Friday, July 23, 2021

Richard Scarry taught me the principles of literary criticism when I was five - "Mouse has just bought a book at the book store"

Rooting around my old things, I found this 1971 set of books written and illustrated by Richard Scarry, mostly.  I believe they originally came in a cardboard sleeve, long lost, also decorated like a building.

I remember them as landmarks, books that taught me to read. Surprisingly, I see that they also taught me the critical principles that have governed my reading ever since.

First, Best Stories Ever. 

On the one hand, of course we become readers because we love stories.  But note the emphasis on the best stories.  Even at this young age, I was encouraged to judge and rank, to stop wasting my time with the typical story.  We will see, in later volumes, that for the imaginative reader story-as-such is not necessary at all, but as long as I want a story, stick with the best.

I also learned that many of the best stories are in verse.  Lyric poems, even.  This book is full of poems.

Leafing through, I am not so sure that these stories, despite some fairy tales and bits of Aesop, are actually the best, but I learned the principle.  That’s the important thing.

Reading is also for Going Places.  I always loved the casual surrealism of children’s books.  A goat in a hot-air balloon, a cat flying a helicopter, a Danish mouse-witch (“All witches must put their brooms away when they have finished with them, “A Castle in Denmark,” p. 19), why not, why not.

Related, but here is where I diverge from most readers: Things To Know.  Many readers of the internetting variety write about what they experienced, while I am more interested in what I learned.  In this book, it was colors, numbers, etiquette (“Everyone likes the polite elephant,” “The Polite Elephant,” p. 49, what propaganda!), but also the names of flowers and birds, and most curiously Epicurean philosophy, as expressed in the 25 pages of “I Am a Bunny,”* where the “thing to know” is not the biological life cycle of rabbits but the jumper-clad bunny’s attitude towards the universe (pp. 98-9):

Yes, that is the bunny on the cover of Best Stories Ever, but his anti-story actually appears in Things To Know.  “Story” can mean a lot of things.  The most curious thing in Things To Know is that it ends with a cluster of Mother Goose rhymes, which are themselves things to know.  In the arts, the only way to learn about things is to encounter them.  Many readers, as far as I can tell, read their dreary novels expecting to “love” them, and are often disappointed, while I read literature in order to learn what it is, and am always happy, and find that love generally takes care of itself.

The best for last: what is literature, really, what is reading, if not Fun with Words?  Now Scarry is giving me the pure stuff.

The first fifty pages of Fun with Words are much like the cover, typical scenes – a supermarket, a firehouse, “A Drive in the Country” - with every possible item labelled ("owl"), perfect for quick vocabulary growth and also for training the taste of a reader who especially loved – still loves – watching Robinson Crusoe unload the shipwreck item by item or Huckleberry Finn looting Pa’s cabin before faking his death.  Sometimes I want the best story, but sometimes all I want is a list, an imaginatively inspiring list.  The most material literature can be strangely abstract.  Fun with words.

The next 125 pages of this book contain an illustrated children’s dictionary full of recurring characters and little stories that unfold over the course of the alphabet.  Innovative!  No wonder I so enjoy novels written like dictionaries or indices or what have you.  I first read one when I was five.

I wonder what equivalent book today’s five year-old is reading.  I am not much of an identifier, but I hope whatever it is includes a scene as identifiable and influential as this one was on me:


* “I Am a Bunny” is not by Richard Scarry but by the Danish-American children’s publishing innovator Ole Risom, who supervised the Little Golden Books line and was also a Monuments Man!


  1. I somehow can't imagine you as a 5-year-old (?), but what a lovely post.

  2. I have to admit Richard Scarry is the last author I (wutheringly) expected to see discussed in these parts, but it makes sense given your experience of him. I know him only from reading his Busytown books to my grandsons, and I confess I didn't find them very stimulating. I wish I'd known about Fun with Words!

  3. I must have received this set of books for my fifth birthday and then absorbed them over the course of the summer. I wish I could remember who to credit for the gift.

    These Scarry books contain some proto-Busytown, as I understand it. The characters are coalescing. But yes, I wish you had had this instead - it contains a dictionary that is literally meant to be read through. The Q words are: quarrel, quarter, question, quick, quiet, quit, quite.

    Still, I was not tempted, scrounging in them, to re-read these books, even the poetry. The five year-old found them a lot more interesting.

  4. Your mother and I discussed it and we also have no idea who gave them to you. Maybe we lifted them from the local library---but I doubt it. I was rather more a fan of Where's Waldo, took less thinking.

  5. I actually think I remember, but such a memory is utterly untrustworthy.

  6. My children were brought up on Scarry books. When I was small it was the Beacon Reader books, then the Andrew Lang Fairy Books. They were from an era when it was not thought necessary to adopt a style of speech or illustration designed for children. Beatrix Potter never talks down - she was a relative of my father's mother.

  7. A relative! How fun. After Scarry pumped up my reading level, I was ready for Potter. I wonder what literary-critical principles people learn form Potter.

    Scarry definitely talks down. Mid-century pedagogical ideas are audible and visible. I guess they worked on me.

  8. I love this post, and I meant to comment on it when you wrote it.

    My mother read me I Am A Bunny when I was small, along with many, many other lovely children’s books. It was she, more than any teacher or librarian (“Don’t touch the books! You’ll get them dirty!”) who gave me my love for literature.

    And, Richard Scarry? I think I could still settle down with one of his books in my lap.

    I just finished a reread of Harriet The Spy, which I had not read since 1972. The best children’s books, I think, are most suited for adults. Adults who have forgotten great truths they once knew down deep inside.

  9. Harriet the Spy, talk about a classic! your mother was so strict. But books deserve special care.

    More people should write about the books that taught them to read. It is interesting.

  10. Ah, I see my comment was poorly written; it was the librarians who said not to touch the books. It’s a wonder I love to read, despite their best efforts. Two interesting topics to write about and discuss in the future: the books that taught us to read, and the librarians who tried to keep us from it. At least in my experience.

  11. The librarian! That's terrible. Ah, librarians, they're mostly wonderful, but once in a while you run across the other kind.