Archive for Ruth Krauss

The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part II: Picture Books

In the 58 years since its publication, Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon has appeared in 14 languages, and inspired many artists.  This blog (which takes its name from a line in the book) presented The Purple Crayon’s Legacy, Part I: Comics & Cartoons… nearly three years ago.  It is at last time for Part II: Picture Books.

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

Anthony Browne, Bear Hunt (1979)

As Harold does, Bear goes for a walk. As Harold does, Bear carries something to write with (a pencil instead of a crayon). And, as is the case with Harold, what Bear draws becomes real.  It’s true that, graphically, this is a very different book. Browne’s jungle scenes — all in color — recalls those of Henri Rousseau. Also, where Harold both creates and solves his problems, Bear’s problems — two hunters who want to shoot him — are not imagined. Fortunately, his pencil proves more powerful than their guns. I’m tempted to say that, in the book, the power to imagine a better reality trumps the power to kill. However, Browne handles this story with such a light touch that, while it may suggest such morals, that’s not the focus.

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau (1988)

Jon Agee, The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau

Felix Clousseau’s art looks ordinary, but it’s not.  His painting of a duck actually quacks. However, “that was only half of it,” observes Agee’s narrator as the duck leaves the painting.  This is one of the book’s sly jokes (if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…), which include comic names of rival painters (such as Felicien CaffayOllay), several Magritte references, and the pun on the final page. No, I won’t give away the ending. Read it yourself.

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

Chris Van Allsburg, Bad Day at Riverbend (1995)

In his Caldecott acceptance speech for Jumanji (1981), Chris Van Allsburg actually thanked “Harold, and his purple crayon.” He has elsewhere spoken of the book as the one he “remember[s] most clearly” from his childhood. Van Allsburg loved its theme of “the ability to create things with your imagination,” which, he says, is “a fairly elusive idea, but [the book] presents it so succinctly through these simple drawings that it registers very clearly.”

May of Van Allsburg’s books traverse (or blur) the line between imaginary and real, but Bad Day at Riverbend seems the most explicit homage to Johnson’s book. Rendered in coloring-book style, the people of Riverbend face a “greasy slime” that sticks aggressively to whatever it assaults. We readers recognize the “slime” as crayon scribbles, which (spoiler alert!) the book’s ending reveals to be true.  The townspeople are … the victims of a child with a crayon.

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

Thacher Hurd, Art Dog (1996)

As Harold does, Art Dog creates art that changes physical realities. He also has his artistic adventures at night, beneath the moonlight. On one of the pages, he paints a somewhat goofy purple (with green spots) bird who reminds me of Harold’s drawings. Above the bird, on the wall, he has painted falling stars reminiscent of the one that Harold rides home in Harold’s Trip to the Sky (1957).

Some years ago, I wrote to Thacher Hurd to ask whether he or his parents (Clement Hurd and Edith Thacher Hurd) had known Johnson or Ruth Krauss. He said that they may have, though he had no memories of them. During our very brief email correspondence, I said “I’ve often thought that Harold would get along very well with Art Dog.” He responded, “Yes, I did put in a subtle aside to Harold and the Purple Crayon in Art Dog. I love that book, and loved it as a kid.”

Régis Faller, Voyage de Polo (2002: English translation: The Adventures of Polo, 2006) and its many sequels

Régis Faller, Le voyage de Polo (2002)

Wordless (save for the occasional sound effect), Faller’s Polo books have an associative narrative logic that’s evocative of the Harold stories’ structure.  In Voyage de Polo (The Adventures of Polo), he opens the door of his island tree home, walks over to a tightrope, and then starts carefully to make his way along it — shades of Harold’s tightrope act in Harold’s Circus (1959). The tightrope suddenly becomes stairs, which Polo then climbs — reminiscent of the stairs in Harold’s Fairy Tale (1957).  Beyond those direct visual allusions (or, at least, they feel like allusions), the story’s art manages to link each panel to the next, and then to the next.  You don’t quite know where Polo is going, but he’s traveling with a purpose, and fun to accompany for the duration of his journey.  More than anything else, the chain of associations most strongly reminds me of Harold’s stories.

