Things I love: Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy World

I’ve loved learning about the world since I was a small child and I was lucky enough to have parents who provided me with great books and other reading materials from a very young age. We always had stacks of National Geographic and World magazines to look through and even colourful atlases provided lots of chances to learn. However, one of my earliest introductions to the world outside my own neighbourhood came from one of the first books I can remember; Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy World.

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I think it was actually given to my brother when we were about four and five, but we both loved sitting with my mother and reading the stories inside. The book is a collection of about thirty short stories, each featuring new characters in a different county. The cover features a big red double decker bus with all the characters from the book looking out the window and the inside cover has a map of the world with pictures showing the location of each country in the book. My parents would often open the book to the map page and let us each find our favourite to read at bedtime.

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It was always a hard choice. Some of my favourites were Schtoompah, the funny Austrian, Mario, the Venetian Gondolier and Noah the Boa at the South American Carnival. And whenever my mom was reading we’d request Schmudge the German Chimney Sweep, mainly to hear my mother put on her best German accent for Frau Wascherwomman’s line, “You have r-r-r-r-ruined my laundry!” Ah yes, young children are such an easy audience, aren’t they?

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Well ,when my daughter was born, I started hunting down some of my old favourite books to start our own home library and I was surprised to discover that Busy Busy World was no longer in print and wasn’t available anywhere. I was determined to find it and my husband was finally able to track down a second edition copy in good condition from a rare book seller as a Christmas gift for me that year. I couldn’t believe that such an amazing book be out of print.

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Could it be because it’s considered too dated and stereotyped for today’s kids? It was published in 1965 and it reflects those times to a certain extent. The book has almost exclusively male characters and the story selections are definitely Euro-centric. Looking through the book I see a lot of cliche’s but nothing I’d consider offensive. The character in the story from Hong Kong is a panda called Ah Choo but is that any worse than the Austrian tuba player called Schtoompah or Dr Krunchchew the Russian dentist? I suppose that the publisher doesn’t want even a hint of controversy, but it seems a shame to not offer a book that has so many good qualities just because it’s a bit dated.

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While I’m thrilled that we were able to get a copy of this book for our kids, the fact that it’s so rare and the copy we have is quite fragile has meant that my kids haven’t had the chance to page through it and study the detail on each page the way I was able to as a young child, which is a bit of a shame. I do hope to let them use it more as they get older and more trustworthy and we’ll able to read it together they way I did as a young child. It’s too bad, though, that unlike my mother I don’t speak German and my Frau Wascherwomman imitation will never be up to her standards!

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