Learn About Richard Scarry, the Children’s Book Author Who Illustrated Animals Like People

Children’s books are an important part of growing up. One of their benefits is that they allow kids to be delighted by pictures and ignite their imaginations. Richard Scarry was a prolific children’s book author and illustrator who personified animals with a charming whimsy that has been loved for generations.

Scarry is perhaps most famous for his Best Book Ever series which showcases the fictional world of Busytown. The books tell the stories of animal residents including Mr. Frumble (a pig), Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm, and Mr. Fixit (a fox) as they go about their days, both good and bad. The illustrations were as busy as the characters themselves, encouraging kids to want to read them time and again.

Learn about who Scarry was and some of his best-known books out of his more than 250 titles.


Who was Richard Scarry?

Richard McClure Scarry was born on June 5, 1919, and grew up in Boston. He was a voracious reader and an artist, but not a great overall student. When it came time to go to college, he enrolled in Boston’s Museum of Fine Art School. The year was 1939, and he would go on to attend for three years but be drafted into the Army in 1942 to fight in World War II. (He would never finish his formal art education.)

Scarry filled out a questionnaire on his first day of military service, and he shared that he was an artist. He was later assigned to a radio repair school and was miserable as he went through basic training. His luck changed when his superiors, seeing that he was an artist, assigned him to paint a sign. It eventually led Scarry into a more creative position with the Army. He enrolled in Officer Candidate School and trained in Special Services. The unit was dedicated to keeping up morale and entertaining the troops. He was eventually appointed to the Information and Morale Section, Allied Forces Headquarters in North Africa as art director.

The experience in the Army and the travel it afforded him—he toured throughout Africa and Europe—would later be reflected in his children’s books. But before that would happen, he left the Army in 1946 and landed in New York City. He worked briefly as an art director for Vogue magazine and an advertising agency before becoming a freelance illustrator in 1948.

Scarry’s agent suggested that he create a portfolio of illustrations for children’s books, and he was offered a one-year renewable contract with the Artists and Writers Guild, a subsidiary of Western Publishing and Simon and Schuster. This would be the start of his prolific career which included 250 books—many of which are still in print today.

Scarry died of a heart attack in 1994 at his home in Gstaad, Switzerland. His work has been recognized after his death, and he received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Illustrators in 2012.


Characteristics of Richard Scarry’s Books

The pages of Scarry’s book are dominated by pictures. They contain some words, but the drawings are packed with all sorts of detail and activities. Each requires multiple viewings to appreciate all of the details which has kept kids opening his books again and again.

Scarry is seen as a 20th-century Beatrix Potter, an illustrator who created the universally beloved Tale of Peter Rabbit. Like Potter, he anthropomorphized animals and they both dressed them in human clothing. But Potter was dedicated to creating scientific illustrations of flora and fauna and ultimately reminding the reader that her characters were, in fact, still animals. Scarry, by contrast, has emphasized their behavior as human (such as the jobs they hold) and used their animal characteristics as a secondary way to evoke humor in his work.

Drawing animals also offered Scarry more creative liberties without attaching the same feelings or expectations we have when we read stories about people. “If I show a human father falling off a ladder or getting into a monstrous auto crash,” he remarked, “it suggests danger and getting hurt. If I show Father Pig in the same situation, nothing more is hurt than his dignity.”


Famous Richard Scarry Books

Of Scarry’s more than 250 titles, his depiction of the fictional Busytown remains some of his most famous books. If you’re looking for a place to start enjoying Scarry’s books, here are some of his most famous ones.


What Do People Do All Day?

In What Do People Do All Day?, see how the residents of Busytown spend their days, from construction workers to farmers to doctors and more.


Cars and Trucks and Things That Go

Perfect for fans of cars, trucks, and “things that go,” Cars and Trucks and Things That Go features hundreds of label vehicles, including a pickle truck and an alligator car.


Best Word Book Ever

The Best Word Book Ever is meant to help young readers expand their vocabulary. It features over 700 words that label everything from the airport to the grocery store.


Be Careful, Mr. Frumble!

Oh, no! The bumbling Mr. Frumble lost his hat, and now he's trying to find it in Be Careful, Mr. Frumble! Employing basic vocabulary and short sentences, this book is meant to help kids learn to read.


Please and Thank You Book

In Please and Thank You Book, the residents of Busytown learn their manners and impart the lessons to readers


Changing with the Times

Scarry began publishing his books in the middle of the 20th century when attitudes towards race, gender, and societal norms were different from the generations that followed. With subsequent print editions, subtle changes were made to reflect a more inclusive world. In particular, gender roles were expanded.

Best Word Book Ever - Cover

On the cover of his Best Word Book Ever, you’ll notice that the 1963 version had a mother cat pushing a stroller and fixing dinner on a stove. The 1991 edition had both male and female characters contributing to home life and society at large.


Frequently Asked Questions


Is Richard Scarry still alive?

No, he died of a heart attack in 1994.


What is Richard Scarry known for?

Richard Scarry was an author and illustrator of more than 250 children's books. He is known for his world of Busytown which includes a whole cast of animal characters.


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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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