Delphine Durand, Bob & Cie., (2004; English translation: Bob & Co., 2006)

Durand, Bob & Cie (2004): cover

A small book that begins with “a blank page” and then waits for “the story” to get underway, Durand’s Bob & Cie. (Bob & Co.) pursues the metaphysical implications of Harold’s predicament. Except, in this story, it’s Bob’s predicament. It’s hard to summarize. By turns whimsical and profound, Durand’s absurdist metafiction is about faith, narrative, the universe, beginnings and endings. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. Someday, I’d like to write (a blog post? an essay?) about Durand’s work.  Her sensibility and sense of humor appeal to me.

Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

The creator of the comic strip Mutts creates a story about a boy named Art who creates lots of art.  This conceit inspires many puns on the name, and, well, lots of art (and Art).  About a third of the way in, the book moves explicitly to Harold’s territory, when Art draws a house and then stands on the doorway in order to draw the roof.

from Patrick McDonnell, Art (2006)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

Deborah Freedman, Scribble (2007)

When Emma insults her younger sister Lucie’s drawing of a kitty (“It looks like a scribble”), Lucie defends herself: “It’s a special scribble-kitty!” In retaliation, she scribbles all over Emma’s drawing of the Princess Aurora. Emma storms off.  Then Scribble, Lucie, and the sisters’ real cat step into the drawings — which is the moment that the book enters Harold’s realm. It’s telling that only the younger sister crosses the boundary from real to imaginary worlds. Perhaps Freedman is suggesting that only the youngest children — Lucie, Harold — can make that leap, and fully believe it.  Freedman’s second book, Blue Chicken (2011), also plays with the boundary between art and life.  But, this time, a chicken is the artist.

Allan Ahlberg & Bruce Ingman, The Pencil (2008)

Ahlberg and Ingman, The PencilA pencil (which appears itself to have been rendered in pencil) draws a boy, a dog, a cat, a house, a road, and a park.  As in Harold and the Purple Crayon, all things the pencil draws are real. The book departs from Johnson’s book when the pencil draws a paintbrush, who in turn colors everything the pencil draws. The decision to add color bends the narrative logic (how can a grey pencil draw color?), as does the decision to add an eraser (how can an eraser remove watercolors?). But the eraser proves a valuable antagonist. Just as the pencil draws enthusiastically, so the eraser embraces his function — threatening the world that pencil and paintbrush have created.  I wonder: what would have Harold done with an eraser?  He does cross things out (the witch in Harold’s Fairy Tale, the whole picture in A Picture for Harold’s Room), but he never erases.

Matteo Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)

Pericoli, Tommaso and the Missing Line (2008)The line of the hill disappears from Tommaso’s drawing, which shows “a house on a hill, / a tall tree and some mountains. / And two people — / him and his grandma.”  So, of course, he goes off in search of it. On the right-hand page, Pericoli uses black ink for everything, except his character’s drawing and specific lines that Tommasso finds — those are all in orange. On the left-hand page, Pericoli places white text on an orange background. The orange at left makes each orange line at right “pop” out of the picture. Visually, it’s very effective.

Sure, Tommaso is also an artist, but, you ask, is there a more particular connection to Harold and the Purple Crayon?  There are several, first of which is that Tommaso does find his line — “as real as he always remembered it” — out in the world. So, as in Johnson’s book, art can become real.  Also, though Pericoli’s line is not as tight as Johnson’s, the pen-and-ink drawings on white pages evoke Johnson’s aesthetic sensibility.  Just as Harold’s purple line does, Tommaso’s orange line has as powerful a visual presence.

Any obvious (or not-so-obvious) books I’ve missed? I realize there are many other metafictional books (Scieszka and Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man, Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book, to name but two) or aesthetically comparable books (Lehman, again, Newgarden and Cash’s Bow Wow series) or books about artists (Lionni’s Frederick, McClintock’s The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle). My list may be too narrow, but its idiosyncrasies will I hope inspire discussion.  So, let the discussion begin!

Related Posts:

(And, yes, I do plan further parts in this series — with luck, they’ll appear more swiftly than Part II!  Indeed, the blog has been quieter for this past month because, this summer, I’ve foolishly taken on more writing than I can cope with.  I’m struggling to keep my head [nearly] above water.)

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Antonio Frasconi (1919-2013)

Frasconi

Antonio Frasconi, woodcut artist and children’s-book illustrator, died on January 9th at the age of 93. I heard about it this morning, but I’ve yet to find a full obituary (apart from this brief notice by Joey of Purchase College). So, I’m writing a few words.

