Archive for September, 2014

A Very Special House

74 Rowayton Ave. (house number)This past Friday, I spent the afternoon at Crockett Johnson’s house — 74 Rowayton Avenue (Rowayton, Connecticut), where he and Ruth Krauss lived from 1945 to 1973. Though I wrote their biography and had seen (and photographed) the house from the outside, I’d never been inside. I’ve seen all of their homes from the outside, but — hesitant to intrude on residents’ privacy — not actually been into the homes themselves. Since I was in town to give a talk that evening, Gil and Kim Kernan (the current owners) kindly invited me to spend some time in their home. My visit was one of the happiest events occasioned by my Johnson-Krauss biography.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014

The experience put me in mind of Richard McGuire’s innovative six-page comic, “Here” (1989, and forthcoming in a new book-length version later this year), in that I was aware of multiple moments in time. Building upon comics’ ability to spatialize time, “Here” presents many moments simultaneously — all of which take place in the space occupied by a single room. McGuire displays scenes from 1957, and from later and earlier years; across the course of the comic, you piece together some of the lives of those who passed through the place. (Click on pictures for a larger image.)

Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 1 Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 2

Nina Stagakis, floor plan of 74 Rowayton Ave. in 1950s (drawn from memory in 2001)Upstairs at 74 Rowayton Ave., standing in the front bedroom, I thought: this is where Maurice Sendak stayed, when he came up from New York City on the weekends, to work on Ruth’s books. Downstairs, I sat out on the front porch where, in 1951 and 1952, he and Ruth worked on A Hole Is to Dig — and Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) refereed. Thanks to Nina Stagakis’ sketch (drawn from memory) of the first-floor layout, I could see exactly where, in the front room, sixty years ago, Dave sat while he created dummies for Harold and the Purple Crayon, and noticed that he could easily have looked over his shoulder and seen eight-year-old Nina, at her desk, drawing. When she was eight, her father died. She and her mother Phyllis Rowand — who were already friends and neighbors — grew even closer to Dave and Ruth. Dave built her a Nina-sized desk, and put it in his office, allowing her to draw at her desk while he drew at his. Shortly after, Dave began working on Harold and the Purple Crayon.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Crockett Johnson's desk was here, 1945-1973

Crockett Johnson’s desk was here, 1945-1973.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: view of where Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was, from Crockett Johnson's vantage point, 1954

Desk of Nina Rowand Wallace (now Stagakis) was here; from vantage point of Crockett Johnson’s desk.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was here in 1954

Nina Rowand Wallace’s desk was here in 1954.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)While drawing Harold and the Purple Crayon, if Dave looked up from his desk and out the front window, he faced not only water (a key plot element in the book), but boats (another key element). I don’t know how much of Harold he created during daylight hours (like Harold himself, Dave often worked at night), but the windows of his office looked out onto the Five Mile River, where he docked his own boat. Today, construction partially obscures the view, but in 1954 he had a clear sight line.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "After he had sailed long enough, Harold made land without much trouble."

The house is and is not as it was. The kitchen is now open to the adjacent room. What was Dave’s office is now the dining room, and what was dining room is now the living room. The third floor is now finished, and would be an ideal studio for Dave. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)The basement — where he painted — still floods in a storm, although perhaps less than it once did (the walls have been painted with sealant). When it does flood, Gil told me, water shoots out from the front wall. The basement ceiling is also a little low for a man who was nearly six feet tall. (Dave’s head would have cleared the ceiling by about six inches.)  I see why, in 1973, Dave and Ruth moved to their Westport home, where he could paint in a studio above the garage.

I also see why Ruth and Dave chose 74 Rowayton Ave. It’s cozy. Not unlike the house in which I currently live, you can stand in the living room, and look out windows on all four sides of the house. Its many windows bring in lots of light. Sitting on the porch or one of the front rooms, you can look out at the Five Mile River. Jackie Curtis — a photographer and friend of Dave and Ruth’s, who was also there on Friday — mentioned that Dave enjoyed sitting out on the porch, drinking a martini.

 Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 Gil and Kim Kernan on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 1959; Gil and Kim Kernan, 2014.
Nel_mimics_CJ1959_web Front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Yours truly, 2014; absence, 2014 (with 1959 photo on table).

74 Rowayton Ave is a private home. So, don’t go knocking on the door expecting Gil and Kim to let you in. Do, however, swing by the Rowayton Historical Society (177 Rowayton Ave., just down the street from the Johnson-Krauss house) and check out Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, an exhibit devoted to the “Creative Culture of 1950s Rowayton” — Johnson, Krauss, Sendak, Jim and Jane Flora.  It runs through the end of November.

Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, Rowayton Historical Society, 2014

Jane Flora: "Non-Consenting Adults," "Family Jewels," "Pet Hen" (all c. 1974)

It’s lovingly curated, child-friendly, and it taught me a few things I didn’t know. According to Jim Flora, Alexander Kerensky lived in Rowayton in the 1940s. I knew that several left-leaning folks moved to Norwalk (Rowayton is South Norwalk) during that time — including Johnson, Krauss, and George Seldes. But I’d never heard about Kerensky (Prime Minister of Russia’s provisional government, in 1917).

Also, I saw this great photo, taken at a 1958 Rowayton Public Library event celebrating National Library Week.

National Library Week, Rowayton Public Library, 18 Mar. 1958 (courtesy of Rowayton Historical Society)

Back row, top left, is Fred Schwed Jr. (author of Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?). Third from left is John Sharnick (journalist, TV producer). Third from right is Crockett Johnson, and far right is Jim Flora (creator of children’s books and album covers).  Front row, left to right: Phyllis Rowand (artist, illustrated some of Ruth Krauss’s books), Carl Rose (cartoonist for New Yorker & others), Ruth Krauss.  I’m not sure who the other people are, but one is probably Leonard Gross, whose God and Freud had just been published and was at the event.  If you have any guesses as to who the others might be, please let me know.

Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Jim and Jane Flora, Maurice Sendak, Phyllis Rowand, Fred Schwed, Carl Rose, and all the rest are gone. But the library and 74 Rowayton Ave. are still here. The town is more developed than it was. But it’s still here. Time changes much, but traces of the past linger on.

Related posts:

Credits: first two black-and-white photos from The New Haven Register, 1959; third black-and-white photo courtesy of the Rowayton Historical Society; all color photos taken by Philip Nel. Richard McGuire’s “Here” appeared in RAW 2.1 (1989) and is © Richard McGuire. Nina Stagakis’ sketch of the 74 Rowayton Ave. floor plan — published here for the first time — is © Nina Stagakis.

Thanks to Gil and Kim Kernan for their hospitality, and to Wendell Livingston and Chris Penberthy (of the Rowayton Historical Society) for inviting me. Finally, special thanks to the University of Connecticut (especially Terri Goldich and Kate Capshaw) for underwriting both the Rowayton Historical Society talk and my University of Connecticut talk, earlier last week.

Update, 8:45 pm: Thanks to Wendell Livingston, I’ve replaced my photo of a photo with a scan of the original photo (of the 1958 National Library Week event).

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Purple Crayons in Connecticut: Two Talks This Week

People of Connecticut! This week, I’ll be giving two talks on two children’s-literature luminaries of the Constitution State — Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  One is free and open to the public, and the other is $5.  Both are lavishly illustrated.  Here’s what you need to know:


Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 4:00 pm

Not So Simple: The Genius of Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon

“Not So Simple: The Genius of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.”  Co-op Bookstore at Storrs Center, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

I’ve since changed the title to “How to Read Harold: A Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson, and the Creation of a Children’s Classic.” Yes, that’s a nod to Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics, Nov. 2014), the book-length version of their classic essay, “How to Read Nancy” (1988). In this 50-minute illustrated talk, I offer 14 ways of thinking about Harold and the Purple Crayon. My goal in doing so is to consider how complex an apparently simple story can be, and, in so doing, offer a case study in what we miss when we underestimate, trivialize, or simply fail to look closely at children’s literature.


Friday, September 26, 2014, 7:30 pm

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

“Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature.” Rowayton Community Center, 33 Highland Ave., Rowayton, CT.

In other words, I’m giving the talk based on my biography in the town where Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss lived for nearly 30 years.

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More Expeditioners! A Chat with S. S. Taylor

S.S. Taylor, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's LairGreat news for fans of S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners! The second book is out! OK, officially, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair will be published on September 23, but Barnes & Noble says that it’s already shipping. So, I would guess that you can order it now — from there or (preferably!) your local bookseller. If you have not read the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon (2012), well, you’ll want to start there, of course. And then — lucky for you — you can dive right into book two!

S.S. TaylorS.S. Taylor kindly took the time to chat with me about The Expeditioners, via Gmail chat, earlier today. At only one point did I mention a spoiler, but I’ve blotted out that sentence so that you’ll need to select the text in order to see what it says. In addition to discussing her influences, her thoughts on dystopias, and other matters, I also learned that the Expeditioners will be more than a trilogy. So, that’s even better news for fans of the first book!

Enough prologue.  Here’s our conversation.

Philip Nel:  Thanks for taking the time to chat about The Expeditioners!

S.S. Taylor:  Thank YOU!

S. S. Taylor and Ben Towle, Amelia EarhartNel:  My pleasure!  First question.  Prior to The Expeditioners, you wrote mysteries, and a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart. Were there any ways in which those writing experiences prepared you for this one (if, indeed, they did)?

Taylor:  Absolutely. I think I’ve always liked writing about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them. That’s pretty much the definition of an amateur detective novel and Amelia Earhart sort of fits that bill too. She was a social worker before she became a famous pilot.

Nel:  Ah. Good point. Even real-world extraordinary people (often) start as ordinary people. We just forget that fact because we only know them — or, really, know of them — because of their extraordinary achievements.

Taylor:  Exactly. That was what drew me to the early part of Amelia’s career, which I focus on in the graphic novel. She (and we) didn’t know who she was going to be yet. And obviously adventure novels for kids are about extraordinary things happening to kids, which is every kid’s fantasy. Even though Kit’s father was an Explorer, he is surprised at being drawn into this crazy adventure.

Nel:  Right, right. And you really get the sense in The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair that — hmmm, I want to phrase this in a way that isn’t a spoiler — as in a classic fantasy narrative, there are people who are “chosen” to follow certain paths.

(Incidentally, if we do get into any “spoiler” territory, I can just reproduce that part of the interview so that people have to select the text in order to read it.)

Taylor:  Yeah. It’s a trope, but for good reason. I think every kid — I know I did — feels like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to DO, what her purpose it. Do I matter? Why am I here? All that great existential stuff that comes up around age 10 or 11 or 12. And characters who discover that they are meant for great and important things let kids try on a huge and important destiny, if that makes sense, while they figure out what their real one is.

Nel:  Heck, I think many adults feel like they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. “Do I matter? Why am I here?” I ask those questions all of the time.

Taylor:  Me too!

Nel:  Well, perhaps one day we’ll grow up and find our destiny, eh?

Taylor:  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone just said, “You? Oh you’re supposed to save the world from evil”?

Nel:  Would it?  That sounds terrifying.

Taylor:  But clear!

Nel:  True. Clear and terrifying!  A winning combination!  Well, if you survive….

S. S. Taylor, The Expeditioners, illustrated by Katherine Roy (2012)So, speaking of combinations, I wonder if you think in terms of genre at all.  Do you?  I ask because, if I had to classify these novels, I’d say they’re steampunk adventure fantasy mysteries, with a bit of science fiction, too.  (I love the attention given to the alternate world’s technology.)  They don’t neatly fit into one genre, and I like that. But, as a writer, do you worry about these labels?

