Bonding over Richard Scarry, with my storyteller nephew
Richard Scarry's books were always a firm favourite of mine.
We had several titles at home, including What Do People Do All Day?, Great Big Schoolhouse and some Tinker and Tanker adventures. When Noah was about two and a half, I fell in love with them all over again as we introduced him to the Busy World of Richard Scarry. It was like rediscovering old friends - Lowly Worm, Huckleberry Cat, Daddy Pig; the naughty Bananas Gorilla and law enforcers, Sergeant Murphy and Officer Flossie.
Scarry’s books are mostly set in the appropriately named Busy Town. Living there would be sensory overload, with crazy accidents waiting to happen and friendly emergency personnel on hand to clear up the mess!
I've written before about the importance of visual storytelling in picture books. Richard Scarry was a master at this. His illustration style is distinctive: anthropomorphic animals drawn against a white background. But not too much white background - Scarry considered too much a missed opportunity. The result? Energetic illustrations jam-packed with visual information.
Sometimes the illustrations are informative, designed to impart knowledge (as in, for example, What Do People Do All Day?). More often, his ‘illustrations tell a far more complicated story than the simple, brief text.’ They expand on the straightforward written narrative - and famously portray visual gags in the most slap-stick ways possible.
There's no denying it - you'll get your money's worth from a Richard Scarry book!
'Scarry seemed to know intuitively that, if he filled his pictures with as much detail and activity as possible, young readers would want to look at his books over and over again. And with each reading they would always find something new. … Through this device, children realized that there were all kinds of … things that the text never mentioned. … And adults learned that it was important to "read" the pictures as well as the words.'
- The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry by Walter Retan / Ole Risom
Let me give you a practical example of this in action, using my seven-year-old nephew, Isaac, as an example. Isaac lives in Spain, is on the autistic spectrum - and really enjoys books. (My sister has carried on the family tradition, encouraging and sharing stories with him from birth.)
When I saw Isaac at Easter, he was really excited to show me his stories - little notebooks that he draws and writes in, creating short narratives. The theme of them all is travel, with depictions of trains, planes and automobiles, often featuring scenarios that involve bank robberies, police cars, high-speed chases - and crazy crashes! These drawings are peppered with numbers (to show, for example, speed limits, motorway junctions and boarding gates) details that give Isaac a kick.
Isaac has intuitively learned the importance of reading the pictures as well as the words - a skill (visual literacy) that he employs to tell his own stories.
My nephew is a storyteller!
Isaac’s drawing above was inspired by Lego City. He explained that the car had run out of fuel but at the pumps it crashed into the bank! Now the driver’s waiting for someone to take it to the scrap yard.
Spending time with Isaac and his stories, it dawned on me that he would probably love the busy world of Richard Scarry! So for his birthday last week, I gave him Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.
'Uncle Tim,' asked Isaac, 'did you draw this book or no?'
I wish I had drawn it - because my nephew's delight was infectious and undeniable. We pointed details out to each other and laughed together as we shared Scarry's jokes. The opportunity to engage and bond with him was priceless.
'Look! An alligator car! A runaway steamroller! A car made of cheese!'
Huck Scarry's right - his father's work is still 'fresh and funny and full of things to discover.'
Isaac and I followed Officer Flossy as she chases that terrible driver, Dingo Dog, through the book. Together we searched for Goldbug - a tiny character that Scarry hid on every spread. (As I say, these books are worth every penny.)
Scarry really hit the spot. It was brilliant!
As with many autistic kids, when he's excited, Isaac expresses himself through stimming (self-stimulatory behaviour) - notably by flapping his hands.
'[S]timming can look very peculiar to people who don't understand it. Strangers can find it frightening, but in fact the explanation for it is really quite simple: stimming is doing something repetitive for the sensation it creates rather than the result it produces – and that sensation is one that your son or daughter finds pleasing.'
There was a lot of flapping going on as we looked through Cars and Trucks! I wonder if Isaac’s stimming was as a reaction to his enjoyment of the book - or an add-on to enhance the pleasure he already felt?
The autistic Japanese writer, Naoki Higashida, describes the pleasure and solace he finds in picture books:
'… When I read them, my mind goes wandering off inside the world of the … book and I can freely, safely unwind. Here in the real world, there aren't many places where I and my autism can lower our guard. Like flowing water or the texture of sand or the beauty of light, my favourite picture books afford me a therapeutic comfort.'
- Picture Books; from Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida
Higashida returns to picture books as an adult for therapeutic comfort. As a neurotypical individual, I can relate. And it feels good to think that maybe Isaac's introduction to Richard Scarry will provide, if not future comfort, a good laugh from time to time.
I know I will forever cherish the experience.
With thanks to Naoki Higashida for permission to reproduce the excerpt from his work.
Copyright in Japanese text © Naoki Higashida and David Mitchell 2007
Copyright in English translation © K A Yoshida and David Mitchell 2013