An Appreciation of Richard Scarry's What Do People Do All Day?

Eliza Clark
May 18, 2009

Certain preschooler questions are so fundamental as to be repeated almost every single day. As in:

Preschooler: “Where’s Mommy (or Daddy)?”

Answer: “She (or he) went to work.”

Preschooler: “What is Mommy (or Daddy) doing?”

Grown-up: “Working.”

It’s not hard to see why this exchange may recur over and over and over at your house: the answer is so clearly unsatisfying. And yet, the idea of explaining many a parent’s job in the modern world to a three-year-old can leave us scratching our heads.

Now is the time to make room on your bookshelf for Richard Scarry’s masterwork What Do People Do All Day? When it comes to explaining the workings of the everyday world to young children, Scarry is unrivaled. We adore, for example, his amazing Best Word Book Ever, and his take on A Day At the Airport is a Savvy travel favorite.

But of all Scarry’s many brilliant and beloved books, we consider What Do People Do All Day? his most necessary work. For as much as young children revel in their imaginary worlds, they also have a deep-seated desire to understand how the real world functions, and especially their parents’ and other adults’ part in it. With his portrait of Busytown and all its delightful animal inhabitants, Scarry does exactly what children need: he shows them how it all works. This book is a primer on economics (how people earn money and what they do with it); on construction and even plumbing; on classic preschool interests like the mail, firefighting and train travel; and on interests they will share after reading this book like agriculture, forestry, and road building.

So the next time your child asks “What does Mommy (or Daddy) do all day?” pull out this gem and show him. Granted, its 1968 vintage means that a few essentials of today’s world are left out (no computers or cell phones in sight), but you can always point to the “businessman” (a fox, of course) as an stand-in for many inscrutable professions. We’re especially glad that the book does not neglect the “story writer” and the “artist painting a picture” up in the garret -- for it does take an artist and storyteller such as Richard Scarry to make sense for the little ones of this busy world of ours.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    These are wonderful books and preschoolers love them! We use them often at our house and I remember them fondly from my own childhood. There are also some fun workbooks that can be found in bookstores that are helpful. We have used them for homeschooling. Thank you for the great article!

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    All of the Richard Scarry books were well loved by me and my husband when we were kids and our copy of What Do People Do All Day is well worn and loved by our own children!

    over a year ago


Similar Articles

The Savvy Library

From the educational to the whimsical, our Savvy editors help you explore your world. You can search our 1971 articles by keyword, subject, or date.

Notable Selection

Below you'll find some of the more popular selections from the Savvy Library: