Sunday, July 12

Richard Scarry's The Great Pie Robbery

and Other Mysteries
by Richard Scarry
The Great Pie Robbery 1969
The Supermarket Mystery 1969
The Great Steamboat Mystery 1975
reprinted by Sterling 2009

Sam Cat and Dudley Pig are detectives.
They find children who get lost.
They catch robbers who steal things.

Really, folks, that's as much as you need to know, that and the name Richard Scarry, and you're off. Sam and Dudley are as dingy a pair of anthropomorphic animal characters as Scarry has ever created. As with all Scarry animals, they bolt through scenes of mayhem and destruction (often of their own making) in their bumbling attempt to catch the criminals, bright-eyed and unblinking.

As any kid will tell you, with Richard Scarry books the devil is in the details. Small mouse creatures stand and stare at their antics like silent witnesses, stand-ins for young readers amazed and startled by the anarchy. A chase scene between the heroes and the villains runs through an intersection of vehicles and workers that invite comment and notation, each incidental character clearly in the middle of an adventure all their own. Incongruities abound, like a restaurant called "The Five Fingers" in a world where no humans are present, where a worm is seated at a table with a hammer, saw, and screwdriver for cutlery. This is Richard Scarry's world, and if you don't get it, kids do.

I was jazzed to receive this as a promotional gift from the publisher, in celebration of what would have been Scarry's 90th birthday. But just as excited as I was to delve into some prime Scarry moments I suddenly realized that there is such a thing as too much Richard Scarry. I can pour over long-form detailed graphic novels without noticing the time or day, but half way into the second story in this collection I felt fatigued with making note of Scarry's details.

This is probably the fault of my being an adult. All my years of reading, all my training, has been toward learning how to look at and notice things, first as an artist and then as a writer. I do not, and probably cannot, take in a picture book with the same fresh eyes as a child seeing the world new for the first time. I can't spend my preliterate days making sense of the story by looking at the pictures because I know the words. I can't go back and get new meaning with subsequent readings because I can take it in all at once now.

Except I can't take it all in at once, not all three stories at least, because it becomes too much information, it becomes Scarry Overload.

Also, I know that Richard Scarry's books often underwent revisions of political correctness over time – some ganders were changed so that men were sometimes in the kitchen and women were sometimes police officers – but I wasn't able to remember anything from the originals that had changed here. Did Dudley once had a Sherlock Holmes pipe? No clue. So as far as that's concerned it doesn't look like the originals were too messed up here.

Something that's also escaped me until now (the voids we discover sometimes!) is the likelihood that Richard Scarry's wife Patricia Murphy wrote most of his books, at least the ones with stories. This is noteworthy to me because if publishers are all for making sure that kids know understand gender equality, shouldn't she be getting some credit in these books? Perhaps on the title page?

Okay, maybe I don't have all my facts, and maybe she didn't mind, but it occurs to me that part of what makes a Richard Scarry book what it is comes down to the work he put into his illustrations to compensate for the fact that he was illustrating someone else's story. I don't go in for postmortem psychobibliographical revisionism, but an insecure illustrator whose earlier work was markedly different than his later work might have been making very busy pictures to compensate (or overcompensate) for inadequacies they may have felt in their storytelling.

Huh. Now I want to find out if there's some dark side to this man named Scarry.
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