Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Do People Do All Day?


This is Busytown. My, what a nice town!


The year is 1968. The place is a small town in the United States, somewhere indefinite: think Springfield, except running on coal instead of nuclear power. And as the name suggests, in Busytown


‘Everyone is a worker.’ That is a powerful statement, if you think about it. Richard Scarry wasn’t afraid to paint contemporary American society in such bold strokes. Nor was he afraid to explain commerce and capitalism to children. Observe:

Farmer Alfalfa grows all kinds of food. He keeps some of it for his family. He sells the rest to Grocer Cat in exchange for money. Grocer Cat will send the food to other people in Busytown.


Today Alfalfa bought a new suit with some of the money he got from Grocer Cat. Stitches, the tailor, makes clothes. Alfalfa bought new his new suit from Stiches.

Then Alfalfa went to Blacksmith Fox’s shop. He had saved enough money to buy a new tractor. The new tractor will make his farm work easier. With it he will be able to grow more food than he could grow before.


He also bought some presents for Mum and his son, Alfred. Alfalfa put the rest of the money in the bank for safekeeping. Then he drove home to his family.


I return to a favourite topic: books for children and what they tell them (and us) about society, and especially about work. I continue to operate on the basis of an anecdotal hunch, not yet supported by a systematic and quantitative survey of the literature: namely, that we don’t do this any more, that there is no longer a market for this kind of book: the comprehensive telling of how the economy operates, along with attempts to place the individual in it. This is not to say, as usual, that the accounts are uncomplicated, nor that they are ideologically transparent or sympathetic. But rather that it may say something that we’ve stopped even trying – something about the less visible, tangible nature of work, but also about our diminished capacity to understand and represent it.

Scarry’s supremely fluent style is based on a panoptic principle: every window is open, every wall or outside surface is potentially see-through. Every building and every structure can be made to open up to the child’s meticulous scrutiny. The drawings are deliciously detailed but not in an overly technical way. The text is more informative than lyrical. And the scope of the work is genuinely impressive: What Do People Do All Day? is 64 pages long. It covers farming, domestic work, several clerical, retail and services professions, road building, the provision of healthcare, sea travel, railroad travel, policing, fire-fighting, the extraction of coal and its use in the production of electricity, the collection, purification and reticulation of water, saw milling and the paper and pulp industry. The occupations represented include mayors, newsagents, street cleaners, private detectives, policemen, watch repairers, shoemakers, hoteliers, newspaper reporters, newspaper editors, book printers, photographers, secretaries, artists, story writers, poets, janitors, photographers, models, violinists, booksellers and saleswomen – and that’s just in the first two pages.

The tone is generally cheerful, but watch out for the occasional weird touch: Scarry’s trademark gridlocks-cum-pileups, undermining the idea of the smooth flow of people and goods on the urban grid, and those wonderfully thing-shaped vehicles of his – the apple cart, the egg van, the baguette car – straining against the opacity of symbols and abstractions.


Nonetheless, Busytown is a place that works. Literally, in that it appears to enjoy full employment, and also in the sense that it has few obvious social problems. The police force, consisting of Sergeant Murphy, Policeman Louie and their chief, is charged with ‘keeping things safe and peaceful’ and ‘protecting the townspeople from harm’, which appears to largely consist of directing traffic, ticketing hoons and apprehending the town’s notorious thief, Gorilla Banana.

Now of course one could opine that it’s in fact diffuse surveillance and self-surveillance that keep such remarkable order. All those open windows and doors, all that neighbourly cheerfulness, have a slightly sinister edge to them, if you’re inclined to look for it, as do the lengths that some of the citizens will go to in order to promote proper behaviour amongst children.



Gender roles could also use some deconstructing, for while it is nice of the author to acknowledge that ‘Mother’s work is never done’, it would be even nicer to give the poor woman a scene in which she’s not wearing an apron. In this section we also find one of the most striking images in the book, that of the mother struggling to keep a brush salesman at bay.


You could recycle this one wholesale to describe Internet shopping. But otherwise these rigidly gendered vignettes do get Scarry in a bit of trouble with the publishers, who have developed something of a habit for doctoring his work to suit today’s more sensitive audiences.

Comparison between the 1963 and 1991 editions of Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever. A father appears in the kitchen in the later edition. From kokogiak’s excellent Flicker set, which includes several more examples.

Another distinctly of-its-time section – and it gets predictably omitted in the abridged editions – is the one in praise of coal digging to ‘make electricity work for us’. In contrast with other children’s authors of his time, like Tison and Taylor, Scarry here is refreshingly unencumbered by environmental concerns, to the point of allowing himself a little sight gag, whereby the fox’s electric barbecue produces a far larger and denser cloud than the smokestacks at the mine or at the power plant.


However I am just as impressed but the extent in which Scarry’s work has in fact not dated very much at all. While the book covers an almost bafflingly broad range of occupations and includes sections on the extraction and transformation of raw materials, there is one notable omission: large-scale manufacturing. And without industry, from a Western perspective the book seems in fact almost presciently current. Some of the jobs the author describes have evolved, very few of them have all but disappeared (you can’t easily bump into a blacksmith, much less one who sells tractors); the texture of our cities has changed and those little shops have given way to larger chain stores; but by and large we still do the things that occupy Scarry’s anthropomorphic menagerie: we fix the sewers and serve the meals and cut down the trees and drive the trucks and cultivate the land and so forth. It’s almost as if Scarry made a conscious effort to draw only the jobs that could not be outsourced overseas, and had thus future-proofed the book for his domestic audience.

Which rather begs my usual question: so why is it that we no longer make these kinds of books? Why is it that we have shifted our focus to how things work or how people used to work as opposed to how people work now? Is it that work is too elusive, that new economy jobs are harder to draw? Can we not deal with the fact that Alfalfa has become a derivatives trader? But work of course is far from invisible. It’s not just that we do so many of the occupations lovingly drawn by Scarry, and in more or less the same way. It’s also that people still work in manufacturing, only mostly elsewhere. We could teach our children about that, just like we teach them that everybody poops. They both seem worthy topics. And it will be fraught, of course, and the politics of it will seem hard to navigate – because they are – but that’s not a valid reason not to do it.

Above all 'what do people do all day?' strikes me as such an excellent and important question. If you’ve ever had to explain to a child what it is that you do, you’ll know it can be a rather sobering exercise, rather like in that series of radio sketches by David Mitchell and Robert Webb where in order to keep your job you’d have to explain it to a panel of old ladies first. How do we occupy our time, and how valuable or fun or enriching is it? To attempt a proper answer that goes back to the first principles means having to reflect on what we mean when we use words like economy and ecology, and to frame these reflections imaginatively, as children’s literature requires, adds further value to that. Simplified, purified, prettified, the economy as depicted by Scarry seems so much more humane, so much less monstruous, yet also perplexing and strange, in that everything is de-naturalised and has to be re-learned, which is to say reimagined.

It would be far too grandiose to call it the beginning of an education in utopian thinking, wouldn’t it?





Richard Scarry. What Do People Do All Day. New York: Random House, 1968.

This benefited from a conversation with and linky suggestions by Jolisa Gracewood, whose blog is, if I may be allowed to say so, practically eponymous.

Go to part one in this series, About Dustmen. Also in the series: The Happy Worker, Work-Slash-Life.




28 comments:

Jolisa said...

Lovely close-reading! Especially of the role of vehicular chaos, which tends to put the brakes on all that frictionless capitalism. As do the social relations between the various animals, who always seem happy to stop for a chat.

A sad thought: is it also possible that one reason we no longer create these busy sorts of books is because too many of the images would consist of people (and children) sitting in cars, or sitting in front of screens of one sort or another?

Also,

"... diffuse surveillance and self-surveillance that keep such remarkable order. All those open windows and doors, all that neighbourly cheerfulness..."

This reminds me of the utopian urban design espoused by Christopher Alexander and co, in their Pattern Language project: the idea of eyes on the street, shared activity in the common space, and a human-scale architecture featuring balconies, windows, and walls to sit upon, and from which to regard the world.