He was born in Buenos Aires, to Franco Frasconi (a chef) and the former Armida Carbonia (a restaurateur), both of whom had emigrated from Italy during World War I.  Young Antonio grew up in Montevideo, where, by age 12, he had become a printmaker’s apprentice and, by his teens, was seeing his satirical cartoons appear in local newspapers.

In the 1940s, he began working in woodcuts, producing work which won him a scholarship from the Art Students League in New York.  To study there, he emigrated to the United States in 1945.  By 1948, he had his first exhibit — at the Weyhe Gallery, also in New York.

But the reason I know about him are his beautiful illustrations for children’s books. He married fellow artist Leona Pierce in 1951, and the birth of their first son, Pablo, in 1952, inspired him to create work for young people. As Frasconi noted in a 1994 Horn Book interview, “the happiness he brought, both as an inspiration and as an audience for my work, made me think in terms of using my work as part of his education.”  Frasconi observed that, with his accented English, his own reading to Pablo was different than his wife’s reading to Pablo. He went to the library, looking for bilingual books, and, finding none, decided to create his own.

The result was the groundbreaking and beautiful See and Say: A Picturebook in Four Languages (Harcourt, 1955). It presents a series of objects, each named in in English (printed in black), in Italian (blue), French (red), and Spanish (green).  Illustrated in bright woodcut prints, the book is a great “first words” book for young children, and language education for any age. Though not the first children’s book Frasconi illustrated, it was the first one he both wrote and illustrated, and I highly recommend it. Used copies are not too hard to find, but this book (attention, New York Review Children’s Collection!) really ought to be brought back into print.

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

Antonio Frasconi, from See and Say (1955)

The images above come from The Ward-o-Matic‘s post on See and Say.  Visit the site to see more.

Back in 2000, I spoke with Mr. Frasconi because he was a very close friend of Crockett Johnson. Both men leaned left, had artistic influences that extended beyond children’s books, and held each other’s work in high regard. Indeed, Antonio’s political leanings inspired him to move — along with his family (Leona, Pablo, and Miguel) — to Village Creek, a planned integrated community that is directly adjacent to Rowayton, Connecticut, where Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss lived.  That was in 1957.  The family met Johnson and Krauss soon after moving there, and quickly became friends.

photo of Antonio FrasconiThere were regular spaghetti dinners at Ruth and Dave’s house (Crockett Johnson’s real first name was “Dave,” and friends called him “Dave”).  Antonio illustrated Ruth’s The Cantilever Rainbow (1965), her greatest avant-garde children’s book.  When the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (1964-1965) got television coverage, Dave phoned Antonio so that he could come over and see it (at that time the Frasconis didn’t have a TV). So, the family went over and watched the protests. When Dave started serious painting, the Frasconis were among the first people he showed them to. As Miguel Frasconi recalled, Dave was “so excited,” as he explained to Antonio “the geometric properties of these pictures — like he had discovered something totally new.” At the time, Miguel thought: “this is an adult, and he’s as excited as a little kid.”

While my own brief acquaintance (one interview, really) with Antonio Frasconi and his family derived from work on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (2012), Frasconi’s work is well worth getting to know in its own right.  He illustrated and designed over 100 books, including collections of poetry by Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, and Pablo Neruda. He created Los Desparecidos (The Disappeared, 1984), a powerful collection of woodcuts that tells the story of those tortured, imprisoned, or killed under the Uruguayan dictatorship.  He created art for children’s books.  He was a great teacher, artist, and humanitarian.

Thanks for sharing your recollections with me.  And rest in peace, Mr. Frasconi.

Works Consulted:

“Antonio Frasconi.” The Annex Galleries. <http://www.annexgalleries.com/artists/biography/739/Frasconi/Antonio>

“Antonio Frasconi.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

 “Antonio Frasconi (Uruguay).” North Dakota Museum of Art. <http://www.ndmoa.com/Exhibitions/PastEx/Disappeared/Frasconi/index.html>

Goldenberg, Carol. “An interview with Antonio Frasconi.” The Horn Book Magazine Nov.-Dec. 1994: 693+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Jan. 2013.

Nel, Philip. Telephone interview with Antonio Frasconi. 12 Oct. 2000.

—.  Telephone interview with Miguel Frasconi. 2 Dec. 2007.

