Top 100 Children's Novels #16: Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
#16 Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)
It’s like the best kind of dream! It’s surreal and meta and mindbending! And also funny! I found it haunting when I was a kid, reality being created as you go; now that surrealism is one of my favorite things about it. I love the bits like there being nothing but pie, but it was all nine kinds of pie Harold liked best; and random characters like the very hungry moose and deserving porcupine. It’s so simple and so brilliant! – Amy M. Weir
Because it’s the most succinct expression of imaginative possibility ever created. – Philip Nel
Uh-oh. Another book has slipped down from the Top Ten. Previously ranking at #7, Harold manages to cling to the Top 20 but it’s hard to think what might replace him. The boy is ubiquitous, after all.
The plot synopsis from B&N reads, “Harold’s wonderful purple crayon makes everything he draws become real. One evening, Harold draws a path and a moon and goes for a walk-and the moon comes too. After many adventures, Harold gets tired and can’t find his bedroom. Finally, he remembers that the moon always shines through his bedroom window. He draws himself a bed, and ‘the purple crayon dropped on the floor, and Harold dropped off to sleep.’ This little gem is filled with visual and written puns.”
Growing up I knew of Harold but had far more of a connection to the rip-off animated series Simon in the Land of the Chalk Drawings. Odd but true.
There are many things to enjoy in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. What the book really does best, though, is give us a salty editor talking about the classics she’s editing in her customary off-hand manner. Take Harold and the Purple Crayon. In a letter dated December 15, 1954, Ursula has just gotten a revised version of this story and she is writing to Crockett, the author/illustrator. “I’m awfully sorry my first reaction to Harold was so lukewarm and unenthusiastic. I really think it is going to make a darling book, and I certainly was wrong at first. This is a funny job. The Harper children’s books have had such a good fall, so many on so many lists, etc. etc., and I was feeling a little good – not satisfied, you understand, but I thought gosh I’m really catching on to things, I bet, and pretty soon it ought to get easier. And then I stubbed my toe on Harold and his damned purple crayon . . . .”
At long last I finally have an excuse to break out my old Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. You see if you know anything about Crockett Johnson you know he wrote Harold and the Purple Crayon and illustrated The Carrot Seed. If you know anything else about him, though, you may be aware that his real name was David Johnson Liesk and that between 1942 and 1946 (after which it was handed it over to others) he created the comic strip Barnaby. Barnaby has its fans. People have said it was a predecessor to Calvin and Hobbes, though the premise varies slightly. As the Smithsonian puts it, the story was really about “a boy and his cigar-chomping fairy godfather, Mister O’Malley.” Johnson began as a magazine cartoonist, turned to picture books in the 50’s and, “in his later years (he died in 1975) he devoted himself to nonobjective painting.” I’ve attempted to scan some Barnaby strips for you, in case you’re interested. I apologize for the shoddy quality of my scanner.
- Want to read Harold for yourself? Go here.
- In September of 2012 we will finally get a chance to see Philip Nel’s highly anticipated Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. You can see Phil talk about this book at NYPL on October 27th.
- Harold wasn’t afraid of a sequel or two either. If you want to see the full original line-up (everything from Harold’s Trip to the Sky to Harold’s Circus) Kansas State University has a rather lovely collection of variegated covers (from Philip Nel, to be precise).
- When I first started exploring the scary world of online children’s literature resources, one of the first I stumbled across was Harold D. Underdown’s site The Purple Crayon. It’s still running too.
- Feel like listening to something? All Things Considered had a short piece back in 2005 called The Appeal of “Harold and the Purple Crayon”. The piece speaks to Maurice Sendak, and also contains a reading of the original letter wherein Nordstrom was unenthused by the initial draft of the story. I like how she concedes to feeling a little “dead in the head” and that she’d probably pass up Tom Sawyer if it arrived on her desk.
- Apparently there was an Emmy award winning 13-part Harold and the Purple Crayon series that ran on HBO. You can even view an episode or two here if you like. An interesting compare and contrast with the earlier ‘59 version.
And, best for last. The glitter rock opera version of Harold. You’ll have it stuck in your head all day now.
Horn Book said, “An ingenious and original picture story in which a small boy out for a walk–happily with crayon in hand–draws himself some wonderful adventures. A little book that will be loved.”
The New York Times Book Review agreed with, “Do we look at art to learn things, or to feel things? I’d vote for feeling, and that’s why the art book I most recommend is Harold and the Purple Crayon.”
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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