple plots, and clichéd characterizations are peripheral to the intricately detailed pictures that are the real source of fascination for them, and the device that entices their repeated browsing that reinforces learning. They eagerly search for the recurring characters of Busyland, especially the Tyrolean-hatted Lowly Worm. Many of the books invite reader participation, like scratch-and-sniff, coloring, and pop-up books. S.'s animated Busytown characters have become a top-rated television series, The Busy World of Richard Scarry, and also appear in video and CD-ROM adaptations. S.'s works have suffered a lack of critical acclaim, attributable largely to his staggering productivity and highly commercialized marketing, that matches the frenetically overcrowded pages of his books. Nevertheless his books remain overwhelmingly popular with preschoolers and their parents.
Further Works Storybook Dictionary, 1966. ABC Word Book, 1971. Richard Scarry's Great Steamboat Mystery, an Edgar Allan Poe nomination for children's mystery, 1976
Bibliography Children's Literature Review, vol. 41, 1997 Something about the Author, vol. 75, 1994, and vol. 90, 1997
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