Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Best. Word Book. Ever.

I've had some variation on this conversation quite a few times, almost always about the same author:

Customer: Can you help me? I need to buy a gift for a four-year-old, and I don't know much about kids' books. I don't even really remember what I read as a kid. Is there something with trucks, maybe?
Me: Sure, of course. How about Cars and Trucks and Things That Go?
Customer: Oh, right! I remember Richard Scarry!

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever turns fifty this year, and Random House is marking the occasion with a new edition, which will kick off a rebranding of much of Scarry's backlist. The changes sound fairly minor (new covers, but Scarry's original artwork will be scanned), and I say more power to a Scarry push. In many ways, Scarry does for the picture book set what a lot of nonfiction does for older kids who might find themselves reluctant readers of more linear text. Scarry's busy, busy pages tell kids that they don't have to read or sit through a story from cover to cover. They can "dip in." They can interact with each page, discovering new details every time or developing their own custom routines of elements to point out every time they share the books.

Maybe that's why Scarry has such an ability to jog the memories of adults who as a whole don't have strong memories of childhood reading. I can see why his books might leave an impression on kids who otherwise didn't enjoy reading. Scarry's work broadens the definition of what reading can be like for early readers, and if those reluctant readers who found his books forty or fifty years ago had then found lots more books like them, I wonder if they would've had a more natural progression into reading. These days, with so many kids' books using more visual formats (I'm looking at you, nonfiction and graphica and semigraphica), I wonder if Scarry's books are better positioned to serve as gateway books.

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