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Carnegie Science Center

June 13 through September 8, 2002

By M. A.Jackson

Hilda Hippo's gone waltzing off to the grocery store and Huckle Cat is working hard in the shipyard. Look over there...it's Sergeant Murphy assisting Mr. Frumble chase his hat across the street. But where's Lowly Worm? Is he working in the construction area?   Is he reading a book at the library? Can you find Lowly Worm?

That's not just the story in a Richard Scarry book, it's Busytown come to life-- a 5,000-square-foot exhibit opening June 13, at Carnegie Science Center. Here the offbeat, educational world Scarry created in his beloved books comes to life with life-size graphics of his most well-known characters. This lively, colorful, three-dimensional "city"--complete with grocery store, factory, shipyard, power plant, and construction area--promotes the themes of cooperation, interconnected systems, and  role-playing found throughout Scarry's books.

Aimed at children ages 2 to 10, each area of Busytown is filled with hands-on activities to explore: there are gears to turn, cranes to operate, pulleys to yank, structures to build, and air hoses to be activated.  In Busytown, children experience how objects behave and how their own actions affect the world around them. The open-ended nature of the exhibit's materials allows creativity to flourish. In essence, Busytown is a Scarry book come to life.

But the exhibit's not all play. Dallas DiLeo, head librarian of the Children's Department at Carnegie Library, Oakland, says Busytown addresses prescience skills...the foundation of scientific process. "If you aren't wondering and questioning 'what if' at age 3 or 4, then by the time you're 6, the idea of hypothesizing is going to be foreign," says DiLeo. "This is a great hook to use [Scarry's] characters in this way. It will get kids asking questions, investigating, and predicting."

Busytown activities are based on the following principals: science is a process, every child will approach these activities in a unique way, open-ended questions stimulate thought, and play is the best way for children to learn. To assist parents with these principals, information on how children process information and strategies to encourage natural inquisitiveness are provided throughout the exhibit.

One suggestion is to ask children questions that can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Instead pose questions that require thought: "What can you do with these things?" "Why do you think that happened?" "What will happen if you...?"

Scarry's books have been popular for two generations because of similar questions liberally peppered throughout each book. Scarry was big on asking the reader what was going on in his drawings and how they felt about them: "What do you want to buy at the store?" "What is your favorite animal at the zoo?" "What do you think might happen next?" These types of questions help spark a child's imagination and inquisitive nature.

Scarry did more than just write books, he drew them--more than 100 between 1949 and his death in 1994. Each book was filled with bright colors, active little animal characters, and lots of details. Light on text, the books were cartoon-like glimpses of the world a child might observe every day: from the schoolroom and city streets to the dentist office and construction site.

"He was kind of revolutionary in that he wasn't telling a story like other children's writers at the time were," says DiLeo. "Any book with such incredibly detailed pictures that you can plunge into is wonderful.

"Busytown addresses the prescience skills of children--the foundation of the scientific process"

You can look at the same page over and over and see new things...it's so absorbing. Children love that aspect of his books."

Scarry's books were first published in the late 50s--a time when children were quickly defecting from traditional books to the flashing visuals of the TV screen.  But Scarry's almost plotless, image-driven books captured children's attention in a way that seemed to echo the busyness occurring on the small screen, yet in a more educational manner.

"In Richard Scarry's world nonreaders can create stories to accompany pictures and diagrams, or parents can read the text to a child as a fun, interactive activity."

One quality of Scarry's books most appreciated by parents was that the books could be enjoyed two ways: nonreaders could peruse them alone and create a story to accompany the pictures and diagrams, or a parent could read the text to a child as a fun, interactive activity. As DiLeo says, books that promote interaction, as Scarry's books do, are very important in helping to expand a child's language experience and understanding. "There has to be a conversation along with the book," she says. The Busytown exhibit can be enjoyed the same way--you can let the kids loose to explore and play on their own, or you can join them for a few hours of interactive fun.