Taylor:  I started out thinking of them as straight-up adventure novels. But I discovered that a lot of the things I wanted to say about the world put it firmly in SF and steampunk territory. It’s funny because I think a lot of the inspiration came out of my interest in colonialism and imperialism and sort of trying to reimagine the age of exploration with a more contemporary view of colonialism and imperialism but in order to do that, I needed to create this futuristic, SF world.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything that doesn’t have a mystery in it.

Nel:  Ah! I was picking up on that anti-colonialist / anti-imperialist bent.  I love it when Coleman says, “I don’t say ‘discovered’ because as far as the Arawak people who were living here were concerned, they didn’t need to be discovered. They’d been here for a long time. They hadn’t wanted to be found.”

Taylor:  A long way of saying that I don’t worry much about labels. I still describe them as adventure novels. I love Katherine Roy‘s illustrations for the book and I think she’s done such a great job of capturing that mix of genres, of old-fashioned adventure stories, but also the steampunk and SF elements.

Nel:  I’m glad you mention Roy’s art — love her work, too. Perfectly compliments your text. And, returning to what you said a moment before, having the mystery gene (if that’s what it is) is a great gift, I would think — because that sense of mystery keeps people turning the pages.

Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of ThikaTaylor:  Yeah, I loved novels like The Flame Trees of Thika and Agatha Christie as a kid and I think this is my attempt to retain some of the romance of that literature, but to hopefully ask the questions that will make readers think about what it is to be the colonized person.

Nel:  Nicely put. I was thinking of these as like classic adventure narratives from the early twentieth-century, but with a critique of colonialism instead of a passive (or active) endorsement. The first Expeditioners novel, too. They “find” this “lost” civilization, but have the good sense to let it stay lost.  OK, that’s a spoiler to anyone who’s not read the first book.  I’ll blot that out.

Taylor:  Yup. I was just reading about uncontacted people in the Amazon and how the Brazilian government is grappling with how to protect them. It’s so complicated.

Nel:  Indeed. That also brings me to another question I have. What sort of research do you do in creating the world of The Expeditioners? The world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was heavily influenced by the research he did into Victorian England for the Sally Lockhart books. I would guess that research on Amelia Earhart may have helped with Sukey (especially in the first book). But I’m going to guess there was a fair bit of research involved for the rest, yes?

Taylor:  Yeah. I did some research on Victorian technology, steam, clockwork mechanisms, etc., but also on the early days of petroleum exploration. I think it was more casting my imagination into this alternate world though, and saying, “Okay, if petroleum hadn’t been discovered in great quantities yet, what would have been available to people?” I also did a lot of research into fascist/totalitarian governments and how they did things, how they created bureaucracy. That was fun

And I read a lot about the golden age of exploration, trying to imagine if it had happened later than it did.

Nel:  Fun with fascism! (Well, in a fictional sense.) Indeed, if I had to add another genre to my “genre” mix, above, I notice a dystopic strain running through the Expeditioners books — food shortages, oligarchical / totalitarian government. If you’re doing research into fascist/totalitarian governments, I assume you’re conscious of that strain(?). If so, were there any particular dystopian works that inspired you?

Cormac McCarthy, The RoadTaylor:  Yeah. Like everybody else, I loved the Hunger Games, though I read it after I’d mostly written the first book. I loved The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and I’m sure that was an influence. I’ve now read some more YA dystopia, and I find it really interesting that kids are so drawn to it. Lots of people have written about this, but I think it’s both a reflection of their anxiety and maybe also some sort of desire for a fresh start or to be able to remake the world.

I think there’s something attractive to kids about a world where the usual rules don’t apply and you get to make your own, form a society.

Nel:  Yes, I’m also interested by the current popularity of dystopian fiction. As you say, it’s likely a reflection of contemporary anxieties about the world. I also wonder what dystopian fiction’s popularity (especially YA dystopian fiction) tells us about how we imagine our collective futures.

Taylor:  Yeah, when I talk to kids, I actually see that they find these stories exciting because they make adventure and freedom possible. After a nuclear holocaust, nobody cares whether you make your curfew or not! I think so much of children’s lit is about vicariously experiencing freedom and independence.

