The Bizarre World Of Richard Scarry

Posted by Krepta on September 14th, 2008 filed in Picture Books, Reference

First of all, I have to take issue with the name.

Richard, you were a fine and talented man, and I come to praise you, not to bury you; but let’s be honest, the best word book ever is Little Monster’s Word Book. (coming soon).

Your word book is strange and confusing and presents a world of chaos and anarchy. Let me show you what I mean.

Here are some happy, playful anthropomorphic animals. They come in all different shapes and sizes, just like people! They have all kinds of different interests and occupations, just like people! You see, a world of talking animals really isn’t such a bad concept for children’s books– it gets across the idea of diversity without bludgeoning us over the head with an oar carved from your family tree.

Your typical English-speaking kid will encounter probably three or four ethnic groups not their own in everyday life. For me, a white Danish kid living in Fresno, I grew up identifying the major races as Mexican, Hmong, Armenian, African, and white; a Londoner kid, on the other hand, will probably see a lot less of the first three and instead include things like Pakistani, Rumanian, and, I dunno, Black Irish. The more specific you get about diversity, the less it applies to people who aren’t you. Having a community of talking animals makes a metaphor that kids grasp from a very early age.

This page of medical scenes includes a number of interesting animals; a lion doctor performs a physical on a small tiger, a brown bear dentist cleans the teeth of a little hippo boy, a walrus hygienist demonstrates proper tusk-brushing technique to a kitty who boasts no ivory. The hippo and walrus seem to be chosen for their facility at opening wide and having big teeth, respectively, but I don’t see a major reason for the other creatures in the panel to be what they are, apart from that it’s the bodies they were born with.

But now things start to get weird.

This two-page spread shows exactly what happens when you carry a world of talking animals to its logical conclusion; the metaphor completely breaks down. We just saw lions and bears performing general medicine and local-anesthetic surgery, fully clothed, and now here they are wallowing around naked and behind bars? Is that the little hippo boy in the right corner, submerged up to his neck and screaming for help? Where’s the little elephant’s tricycle and sailor suit?

Maybe this is just how things work in this specific page and next we’ll be back to normal. Like that weird scene in Maus where, confronted with actual cats and mice, the anthropomorphic cats and mice turn into Nazis in cat masks and Jews in mouse masks. Sometimes you have to stretch the metaphor a little for purposes of a lesson in words, right, Mr. Scarry?

Oops. Nuh-uh. Still in the world with no rules.

A page ago the lion and tiger were side by side in separate cages: now the tiger is serving as the ringmaster, collecting money and praise for objectifying his former fellow inmate. “Behold the African Lion! The most horrifying carnivore ever to stalk the veldt! (Psst! Harv! Play it up! Look scary, you’re a predator!)”

The elephant is defined as a ‘performing elephant’. OK, wait, we’ve seen elephants that wear clothes and go to kindergarten, and we’ve seen naked illiterate elephants in zoos. Does that mean that this is an actual ‘wild’ elephant that they’ve trained to put on a little tutu and pink panties and do a dance under the big top? Are there ‘civilized’ elephants in the festival seating, hooting and cheering for their less-evolved sister, or pelting her with peanuts when she flubs? Would there be a shameful scandal if it turned out the performing elephant was one of the humanoid ones and was taking home a check for pretending to be a trained Neanderthal?

I can’t even begin to explain the clown bear with a fully clothed pig boy on a leash. That’s like some horrible urban legend: a pig couple’s baby is kidnapped and never found, but years later they recognize him, dulled down to a nigh-feral state by abuse and lack of mental stimulation, being dragged around the stage in an ill-conceived clown act.

But the horror doesn’t end here…


She is looking RIGHT AT THE BACON.

And thinking, “You know what? Yeah! I want in on this!”

Maybe they look at it the way we would approach the serving of orangutan or gorilla meat…? Actually, no, there would still be an immense public outcry and backlash over any great ape being butchered. Yet these civilized pigs, who wear clothes and drive cars, are perfectly happy to eat their mute, helpless brethren… David Brin never dreamed that biological uplifting could be put to such callow ends. I’d love to shove this book in the face of a PETA activist. “See? The pigs don’t mind when pigs live in slaughterhouses and get mechanically inseminated! They think it’s just dandy!”

In closing, anthropomorphic animals are a swell way to introduce kids to diversity. Just make sure the line is never crossed. Neither you nor your kids want to find out how far down that rabbit hole goes.

5 Responses to “The Bizarre World Of Richard Scarry”

  1. Krepta Says:

    Hey, special note from Krepta here– if you want to see another excellent article on this book, check it out right here:
    Lots more scans, including some you saw here that had been changed for the 1980 version!

  2. pennycakes Says:

    my feeling is the cats are colonists

  3. Poppy Says:

    Finally! I cannot tell you how rewarding it is to discover someone who is as concerned about the pigs looking at the bacon as I am. In one of the books, the butcher is a pig! And I also was like “what’s up with the pig on the leash?!?” Thank you for saying what we all have been thinking.

  4. Marcky Knuckels Says:

    Why you think his last name is Scarry?

  5. Liz Says:

    Jeepers. You are so over thinking this - you’re not seeing this the way a child would.
    You’re not serious are you?

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