For years Scarry illustrated the books of other writers, including those of his wife, Patsy.  In 1951, Scarry wrote his first book: The Great Car and Truck Book, featuring human characters, not the athropomorphized animals that became his trademark. By the time of his big break--1963's Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever--he was concentrating on drawing cute animal characters. "Because it is more fun," Scarry replied when asked why he used animals instead of people. "Fun for me, fun for kids, fun for adults who have to read and reread these books to nonreaders." He added that drawing animals also allowed him to create more characters.

Scarry's books have sold more than 100 million copies and have been printed in 30 languages. Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, featuring 1,400-plus labeled objects, sold seven million copies in 12 years.  According to Walter Retan and Ole Risom's biography, The Busy, BusyWorld of Richard Scarry, in the 1970s Scarry's books were outselling Dr. Seuss. But while the kids loved him, parents were beginning to question if Scarry was teaching stereotypes as well as words.

"He was showing a very 50s type of life," says DiLeo. "The moms were in dresses, and the construction workers were always men. In the early 70s people were stomping their feet and making a big to-do over this.  Parents were saying, 'How will we change the world if the lady cats are always in dresses?'"

According to DiLeo, Scarry didn't have an agenda, he was just behind the times. And, to his credit, Scarry quickly responded to gender-bias criticisms by revising The Best Word Book Ever.  The updated version features female farmers and mechanics and men cooking and caring for babies.

Despite the criticism, Scarry's creatures--such as Lowly Worm and Bananas Gorilla--have endured.  They are still very popular," DiLeo says of the books. They are timeless, and people ask for them. They remember them from their childhood."

There's no better test of popularity than commercial success. While not as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh, Scarry's creatures have their own cartoon show, grace a myriad of collectibles, are featured on videos and CD-ROMS, and have been turned into stuffed animals and action figures. In 1995 McDonalds sold a "Happy Meal" containing toys of Scarry's characters. In 2000, New Organics Company debuted a children's food line with cookies in the shape of his characters and packaging emblazoned with his illustrations.

And now there's the Richard Scarry's Busytown exhibit at Carnegie Science Center--a really excellent choice for parents and children in this busy world.

Go to Work in Busytown

At Busytown children begin to learn real-world skills.  Here are the main components:

GROCERY STORE: Basic math concepts are the focus here. Children can weigh, sort, match, compare, count, and sell "produce" using a scale, calculator, and abacus. There are shopping baskets for loading items onto a hand-operated conveyor belt before they are transported into a produce truck. And you can ride around in the pickle car.

FACTORY: Explore the physics of movement and cause and effect by fitting variously shaped blocks into corresponding holes, sending balls along switchbacks, negotiating the factory's four-level climbing structure, transporting items in buckets via a pulley, and moving materials on a conveyor belt.

SHIPYARD: Learn about mechanical physics at work by turning the wheels of

the gantry crane and maneuvering block cargo from the waiting freighter ship to a flatbed railroad car. There are also trains, tunnels, and railroad track.

POWER PLANT: Experience aerodynamics--the characteristics of air and wind--with windmills, air hoses, wind chimes, windsocks, pinwheels, and whistles.

CONSTRUCTION AREA: Discover the concepts of architectural engineering--size, weight, shape, balance, gravity, and stability--as you design and build three-dimensional structures using giant tinker toys and PVC pipe pieces, wheelbarrows, cranes, and pick-up trucks.

READING AND BLOCK AREA: Spend some quiet time with books by Richard

Scarry and other children's authors. Or discover the concepts involved in building as you design and erect structures out of a variety of hardwood and soft foam building blocks.

COMPUTER STATIONS: Children are challenged to think, make choices, and learn at the four computer stations scattered throughout Busytown. Software programs support the exhibit's themes and concepts.

VIDEO KIOSKS: Watch four cartoons from The Busy World of Richard Scarry, the animated TV series. Each video has a different theme illustrating the infrastructure of a community--how mail is delivered, how windmills make electricity, how phones work, how we get water and electricity in our homes, and how elevators work.

PARENT STATIONS: Scattered throughout Busytown are kiosks that provide information for parents and teachers on how to help children get the most out of the activities.

 

 

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