My wife was editing our teenager’s bedroom, hunting things to pass on to his younger cousins, or donate to Goodwill. He is a high school senior aiming for college next fall, and we have lived in this Maine house since his birth, so his room is jammed with artifacts. Baseball gloves and defunct device-chargers; mounds of clothes; an Xbox. Shoes the size of pond boats. Sports trophies. It could be an archaeological site — 17 years of boyhood in uncurated layers.
Basha was ready to curate. Getting rid of stuff usually feels good. People at our town’s transfer station seem in far better spirits than shoppers at Walmart. But it can be difficult to let go of objects associated with the innocence and explorations of childhood, and the snuggliest hours of new parenthood. The stuffed animals are a particular challenge. So much was invested in those personalities. We are not yet at a place where any of us will consider removing Blue Bunny, Sheepie or Sealie from our household, beat-up and disreputable as these characters now are.
From “Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.”Credit…Richard Scarry
We thought children’s books would be easier to lose, but Basha’s edit came to a full stop when she discovered our battered copy of “Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.”
Back in 1974, invited by his publisher to do a “car and truck” book for boys, Scarry “gave it a little thought — and an impish wink,” his son, Huck, writes in an afterword to the new 50th anniversary edition. “He knew that cars and trucks were fun not only for boys but also for girls … as well as parents, grandparents and babysitters.”
The book he created, filled like all his other Busytown books with cute anthropomorphized animals, features plenty of female characters in professional roles. Who could forget Officer Flossy, a resolute vixen who finally apprehends the reckless speedster Dingo Dog after pursuing him across more than 60 pages? Or the intrepid tow truck operator Mistress Mouse, who has never met a wreck too big for her teensy vehicle to handle?
When our family first encountered this book,I had just bought a 40-year-old pickup truck and was developing a website called Autoliterate, mostly about, well, old trucks and cars and things that go. But you don’t have to care two hoots about automobiles to settle in with Scarry.
I still envy the author’s gift for devising titles for the Busytown series that speak directly to their audience. You can count on plenty of forward momentum in a book called “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.” And what better title for a book about a bumbling, error-prone pig than “Be Careful, Mr. Frumble!”? Our son always wanted to know, “What Do People Do All Day?,”so reading all about it was deeply satisfying. By the time we opened “Best Word Book Ever,” we anticipated it would be just that. And it was: page after page of wonderful drawings, strewn with hundreds of words labeling pretty much everything in Busytown, from airports to ice cream cones.
Scarry had figured out how to make non-cloying picture books with so much going on that every page became a delightful exercise in paying attention.
In “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go,” the Pig family (modeled, Huck Scarry tells us, on the family of his childhood, with the addition of “a make-believe sister” for him, the Scarrys’ only child) head to the beach in their Volkswagen convertible — the same car the Scarrys owned once they moved to Switzerland in 1968 — and enjoy myriad escapades, alongside baboons in a bananamobile, ants in an antbus, a chicken driving an egg truck.
For my family, reading Scarry together was itself like a car trip — the rare sort where no one gets cranky and the world, as seen from the back seat, is fresh and startling. Are those mice really driving a car made of cheese? Of course they are! And the construction worker, a fox, is operating a massive tractor-thing that squashes stuff down and is called — what else? — a squasher-downer. Somehow, at the end of their day, the Pig family, now sunburned and heading home from the beach, find themselves on a mountainous road in what seems to be the Alps, and uh-oh, watermelons spilling from a watermelon truck tumble down the steep road, causing a pileup, in which, fortunately, no one is seriously hurt. There’s much to make out in the mess.
Scarry’s Busytown books are treasure hunts disguised as narrative adventures. “Where is that Goldbug?!” our son kept asking about the tiny yellow cricket who “shows up just about everywhere” but is difficult to spot. (Shouldn’t most beginners’ books be treasure hunts?) The unforced silliness appealed to his native desire to subvert the humdrum with the comically spectacular: pencil cars, pumpkin cars and, look, there’s a hammer car! Everything is unexpected in Scarry, and nothing is alarming. Even on the chaotic roads of Busytown, even in terrible traffic, there is a strong sense of community and cooperation — yet, thankfully, not a single earnest moment.
Children’s books this good are an excellent reason to consider having children.
The 50th anniversary edition includes a poster and never-before-seen sketches. It is very well done and I’m glad to have it, but our original copy will not be leaving this house until our son is prepared to read it to his own 3-year-old.