Tag Archives: Richard Scarry

Annals of the Inexplicable: The Five Chinese Brothers

The Five Chinese BrothersI have no problem with a politically incorrect classic. Babar may be a colonialist, but he’s dear to my heart. And the only thing stopping me from buying my own copy of Richard Scarry’s original Busy, Busy World (1965) — starring the garrulous Patrick Pig from Ireland and the Israeli wife who wouldn’t stop nagging her husband — is that an unexpurgated edition can cost upwards of $300.

I remember sitting on a rug with the rest of my kindergarden class enthralled by the strange, dark folk tale of five brothers who manage to outwit the authorities when one of the siblings is wrongly sentenced to death. The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop (1938) may have depicted my fellow Asians as vengeful and slanty-eyed but that didn’t rattle me. The brothers had alluring superhuman abilities: “The First Chinese Brother could swallow the sea. The Second Chinese Brother had an iron neck. The Third Chinese Brother could stretch and stretch his legs. The Fourth Chinese Brother could not be burned. And the Fifth Chinese Brother could hold his breath indefinitely.”

But on re-reading this book here’s what you realize. The Five Chinese Brothers is absolutely baffling. I still don’t have a huge problem with it being un-P.C. It’s more that it inevitably raises some questions, such as:

1) “How could you kill someone with whipped cream?”

Oven Stuffed With Whipped CreamTo a kid, being plopped into a container of whipped cream sounds like heaven. Besides that, when the oven is turned on wouldn’t the fluffy cream turn to liquid? (Not to mention my own question — when were the ancient Chinese even eating whipped cream?)

 2) “Why were the people so angry each time a Chinese Brother didn’t die?”

Burning PunishmentHard to answer without getting involved in a discussion of mob psychology and the public thirst for bloody spectacles.

3) “How come if they couldn’t kill the Brother that meant he was innocent?”

Brothers-MotherThis is biggest doozy of them all. When all the executions fail, the judge decides it means that their prisoner must not be guilty! Truly, it is beyond all logic.

My kids liked The Five Chinese Brothers well enough, but it didn’t seem to make much of an impression either way. In fact, my daughter has since discovered Kathy Tucker’s The Seven Chinese Sisters (2003), which she likes much more. The book (with illustrations by Grace Lin) is also about a Chinese family with preternatural powers, but it’s not a watered-down retelling of the Five Chinese Brothers. The story involves a dragon, a kidnapping, and a noodle soup. Check it out. 

SevenChineseSisters

4 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Richard Scarry

Retan-RisomI’ve been reading The Busy, Busy World of Richard Scarry (1997) by Walter Retan, Scarry’s longtime editor at Random House and Golden Press. I’ve always loved the way Scarry was able to cram so many little details onto a page and explain complicated real-world things (like the workings of a paper factory), with such precision. But who knew he lived such a glittering life? (At one point, says Retan: “They were weary of the constant parties, the steady flow of house guests, the drinking and the endless interruptions.”) Or that his books made such gazillions? (Think: foreign editions.) I learned a few other things as well…

1) There’s a reason Lowly Worm wore a Tyrolean hat.  Scarry was a Boston-born, Brothers-wearing, New England preppy but moved permanently to Switzerland with his wife and young son in 1968. This also explains why Huckle Cat wears those leiderhosen. Lowly

2) He was fired from Vogue after three weeks. After serving in WWII Scarry got a job in the art department of Vogue. When they told him that he wasn’t right for the position, he asked them why they had hired him in the first place. The HR person explained that they had been impressed by his white suit and blue shirt. (Scarry was a very stylish dresser.)vogue-november-1946

3) He married Peggy from Mad Men! Not really, but when Scarry met his chic wife-to-be, Patsy Murphy, in 1948, she was working as a copywriter at Young & Rubicam. She later went on to write books with Scarry, but for a time she helped support the couple with her work at the agency.

Newlyweds Dick and Patsy Scarry

4) These are his granddaughters, Olympia and Fiona Scarry. Readers of Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and WWD know the Swiss socialites by their regular party page appearances. Olympia is an installation artist who has worked for Matthew Barney and wears a lot of YSL and Haider Ackermann. (You can check out her recent appearance in Interview magazine here.)

Olympia and Fiona Scarry at Cannes 2012 Vanity Fair/Gucci party