The Bowdlerization of Busytown

The candidate is a travesty. To begin with, her eyelashes are the same length as her eyebrows.

She panders to her constituency by handing out free food embossed with her image.  Aside from this flagrant violation of campaign finance laws, she’s got other problems, among them a dalliance with a Marie Antoinette wig that ends up televised. The Ides of March transposed with Sarah Palin’s uncola uncandidacy? Nope. It’s Richard Scarry‘s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories.

Let me digress right away (I wouldn’t be Kid Lit Vulture if I didn’t). Have you ever read your kid one of the first two Arthur stories on the same day as any of the later books in the series? Did anything catch your eye?

The face of the protagonist, Arthur, aka Arthur Read, is all aardvark. Therein lies the charm, in my view. Marc Brown‘s got that ugly thing going with the earliest incarnation of Arthur and his family (Arthur’s Nose, 1976), best embodied in the  pockmarks that spit and churn up the illustrations. Some editor, or maybe Marc Brown’s “people” convinced him to give Arthur a makeover between book two and book three. Facelift, botox, ear reshaping, nose reduction—probably tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cosmetic surgery. Where did it get Arthur? Did Brown really have to cleanse him of his essential aardvarkness to orchestrate the skyrocketing celebrity he later enjoyed? Would it really be going too far to suggest that the airbrushing of Arthur parallels the compression of childhood that media literacy maven Diane Levin, among others, pinpoints?

Arthur's  Eyes
Only first editions of Arthur's Eyes, the second in the series, depict an animalistic Arthur.

Postscript to above digression: after writing this, I found Marc Brown on the record, in response to a question from some Connecticut first-graders, saying “Arthur looks like a real aardvark in the first book. But the more I drew Arthur, the shorter his nose became. I guess I just wanted to make him friendlier looking. My friend Steven Krensky, who’s also a writer, said that Arthur is starting to look human and it’s scaring him.”

I find Brown’s “accidental” anthropomorphism story disingenuous. Yes, it’s all relative; our libraries are littered with animals in sweaters. Yes, it’s harmless. But I don’t have to like it. I’m loyal to the Arthur of the Nose and the Eyes.

Eyelashes a bit long, cheeks a pinker shade of pink? Hilda gets coy in the era of Nick Jr.

Hilda hasn’t gone through the same kind of transformation between her younger incarnation in the original Richard Scarry books and the Hilda who is the frontman for the Richard Scarry Corporation in Richard Scarry’s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories. But doesn’t that double possessive tip us off that something is not right with this picture?

The brawny wonder of Busytown (along with her sister in Scarryness, Miss Honey) actually smiles with her eyes closed in the title under discussion. This is a coyness we do not see in any early Richard Scarry books (I’ll get my fact checkers right on that). But wait a minute, Richard Scarry’s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories, it turns out, is flagged “as seen on Nick Jr. and Showtime.” So, our Hilda of the Eyelashes is a mere stepchild of Richard Scarry. On the copyright page, we learn the product is “adapted from the animated television series The Busy World of Richard Scarry.”

Even as late as 1975, Hilda appears without eyelashes.

What a small gaggle of ten and twelve–year-olds said, when I told them I was interested in comparing old Scarry and new Scarry, was that there isn’t as much drawing in the margins in the 21st-century books. In most vintage Scarry, we have the likes of Goldbug hiding in odd places, pencil cars, pickle cars, and various invertebrates driving other inventive vehicles, yakking with each other, and doing their union jobs with integrity and verve. Those kids were spot on. The television-sourced Scarry has been cleansed of marginalia—the very essence of Scarry in his heyday.

Did I whet your appetite for more Scarry stuff? Here’s a fascinating comparison of differences between old and new Scarry editions.