Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever is a a classic of children’s literature, having sold millions of copies to parents looking for a fun way to teach their children simple vocabulary.
The book was first published in 1963 and then updated in 1991. Interestingly, one of the reasons for the update was to show a more progressive attitude toward gender roles and race. Looking at the images side-by-side, the transformation is pretty neat to witness.
A post on Socialogical Images, republished on Mental Floss, brings to our attention a Flickr set by Alan Taylor that compares and contrasts the two editons of Scarry’s work, spotlighting the changes the author made over time to update his work.
The simple change of showing “Father” cooking implants a subtle lesson for children that cooking isn’t inherently feminine.
Or check out how this scene was updated, as the canoe and its passenger no longer read “Native American stereotype.”
Here we see a reference to Hanukkah added to what was previously blank space.
Women who are bears can have jobs that were traditionally reserved for men. And men who are bears can wear ribbons in their hair.
Here a “beautiful screaming lady” becomes the more relevant “cat in danger.”
The cover of the book is one of the starkest examples of the changes that were made.
There are a number of other subtle changes like this throughout the updated edition, such as a “pretty stewardess” that becomes a “flight attendant,” and you can see them all on Flickr.
Scarry’s changes were so important due to the scope of his work: After its release in 1963, Best Word Book Ever sold over 7 million copies, and Scarry’s work has been translated into over 20 languages. At one point Scarry was a more popular children’s author than Dr. Seuss, according to a biography.
In 2002, Dallas DiLeo, head librarian of the Children’s Department at Carnegie Library, in Oakland, spoke at the Carnegie Science Center about Scarry for an exhibit examining the writer’s career and legacy. A portion of DiLeo’s speech focused on the ways that Scarry addressed gender bias.
While noting that Scarry’s work did get “kids asking questions,” DiLeo also said that parents of the 1970s thought the book was admirable, if problematic. This spurred the changes.
“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?'”
DiLeo was quick to point out that Scarry wasn’t a monster, or misogynist, but rather that his work was eventually revealed to be “behind the times.” The author genuinely responded to the criticism that his book used too many stereotypes and made changes to the book a number of times throughout the years, culminating in the 1991 edition.
Scarry died in 1994, but in accepting criticism and changing his book taught an important lesson about how we interact with art.