Giving Busytown a Run for Its Money: Ethan Long Gives Us a Heckuva Happy County
I own a lot of books. Probably more than I should, if I’m being perfectly honest. And now that I’ve a Free Little Library in my front yard, I finally have a place to put all the spares. The other day I was going through my son’s picture book collection, trying to find anything he didn’t read anymore, when my eyes alighted on Richard Scarry’s Busytown series. I looked. I considered. And then I put the book in the box of books I keep for the day when my children’s children are book and I end up babysitting them. That’s sort of a long term goal (particularly when you consider that my kids are 8 and 5) but what else can I do? I can’t get rid of Busytown!
That’s what I thought. But then I realized that we are still getting Busytown-esque books. Titles that are getting better and more sophisticated every day. Case in point, Ethan Long’s brand new Happy County book series. For the Scarry fans in your life, maybe it would be nice to hand them something entirely new.
I lobbed some questions in the general direction of Mr. Long’s head and he was gracious enough to answer them:
Betsy Bird: First off, thanks so much for talking to me about your new series. I think we’re calling it the Happy County books, yes? This is sort of a new venture for you. Why go in this direction with this kind of book?
Ethan Long: Thanks, Betsy! It was the natural evolution of having worked on 4-5 books a year for 15 years. My skills and mindset lent itself to doing a lot of things at once. I was finally ready to take on a book of this scale with all of these moving parts. It’s a lot of work but totally satisfying and fun.
BB: So let’s say you have kid that loves loves loves Richard Scarry. They want more of the same. What do you do for them? Well, you could hand them those killer Brian Biggs Everything Goes books. You could give them Vamos! by Raul III. You could hand them the William Bee book Migloo’s Day (and its sequel). But insofar as I can tell there just aren’t that many books of this sort out there, particularly when it comes to communities. You’re lucky if you get one a year. What do you think is the deep and abiding appeal of these kinds of stories?
EL: Humans read books to visit other worlds different from their own, and to connect with characters who are either different from themselves or reflect their personalities. But maybe that’s too deep. Maybe the real reason these books resonate is because people just like to look at tiny drawings and find things they hadn’t seen before. Maybe it’s just exciting to look around for characters hiding and peeking and doing funny things. That makes more sense to me.
BB: One thing that makes this series so interesting is that Hello World begins as just another meet-all-the-folks-in-the-community-over the-course-of-a-day storyline. But then in the sequel, Sun and Moon Together, it kind of shifts gears. Sun and Moon Together takes a deep dive into such concepts as the water cycle, photosynthesis, the phases of the moon, the planets, and more. It’s a kind of hard right turn into Nonfiction, couched within a fictional place. What made you want to go in that direction with the series? Will future books do similar things?
EL: Yes, they definitely will. The non-fiction element is something I’d been thinking on for a long time and it made sense for this series. Christy Ottaviano, my editor and publisher, nudged me toward that as well. We both saw the potential in future books using nonfiction elements to sew one more common thread throughout the series. When the book’s characters have jobs, and families, and things that they like to do, and those things are based in fact, why not use those as teaching points?
BB: This series was initially sold to me as Richard Scarry’s Busytown but with updates, and I don’t think that’s an unfair comparison. I mean, you’ve got a drone here, a job that involves publishing the county website, and a reference to Amazon Prime. At the same time, it feels kind of classic. If it were to eschew technology altogether then you’d be in that weird nether area where a lot of children’s picture books sometimes end up. I like that it lives in the present day. Was it a conscious decision on your part to include contemporary elements?
EL: For sure. Charles Schulz said something like, and I am totally paraphrasing here, “As artists we need to talk about the present moment, but in doing that, we risk looking dated over time.” It is common in the art community to remove all technology from the artist’s work for that reason. During the development of Hello World, and Sun and Moon Together and currently in books 3 and 4, it just made sense to include current technology and elements, because I thought kids would want to see them and relate to them. It’s fun for me, too, because I get to unleash my goofy sense of humor on all of these stories.
BB: Of course, Richard Scarry was not, himself, immune to criticism. Many of us have seen shots of his books comparing the first editions (where everyone’s male and there are some… ah… outdated ideas at play) and the later ones. Scarry, to his credit, did what he could to turn some of his characters from male to female, though it’s a little unnerving to see random bows just stuck on characters’ heads. Your book, in contrast, has no problem incorporating handywomen, a female County Commissioner, a woman working as the County Treasurer, and many more. Was this a conscious move on your part or did it just happen that way?
EL: It was a conscious move, but this goes back to your previous question about contemporary elements. As an artist working in the present day, it’s my responsibility to reflect the current world accurately. We, as a global community, have got all kinds of people doing all kinds of things and Happy County is a mirror to that. It’s truly amazing. Richard Scarry’s books were created during a time when ethnicities and gender roles were often stereotyped and before inclusivity was treated with sensitivity. With Hello, World and all the books that will follow, we’re excited to continue to develop the diverse Happy County community and all it has to offer.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
Oh, my gosh, the million dollar question! The Scribbles and Ink Online interactive series at PBS Kids just started Season 2. We also have a short animated film, Empty Nest, releasing soon, and a Middle Grade story based on my childhood is in the works. More Stick Dog books are coming, and there are always new ideas in the air. It’s an exciting time at the studio.
Thanks to Ethan Long for the interview and to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan for setting it up. You can visit the Happy County series website at HappyCountyBooks.com. And now, a special presentation of the brand new book trailer . . . .
Happy County series website: HappyCountyBooks.com
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