Children’s books are meant to be read in short doses: the time required, under drapery of night, to lull a child to sleep. For this reason, it is a bad idea to plow through the collected works of a children’s book author as if they were actually “collected works.” Only in rare cases—the output, say, of Beatrix Potter, beginning with The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)—have the authors of such volumes produced them with a novelist’s eye toward the arc of a career, or with serious thought devoted to the evolution of key characters.
This principle I violated a year ago, when my son, Aaron, then three, discovered a book called Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go (1974). Someone gave him a new, reissued edition as a gift and, eager to stimulate Aaron’s interest in reading—even if it meant deepening his preoccupation with trucks, diggers, cranes and asphalt compactors—I acceded to his demands that I read this colorful, densely illustrated and unrelentingly tedious volume to him over and over.
Actually, I read it to Aaron in nightly installments because Things That Go is both long for a children’s book (69 pages) and lacking in plot. It’s more travelogue than storybook, chronicling the daylong road trip of Ma and Pa Pig and their two piglets as they drive through improbably diverse environs, weather patterns and mishaps (pileups, snowstorms, spilt bag o’nails). “Pa is all worn out from changing the tire”, reads a typical passage. “He is taking a nap in the backseat while Ma drives. All right, everyone! Slow down! There is road construction ahead.” Mostly, Things That Go is a vehicle for Scarry, who died in 1994 shortly before his 75th birthday, to show off his draughtsman’s mastery of vehicles, machines and contraptions imbued with anthropomorphized teeth, faces and willfulness.
Scarry had been a fixture of my childhood years—the era of Ali and Frazier, the Watergate hearings and “Band on the Run”—but not, really, of my childhood. His books never clicked with me. Their titles, where the author’s unusual name always appeared first, put me off. Were his books meant to be scary? If so, they failed. Then there was Scarry’s illustration style. His animals were cloyingly cute and vaguely anonymous. His rabbits too closely resembled the Nestlé Quick bunny, which I hated. And he exalted clutter over cleanliness, his teeny-tiny mice in carrot cars drawn solely to fill the remotest corners, and free white space, of every page. It struck me, even then, as messy, undisciplined.
In retrospect, I see Scarry’s style as part of a contemporaneous vogue in commercial illustration, the exemplar of which was Jack Davis, whose work for...