Nel:  I like your optimistic reading — dystopia can also provide the impetus to challenge the rules, to create a new and better world.  So, you know, the West kids & others are completely justified in defying authority because the authorities are corrupt.

Taylor:  Yes!

Nel:  So, I don’t have a natural transition to this question, but one thing I really enjoy about the novels is that they avoid gender stereotypes. M.K. (the youngest West child) is an inventor & engineer. Kit, our narrator and the middle West child, is introspective.  Sukey is brave.  So is Joyce.  Indeed, they all have a combination of strengths and weaknesses that aren’t especially gendered. Even the pirates – Monty Brioux has both men and women on his crew. How conscious are you of avoiding stereotypes?

Taylor:  Very conscious, though I think you have to be conscious of not being too conscious, if you know what I mean. They have to be themselves first. Part of creating an alternate world for me was about creating a world where there is less rigidity about gender roles. One of the things about having kids of my own that has been such an eye opener is how gender roles are transferred so early. I especially wanted to show girls who are capable and brave and mechanically minded, but I realized I also wanted the boys to have flexibility. That may be part of why Kit is the first person narrator.

So yeah, I’m very conscious of it and I’m happy to see that many other writers seem to be. There are a lot of brave, capable heroines on the shelves right now.

Nel:  Even the names give you flexibility.  M.K. is a girl, but the initials don’t tell you that.  And, when I started reading The Expeditiioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair, I’d forgotten whether Kit was a boy or a girl.  It took me a few pages, before a pronoun tipped me off!

Taylor:  Yeah, I’m inside his head and I really want to show his emotions and insecurities as well as his developing competence and bravery.

Free to Be . . . You and Me (LP, 1972)Nel:  Excellent! Those are helpful to see, and (since I was an insecure kid, myself), I know I’d have liked that when I was a younger reader, too.  Oh, I like your point, also, about being “conscious of not being too conscious.”  You don’t want it to seem forced (and it doesn’t!).  But, you know, since you grew up with a consciousness of gender roles — or conscious of their existence — perhaps that sort of non-stereotypical writing comes more easy to you than it may have come to writers of earlier generations?  Out of curiosity, were you a Free to Be … You and Me kid?  Did you grow up on that record or book?

Taylor:  Yes. Free to Be … You and Me, marching at ERA rallies, the whole deal. I think those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s had a better situation than kids do today, to some extent. Certainly the merchandizing has changed.

Nel:  A couple of final questions because I’ve just realized we’ve been chatting for nearly an hour.  For how long had you been planning The Expeditioners, and was it always a trilogy?  How much of the story did you know when you began, and how much do you discover as you write?

Taylor:  It’s actually a six-book series! It says trilogy somewhere but that’s not right. I had been thinking about it for maybe a year before I started writing, not terribly long. The first book really was a process of discovery. The second book was hard to write because I was actively figuring out the whole rest of the series in order to write it. I now know most of it, but I didn’t until I was about halfway through the second one.

Nel:  Oh boy!  Six books!  Well, that’s the best news I’ve had all week.  I thought there were going to be just three.  Hooray!

Taylor:  I’m glad that’s your reaction!

Nel:  Well, of course it is!  You see, Sarah, it is your destiny to write these novels.  YOU are the one chosen to do it.

Taylor:  Thank you. I feel very relieved now!

Nel:  Glad I could help you sort that out. :-)  One final question and then I’ll let you go (promise!). Can you tell your avid readers when we might expect to see The Expeditioners, Volume 3?

Taylor:  I’m working on it right now. I’m so excited about it. There’s espionage and a trek across a desert and  . . . I can’t say anything more. But, we think it will be out in spring of 2016, if all goes according to plan.

Nel:  Hoo boy!  Looking forward to it!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat!

Taylor:  Thank you so much. I really appreciate it!

Nel:  My pleasure!


Author portrait & cover art: Katherine Roy.

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