I know this may seem like a small thing. It's a kid's book. It's been around forever. People like it. Why should I even bother? But it bugs me. It continues to bug me every single time I sit down with it. I can't take it anymore. I have to tell the truth and shame the devil.
Ok, maybe that's a rash thing to say. Someone will sue me for libel. But the evidence is so overwhelming that something weird is going on.
When toilet-training our two boys, we encouraged them to sit on the potty by reading to them while they did their business. The favored bathroom reading was (you guessed it) Richard Scarry. As much as I love Richard Scarry and regard What Do People Do All Day? as a timeless classic, I am conditioned to literally yawn every time I open the books up, as a result of our endless potty sessions. "No, I'm not done yet, Dad. Keep reading."
After such close study over two kids' worth of reading, I couldn't help but notice . . .
The overall quality of Busy, Busy Town is nowhere near as high as What Do People Do All Day, or Cars and Trucks and Things That Go. The text is boring, disjointed, flat. The pictures are not as appealing. I found myself wanting to read the other ones. That was the first clue.
Everything about the visual style of Busy, Busy Town was different than the other books. Now, that in itself would not be a surprise -- Richard Scarry drew in several different styles over his career. The style in Best Mother Goose Ever and The Animals' Merry Christmas is much different than the other books â€“ more painterly, more subtle shading, and very different conventions for representing animals. But Busy, Busy Town is just . . . bad. It looks like someone with no imagination and low talent trying to imitate Scarry's style.
In fact . . . most of the themes in Busy, Busy Town are exact repeats of themes in the other books, only with one-tenth the level of detail. Trains, airports, supermarkets, policemen . . . it's the same stories, but drained of all vitality. The Scarry I love would have two-page spreads with lavish detail. Busy, Busy Town has isolated images floating in white space, with almost no interlocking context.
In fact . . . even some exact images are copied from the other books into Busy, Busy Town, but without the same context. For instance, in Cars and Trucks and Things that Go, there's a street sweeper that has a broken nozzle that sprays to the side instead of straight down, and it sprays water into the Pig family's car. That exact same street sweeper shows up in Busy, Busy Town, right down to the broken nozzle . . . but totally out of context. It's like someone copied the image without even bothering to understand what it was about.
Here's the original image in Cars and Trucks and Things that Go:
And here's the totally ripped-off image in Busy, Busy Town:
The copyright date for Busy, Busy Town is 1994 . . . the year of Richard Scarrey's death. Hmmm. The most extensive online biography of Richard Scarry notes that he died of cancer of the esophagus, and that his eyesight began to fade in the 1980's due to macular degeneration. The same biography says his last book was The Biggest Word Book Ever . . . published in 1985.
How can one explain this inexplicably poor book at the very end of Richard Scarry's career? A few theories:
Theory #1: Scarry's capacities were diminishing late in life, due to bad eyesight and bad health. He tried to make one more book, and could only create a shadow of his former greatness.
Theory #2: After his death, Scarry's heirs (or his publishers at Random House, or both) were eager to keep as much of Scarry's extremely profitable franchise productive. They cobbled together the best imitation they could manage of Scarry's work, slapped his name on it, and sent it out. At this point it's hard to identify whether Scarry is the author, or just a brand name to be commandeered and marketed at will â€“ Busy, Busy Town does not explicitly say "by Richard Scarry" anywhere, but merely bears the title "Richard Scarry's Busy Busy Town." I suppose his son, also named Richard Scarry, could have produced the book and put his name on it, capitalizing on the ambiguity of names. Other children's franchises have freely cloned their creator's style, but at least they had the decency to acknowledge it; the more recent installations of the Curious George series clearly say "illustrated in the style of H.A.Rey by Martha Weston."
I doubt I'm the only one who noticed. Someone posted to Flickr a catalog of changes between the 1961 and 1993 releases of The Best Word Book Ever, so I know people notice these things. But perhaps I'm the only one who cares who actually drew and wrote a book. One of the sad things about Scarry's career was that he sold so many books that literary institutions refused to give the slightest acknowledgement or critical acclaim. By that reckoning, who cares who wrote it, if it's making money?