If you think a brown bear wearing ghoulish clown makeup leading a small clothed pig on a leash belongs in a Stephen King novel or a deleted scene from Blue Velvet, you might be surprised that this image exists in a book you’ve probably read your toddler about one hundred times. Throughout the entire spectrum of children’s books, the rules of animals owning other animals is confusing, but it’s arguably at its most inconsistent — and horrifying — in the Richard Scarry classic; Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.
Originally published in 1963, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book ever was given new illustrations in 1980, mostly to update some of the sexism present in old versions. (In the ‘80s illustrations Father Pig on page 40 is wearing an apron and helping out in the kitchen with an egg beater, but in the ‘63 version, we imagine, he was drinking a highball and talking about how Nixon was robbed.) The point is, while the newer illustrations are better with gender parity, they’re disturbing as fuck when it comes to why an animal can be a sentient being —complete with a house, a car, and clothes — on one page and a savage beast owned by other animals on the next.
At first, I believed the “rules” for which animals could have clothes and cars and houses and names in The Best Word Book Ever was connected to a cuteness test: cats, dogs, and bunnies would probably get clothes, while more wild animals — like lions and tigers and bears — would be depicted as wild. That notion, however, is shattered on page one of The Best Word Book Ever, as Kenny Bear wakes up in his bed (which is not in a cave), gets dressed, and eats a multi-course breakfast in which every piece of cutlery and dish is specifically named. Okay. New rules: Bears are the dominant species in Scarryverse. Right?
Wrong. While bears enjoy a huge amount of autonomy and freedom throughout Best Word Book ever (including owning and operating a farm, we’ll get to that in a minute) on page 30, titled “At the Zoo,” at least three types of bears are in cages, being watched exclusively by clothed mice and cats who appear to be the zookeepers. Other caged animals in this scene include tigers, elephants, leopards, and hippos, all of which enjoy freedom elsewhere in the book. (A lion is a doctor in the “Keeping Healthy” section and elephants wear clothes, shop, and have a bed with nice sheets at the very end of the book.) So, what’s happening here? Does “At the Zoo,” just quickly dip into an alternate universe in which cats and mice have created an alliance against all other animals?
This explanation would work, except that bears have a tricky relationship in the “At the Circus” section on page 52. Here, all of the circus bears are clothed and doing tricks, which seems to imply they are in charge of the circus, except for the fact that the ringmaster is a fucking tiger and he’s holding a whip. This is where we see a clothed pig as a popcorn seller, but also, the aforementioned tiny nightmare pig who is being led on a leash by the grotesque, Lovecraftian clown-bear.
Throughout The Best Word Book Ever, both bears and pigs scan as the Village People of sentient animals: they can be cops, doctors, construction workers — pretty much anything and everything. Except of course, when they are in charge of killing one another for meat. On page 16, we’re introduced to “The Bears’ Farm” in which the only clothed animals are the bears, and all the other farm animals are occupying their usual farm animal roles; including, a naked pig that lives in a pigsty. One caption reads: “Kathy Bear is going to feed the pig.” Kathy Bear is a sophisticated person if only because on subsequent pages we learn she has a change purse in addition to a backpack. And yet, here, on the farm, she is feeding a pig which will clearly be slaughtered at some point.
Yet, only two pages later, on page 20 — “At the Supermarket” — we see a bear as a grocer and two clothed pigs called respectively a “shopper” and a “customer.” There a piglet is parked in front of a meat case, very likely displaying frankfurters made from a processed relative. In the background, a raccoon butcher gleefully slices up a steak from some unidentified animal all while, I imagine, “Piggies” from the Beatles White Album plays eerily over the supermarket’s speakers.
Now, pigs only eat turkey and roast beef in Best Word Book ever, never bacon. But, the brave Nick Adams of Best World Book — that pesky Kenny Bear — does eat bacon, which makes sense, because, of course, he’s on the Bear’s Farm, too. The point is, finding animals that don’t occupy both dominant and subjugated roles in the same book is harder than animals that are just one thing or another.
Here are the only land-dwelling animals who remain “animals” in Best World Book ever: cows. That’s it! In all 71 pages of Best Word Book Ever, I could only find three cows. One on the cover, clearly a farm cow, and another two on page 63 in a meadow; a regular cow and a calf. Unlike nearly all other animals in this book, cows do not go to the grocery store, try to catch a city bus, repel down the sides of mountains, or give people speeding tickets. Cows are literally the only point where the Scarryverse — at least in Best Word Book Ever — seems to merge briefly with the twisted logic of our own.
Should you point out these facts to your toddler? Should you ask them to find which pigs went to the market and which pigs stayed home and waited for the bears to come to get them in the night? I dunno. The real world is full of creepy paradoxes. Maybe the Scarryverse is just prepping kids for all of the confusing stuff they will face as adults. The metaphors Richard Scarry is floating about who is in charge and why might not be on the level with George Orwell or Pierre Boulle. But I’d argue, on most days, Best Word Book Ever has given me more to think about than Planet of the Apes or 1984.
At the very least, Scarry has made sure none of us — especially our kids — will think about pigs, bears, and lions or tigers with any shred of sanity, ever.