Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.

That’s one of my favorite sayings from Pirkei Avot, which I used to study with my dad. Richard Scarry probably never read it, but I salute him for being willing to learn.

Scarry’s books were beloved by generations of children, but as many readers noted in frustration, their implicit message to girls was that they could be moms, nurses, dental hygienists whose job was apparently to be redundant instrument trays, or teachers. Just about everything else in Busytown was done by men: that is, male cats, rabbits, raccoons, etc. When Scarry heard the criticisms, he took them to heart. He changed many of the drawings and words in editions re-drawn just a few years before he died.

picture-110-624x389For example, in Best Word Book Ever, “fireman” and “policeman” are changed to “firefighter” and “police officer.” Pants have been changed to skirts, ribbons and frills added here and there, ties added elsewhere, to show that judges might be women and teachers might be men. (Of course the pants-wearing, ribbonless characters could also be female. But kids understand this shorthand for male and female. And sure enough, in the earlier editions, when these characters have explanatory pronouns, they are generally male–maybe always, though he is too prolific for me to check.) The dental hygienist is not just standing there with a tray of tools, but showing a child how to brush one’s teeth; the farmer, male, now works alongside another farmer, female. A playground scene has girls bouncing a ball and being “it” in tag, and boys, not just girls, are playing ring-around-the-rosy. A fire scene shows that the cat waiting to be rescued is now just a “cat in danger,” not a “beautiful screaming lady” as formerly (though admittedly the cat is still in pink), and the other cat who’s actually taking his/her fate into his/her paws by jumping into a net is no longer identified as a “gentleman.” The musician, once a clarinetist in short pants, is now wearing a skirt suit and playing that most unfeminine instrument, cymbals.

As one can see from the comments in this Flickr set, some readers are highly critical of these changes. Apparently they think it’s “politically correct” to show Father Rabbit cooking alongside Mother Rabbit, and to add Chanukah to the holiday pages. It offends them greatly that an author decided to tell girls that they might have an actual role in an emergency besides screaming helplessly for a “brave hero” to rescue them. Well, boo on them. In the world I live in and want my kid to live in, women have jobs other than making their families’ meals, and men help keep house, and children of any sex can play any game on the playground. If all her books contradict me, what is she to think?

Me, I love Richard Scarry for welcoming the changes in once-rigid gender roles and helping to bring more changes about. He provided role models, and became one. It also meant that when Grandpa Stu asked whether Best Word Book Ever and What Do People Do All Day? were good presents for Mookie, I could say “Yes, please!” She opened the package tonight–for the sixth night of Hanukah, a holiday that is now celebrated in Busytown as well as in our household–and spent the rest of the evening reading them raptly. And we didn’t have to worry that her dreams of being a doctor or dentist or paleontologist were being subtly quashed as she did.

2 thoughts on “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.

  1. Oh, Amy! Thanks so much for sharing this. I had no idea. It’s one thing to update language, but I find it incredibly moving that he was willing to go back and change his drawings.

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