Significantly, Alexander's vision explicitly incorporates children and their need to move about the world (and observe how it works) as a basic principle, rather than an afterthought. Being an unrepentant utopian, of course, I adore it.

The wordless picture books of Ali Mitgutsch would make an interesting comparison, too: his towns are just as busy, but not anatomised or labelled à la Scarry. And his people are people, rather than animals with cunning trousers designed to accommodate tails. On that note, interesting that Farmer Alfalfa merely farms grains, not other animals... I guess that would be just too too Animal Farm to contemplate.

downnoutmk said...

A sad thought: is it also possible that one reason we no longer create these busy sorts of books is because too many of the images would consist of people (and children) sitting in cars, or sitting in front of screens of one sort or another?

I was just thinking that. As one whose job it is to manage the dots on the screen, which involves largely trying to control the humans cybernetically connected to these screens I have to admit I have a daily struggle in terms of my relationship with "what I do all day". For those of us who work in offices I feel our jobs are not dissimilar to school. You must be at such-and-such a place for set periods of time, regardless of whether there is work to be done or not. In both cases it keeps us off the streets I suppose.

Speaking of the self surveilling utopia, there ARE a lot of CCTV cameras in Milton Keynes, and there is a lot of neighbourly cheerfulness around. The architecture here is friendly it's true, but the underpasses and too tidy, empty streets are scary at night, and any signs of character are ruthlessly excluded giving the opposite feeling to common space.

Philip said...

The car slid through the streets of the business complex. The landscaping around the abandoned offices and industrial buildings had grown rank, then died brown under the sun of Southern California. She slowed the car and began reading to herself the one-word company names - ANAMCO; EUTRONICS; like some alien vocabulary - written in plastic logos on the sides of the buildings. What did they all do before? she wondered. Before they all left?

K W Jeter, Death Arms (1987)

Word Verification: agations, the agitations that appear without it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Philip, that's a wonderful quote.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Jolisa: "A sad thought: is it also possible that one reason we no longer create these busy sorts of books is because too many of the images would consist of people (and children) sitting in cars, or sitting in front of screens of one sort or another?"

I’m not certain that people are sitting in cars more than they were back then, but the point about computers is salient. As downnoutmk also hints at, it's not so much that it's hard to represent the office or office work (as Scarry does repeatedly in the book), but more specifically cyberspace. When you are sitting in front of a computer you are both there and not there, you are 'somewhere in the space between two telephones', as Bruce Sterling put it. And that’s a bastard to draw I would imagine. (In fact, I have a wonderful pop-up book from the eighties called Inside the Personal Computer that I was going to use, but I ran out of room.)

That said, the fact that new economy jobs have become shorthand for ‘work’ means that we grossly overstate how common they are. These are the top ten occupations in New Zealand according to the 2006 census, and not all of them involve sitting in front of a computer screen by any means.

Sales Assistant 93,840
General Clerk 58.527
General Manager 50,955
General Labourer 36,879
Administration Manager 34.695
Cleaner 34,593
Retail Manager 33,183
Technical Representative 31,071
Primary School Teacher 28,989
Caregiver 28,614

(Source)

I find it really amusing that the seventh least common profession is ‘goat farmer’. Although I guess it’s not quite Alfalfa they have in mind.

“On that note, interesting that Farmer Alfalfa merely farms grains, not other animals... I guess that would be just too too Animal Farm to contemplate.”

Pluto is Goofy and Mickey Mouses’s pet dog. I read Walt Disney comics constantly as a child but didn’t find this weird until well into adulthood.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@downnoutmk: ”Speaking of the self surveilling utopia, there ARE a lot of CCTV cameras in Milton Keynes, and there is a lot of neighbourly cheerfulness around. The architecture here is friendly it's true, but the underpasses and too tidy, empty streets are scary at night, and any signs of character are ruthlessly excluded giving the opposite feeling to common space.”

I did have a feeling that Hot Fuzz might be actually a documentary. More to the point, I must recommend the chapter on Milton Keynes from Owen Hatherley’s Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain.

