Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What I learned from Richard Scarry

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Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

Recently, for the first time in my life, I’ve been spending a lot of time with little kids. Aside from my own daughter, there’s the three-year-old son of a friend, who comes over once a month or so and loves playing a game where I hide two plastic dinosaurs in the house so he can find them with a flashlight. There’s also my slightly younger niece, who visits once a week with her grandparents. Both are wonderful kids, and both love reading. Usually, whenever one of them comes over, we’ll pay a visit to my daughter’s nursery to pick out a few books to read aloud while they’re here. They tend to grab one of the same handful of titles—Goodnight Moon, The Crocodile Blues, the Curious George series—but I’ve got my favorites, too. And what I’ll often do is grab a book of my own, bring it downstairs without comment, and lay it out casually in plain sight, in hopes that they’ll take an interest, which they generally do. Occasionally, to pique their curiosity, I’ll start to read it myself.

And the best part is that it’s a book that I could easily read for my own pleasure. It’s Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, and if you’ve somehow never seen it, I can assure you that it’s a masterpiece. It consists of about thirty gorgeous two-page scenes, arranged by theme or location—the farm, the airport, the kitchen, cars and trucks, ships and boats—with forty captions or so to indicate the names for different buildings, vehicles, objects, or animals. On the page about going to the doctor, for instance, there are perfect little drawings of a gauze bandage, a thermometer, a stethoscope, a tongue depressor, a rubber hammer to make legs kick, an eye chart, a tooth, and a tooth with a cavity. The spread on trains has a diesel switcher, piggyback car, steam locomotive and tender, and more. And part of the fun, for me, is realizing that I didn’t know the name for, say, a bucket loader until I saw it on one of these pages. (Although when it comes to building my own vocabulary, the real gold mine is Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, which I’ve coveted ever since seeing it in my niece’s playroom.)

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever

But the real joy of the book is that it provides a wealth of material for the stories that children—and certain adults—are born to tell themselves. Looking at a picture of Brother Rabbit putting on his tie in his bedroom mirror, it’s natural to wonder what he’ll do next—perhaps go down the neatly labeled stairs through the neatly labeled front door, or perhaps head into the living room, which, with its labeled sofa and lamp and fireplace, is so much like the one in which we’re sitting. Scarry’s animals aren’t standing around as mute illustrations of the words in question; rather, they’re just going about their busy lives, and it’s remarkable how easily we can imagine stories about them. That’s why I was so delighted when my niece said to my wife, pointing at a picture of a pig near a corncrib: “Maybe the pig wants to eat one corn.” (Although I’ll admit that it’s a little disconcerting to see this pig in a sty followed, a few pages later, by another family of pigs in clothes seated at the dinner table—which presents me with the same sort of philosophical problem I encounter when I try to explain the difference between Pluto and Goofy.)

And it’s a habit of telling stories that, if we’re lucky, stays with us for the rest of our lives. All little kids essentially begin by writing fanfic about themselves, their families, and the people in the books they read: my first literary productions were comic books, made out of carefully folded and stapled typing paper, depicting various battles and adventures of the Masters of the Universe. And for proof that the rewards start early, look no further than the following story, told by my niece and transcribed this week by my sister-in-law:

This is another Moo Cow story. It is about Moo Cow’s favorite. Moo Cow opens his present and saves it for later. And he opened his present again and found a pencil. And he looked at it and looked at it and then he found a paper. He was drawing and drawing and then he put it away in the present and wrapped it up. Then he went to the pond and dived in the water. The End.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear more about Moo Cow. And it makes me very happy.

Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2013 at 9:50 am

One Response

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  1. An image search led me to your post! I wanted to know which of Richard Scarry book’s had the farm scene with the “corn crib!” It fascinated me as a kid. Thanks for posting.

    Lauren Linn Sears

    November 10, 2017 at 11:22 am

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