Back in 1963, the 44-year-old Richard Scarry never dreamt of the fame and success he would come to enjoy. When the president of his publishing house suggested the title The Best Word Book Ever, and one of his assistants had dared to doubt -‘Perhaps it won’t be the best ever?’- he’d replied, ‘But it’s Richard Scarry’s best word book ever!’
And indeed so it turned out, still selling and selling as part of the sixty million copies of his books sold throughout the world in 28 languages.
‘If my characters were Caucasian blond children, they wouldn’t sell, but as they’re animals (though I consider them people) there’s no racial problem,’ Scarry once said. His houses look vaguely Swiss – American, his uniforms crazily mixed-up, with firemen wearing anything from a colander to a Roman feathered helmet, while no one could possibly tell if his bumbly cars have left- or right-hand drive. What mattered to him was that a child should laugh as much as he himself did when a car exploded.
Every artist wants to do a children’s book, he said. He himself did nothing else. He shunned the burden of becoming involved with a TV show (no one else but he could portray his little creatures) and simply sat back and enjoyed the rewards of a contract with a giant merchandising company.
He was justly proud of teaching children not only counting and spelling, but about daily life and the organisation of the working world around them. His holy text was that learning should be fun. He said he could be heard laughing to himself as he worked, but he was deeply aware of his responsibilities: told by a mother that her son endlessly climbed into the washing machine after seeing a joky Scarry repairman doing so, he re-drew later editions.
He was thrilled and moved by the response from his international audience. ‘I had a letter from a mother whose child had been horribly injured, and was lying in hospital almost like a vegetable, not interested in anything. She gave him The Best Word Book Ever and immediately he came to life as it were, took an interest and got well. OK, maybe it would have happened anyway, but she felt it was a turning point.’ Scarry earned himself more than one kind of riches.