Alan said...

A lot of Scarry looks European to me, with the gingerbread houses and Swiss flags all over the place.

We have quite a few of his books from when we were kids and our own children have continued to find them interesting and relevant. After forty years though, the books are a bit trashed. But that's OK.

("henocula" - the questing and reptilian, but ultimately lackwitted gaze of the domestic chicken)

stephen said...

I was a Scarry kid too.

I explained my job to Hannah when she was little as "Daddy tells computers what to do."

An interesting aspect of the Scarry worker animals is that they seem to enjoy a lot of autonomy and mostly complete whole processes. There aren't many bosses or managers in evidence, or Taylorised assembly lines. Work in the Scarry world seems a lot more fulfilling than in this one.

Ben Wilson said...

I'm in two minds about how soon I want my kids to know about the existence of cyberspace. They'll discover it soon enough, and get sucked in like everyone in the world. I'd like them to have a little bit of life outside it first.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Ben I'm in two minds about how soon I want my kids to know about the existence of cyberspace.

I am too. Fittingly, this echoes the title of one of the seminal books on the subject.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Stephen I explained my job to Hannah when she was little as "Daddy tells computers what to do."

Perfect!

An interesting aspect of the Scarry worker animals is that they seem to enjoy a lot of autonomy and mostly complete whole processes. There aren't many bosses or managers in evidence, or Taylorised assembly lines. Work in the Scarry world seems a lot more fulfilling than in this one.

And yet there are a lot of what you might call menial jobs, more so than skilled factory work: servants, road workers, porters, cleaners… The absence of factories really is quite peculiar, also because the Taylorised assembly lines strikes me as precisely the kind of place that Scarry could draw very well. He certainly draws lots of factory-like structures in the book, complete with machinery. Which leads me to wonder if he saw his America as already post-industrial.

Anonymous said...

I loved reading that Richard Scarry book to my children and look forward to reading it to my 18-month-old bookloving granddaughter someday.

Speaking of Walt Disney, Gio, have you seen this remixed cartoon, Right Wing Radio Duck? I found it on Al Jazeera and thought it was a very clever way to deal with the likes of Glenn Beck.

http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/03/20113685813934602.html

Ben Wilson said...

>The absence of factories really is quite peculiar, also because the Taylorised assembly lines strikes me as precisely the kind of place that Scarry could draw very well. He certainly draws lots of factory-like structures in the book, complete with machinery. Which leads me to wonder if he saw his America as already post-industrial.

I doubt it. His world looks more pre-industrial. Probably because it's more interesting and easier to draw.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thanks Anon - that's lovely work.

@Ben I doubt it. His world looks more pre-industrial. Probably because it's more interesting and easier to draw.

Well, no. The sections on the paper and pulp industry, on water and on coal and electricity are clearly not preindustrial. And complete with industrial machinery, brilliantly drawn. It's just not assembly lines, as Stephen notes.

Badaude said...

Busytown suffers from a disturbing lack of intelligentsia and a possible need for a grid redesign by Le Corbusier.

Actually I think the choice of jobs is predicated by the fact that they're visible to children (you might see the farmer riding a tractor: you probably won't see the widget-maker busy at the widget-stamping machine).

You might like http://tinyurl.com/4yce7sq

which is about http://tinyurl.com/3whv8t4

Giovanni Tiso said...

Lovely! I shall pass on to my sister who used to be a big Babar fan.

"Actually I think the choice of jobs is predicated by the fact that they're visible to children (you might see the farmer riding a tractor: you probably won't see the widget-maker busy at the widget-stamping machine)."

Yeah, but: sewer maintenance people, cooks on boats, coal miners, saw mill workers, water plant staff... it's a very broad range of professions and many of them are not especially visible. Not more so than factory workers at any rate.

Adam McIsaac said...

This is just great. I love that book (as does my six-year-old daughter, who reads my original, unreconstructed copy now), and I loved your reading of it.

A minor point: the commenter who noted the Swiss flags is correct. Scarry lived in Gstaad for the last part of his life.

