Today’s Google Doodle is a riff on Busytown, the invention of the great children’s author and illustrator Richard Scarry, who was born on June 5, 1919 and died in 1994. It took a while for me to warm to Scarry’s anthropomorphic worms, pigs and kittens. But the more I read his stories, the more his little Alpine village and its sometimes silly inhabitants grew on me.
Richard Scarry, who made his name illustrating and later writing Little Golden Books — a staple during my childhood — moved his family to Switzerland in the 1970s. Once you get past the weird-looking animals, what you’ll discover in Scarry’s books is a delightful re-creation of how a town of the modern era works. Busytown is full of charming old-world detail; it’s not just a generic town, it’s a town with specific, distinct architectural details that are truly lovely. I would have gladly lived in one of Scarry’s houses, above one of his little shops. If you’re wondering what the appeal is, think about what the world today looks like, especially to kids: rows of isolated buildings containing either public institutions and offices or big-box stores, rather than an interconnected community on a human scale.
I’ll admit my Scarry-mania was also helped along by The Busy World of Richard Scarry, an animated series which ran on various channels in the mid-1990s, when my kids were preschoolers. But what I remember most fondly are the early PC Busy Town games my kids enjoyed. Underneath all the learning stuff was a lot of truly deadpan humor: Mr. Fribble sadly intoning “The wind is blowing my hat” as his chapeau drifts off farther and farther away; Dr. Diane and her Brooklyn accent, saying “I’ll put a bean-dage on it;” and the little baker chanting “I’m kneading my dough, I’m kneading my dough,” then rushing to the shower to clean off, warbling “Figaro!” all the while.
But Scarry’s books were the starts of his empire. I found them an excellent resource for my kids as they began to talk and read. Titles like the Best Little Word Book Ever gave us plenty of opportunity to associate everyday things with their names. We read them together for hours. That’s not to say I didn’t love his stories as well. I still keep a copy of Richard Scarry’s Best Story Book Ever, handed down from my mother-in-law (a former kindergarten teacher), on my shelf, waiting for the next generation of kids to come along.