I lived in Basel for awhile, and was delighted to find that the old city there was like living in a Scarry book, albeit without the anthropomorphized animals.

Thanks again.

raul said...

I ask your question "[why do] we no longer make these kinds of books? " all the time, especially when books like this (and this book in particular), is so beloved by children. My kids have worn my copy from my childhood (1974 edition) down to a nub. Just as popular in our house is it's now out of print, and somewhat less PC companion Busy Busy World. What amazes me most are seemingly involved/intelligent parents who see the books in our house, talk about how much they love them, but then feed their kids a diet of junk food kids books full of branded characters from TV shows.

John in Connecticut said...

I think that the variety of jobs people hold today is still quite broad even though many of them would look the same if Scarry were drawing them because, as Jolisa notes, they do largely involve sitting at computers. But I think it's important for kids to know what grown ups are doing at those computers, since the outputs and outcomes of that work obviously vary dramatically.

One of my favorite things about reading Scarry's books to my 5-year-old is how much information he sneaks into your head. His use of arrows, for example, showing where the fresh water comes into the house and where the waste water leaves, really gets it right, in almost exactly the same way it's depicted in the home-repair books you can buy at the DIY story. Pages 5-6 of "Building a New Road" strike me as such an amazing depiction of a complex sequence of steps that I have to remind myself that it's not animation. "Where Bread Comes From" are "Wood and How We Use It" are in the same league and have the additional bonus of uncredited cameo appearances by Lowly Worm.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the most important part of the book is that it's about *doing*. It's not called What Do People Think All Day. Competence = confidence, willpower = action.

Bing said...

wonderful and insightful post, i've always been a fan of Richard Starry's books!

The Editor said...

I think it's a mistake to assume that what Scarry has done in What Do People Do All Day reflects life in the United States. Scarry was living in Switzerland by 1968, and the architecture shown in the book is almost entirely European. All in all, the book feels more like France to me than anything else. Scarry grew up in a neighborhood about two miles from where I'm writing this comment, and that neighborhood looks nothing like this book. In some ways I'm wondering if, by using what appears to be a European model of both towns and commercial relations, he's making a commentary on 1960s America. The absence of pollution is rectified by his 1971 "Great Big Air Book," which includes four pages on air pollution, including a drawing of a cough drop factory filling the sky with smoke. The airport in that book shows Swiss Air and BEA (British Airways" planes taking off and landing, and a winter scene from the Alps.

My copy of WDPDAD indicates that my mother gave me this book for Christmas in 1970, and I'm an urban historian today. Go figure.

Nick said...

Thanks for deconstructing this book. As a child growing up with this book, I think Scarry's "prettified" world helped warp my view of "work."

Still, about a year ago, I re-visited this same book, and have come to find that Busytown made me think even deeper at the idea of work. Looking back on the jobs I've had though, it probably should have been called "Why Do People Do This All Day?"

Excellent find with the 1963 vs. 1968 version, by the way.

http://somewherearoundthirty.wordpress.com/2010/03/31/of-mice-and-blacksmiths/

Anonymous said...

So many adults who buy kids' books are so removed from these sorts of rather blue-collar jobs and trades that Scarry drew. They'd rather that their children not grow or make things for a living, but rather be lawyers and bankers.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I came across the Italian edition of the book today, Il libro dei mestieri, and it's over 90 pages long, so it looks like the one I reviewed in the post was an abridged edition - although still not as abridged as some according to one of the sources I linked. Curious. Notable extra sections included building a house and a trip to the post office.

I'm going to have to buy it I think.

Greg said...

Here's an infographic on what people do all day, because everything on the internet is about infographics now.

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/07/31/business/20080801-metrics-graphic.html

Giovanni Tiso said...

I like very much how they put socializing at the bottom there.

Caitlin Kelly said...

One other book well worth reading is "Working" by the late American journalist Studs Terkel. There has not been another book like it -- real histories of real people talking about their jobs. Not for kids, clearly, but a great book.

Work fascinates me and I hope to write my next book about it.

Great post...thanks.

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