—.  Telephone interview with Pablo Frasconi. 28 Nov. 2007.

Sources for images: Facebook post from Miguel FrasconiWard-o-Matic blog post on See and Say, and “Artist and Professor Antonio Frasconi, 1919-2013” (at Jane Public Thinking).

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: a mix

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)Here is a mix to celebrate the publication of my new biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012).  Its official publication date is today (Sept. 1st), though it’s actually been available for a few weeks now. Given my own interest in music, it’s curious that I know relatively little about the musical tastes of Johnson and Krauss. So, while this mix does include some music they liked, it’s organized more by themes — each of which can be explored more fully in my book.

1)     Take the “A” Train  Duke Ellington (1941)      2:56

Crockett Johnson listened to Duke Ellington, and so did Mr. O’Malley. In response to a strip in which Barnaby’s Fairy Godfather enjoys an Ellington record, the composer himself wrote to PM (the newspaper where Barnaby first appeared) to express his admiration for the strip. Johnson owned the LP set The Duke.

2)     The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)  Simon & Garfunkel (1966)            1:43

Johnson was born in 1906 at 444 East 58th Street, a block south of where the 59th Street Bridge was under construction. Though this song (like many on this mix) was released long after his childhood, Simon’s lyric makes me think of the imaginative, dreaming boy who became Crockett Johnson.

3)     Baltimore Fire  Charlie Poole (1929)      3:12

In February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed more than 1500 buildings in the city’s downtown business district. Ruth (who turned 3 that year) and her family were far enough north to escape the flames, but memories of the blaze stayed with her. She had a life-long fear of house fires, and kept her manuscripts in the freezer (as a precaution).

4)     Violin  They Might Be Giants (2002)      2:27

When she was growing up, Krauss played the violin. She was a creative player, but not exactly an accomplished one. Her avant-garde poetry (from later in her career) makes me think that she might have enjoyed this song’s Dadaist sense of humor.

5)     If I Had a Boat  Lyle Lovett (1987)      3:09

The sense of humor and associative logic of “If I Had a Boat” might also appeal to Krauss; the other reason for its inclusion is Johnson’s love of sailing.

6)     I Sing I Swim  Seabear (2007)      3:40

Krauss enjoyed swimming. Johnson sometimes joined her. The bio. includes a photo of the two of them, in bathing suits, on a beach — perhaps just before a swim?

7)     Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?  Buddy Johnson (1952)      2:18

Both Ruth and Dave (Johnson’s given name, and the one his friends used) supported civil rights for African-Americans. Johnson, a sports fan, joined the End Jim Crow in Baseball Committee in 1945. In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the American Major Leagues.

8)     A Cup of Coffee and a Cigarette  Jerry Irby (1947); intro. by Bob Dylan (2006)            3:26

Both Ruth and Dave drank coffee, and he smoked.

9)     Coffee in the Morning (Kisses in the Night)  The Boswell Sisters (1933)            2:57

He probably needed the coffee a bit more than she did: he was nocturnal, often working until sunrise, going to bed, and then getting up for breakfast at lunchtime.

“The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet10)  The Midnight Special  Leadbelly and The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet (1940)      3:08

Johnson and Krauss had the LP set, “The Midnight Special” and other Southern Prison Songs, performed by Leadbelly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet.

11)  Talking Union  The Almanac Singers (1941)      3:06

An active supporter of labor unions, Johnson would likely have known this song.

12)  The House I Live In  The Ravens (1949)      3:04

An anthem of the Popular Front (and a hit single for Frank Sinatra in 1945), “The House I Live In” was certainly known by Johnson and Krauss. It was written by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan (pseudonym of Abel Meeropol) — Meeropol/Allen was a leftist better remembered today for writing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which Billie Holiday began performing (and first recorded) in 1939. Though I have found no evidence of it, I would not be surprised if Johnson knew Meeropol: they shared a political outlook, and moved in some of the same New York circles.

13)  Homegrown Tomatoes  Guy Clark (1983)      2:59

Barnaby isn’t the only one who had a Victory Garden. Johnson did, too. After moving to Connecticut in the early 1940s, he enjoyed gardening. By the 1950s he began to favor other pursuits.

14)  Mr. O’Malley and Barnaby  Frank Morgan & Norma Jean Nilsson (1945)            0:07

This, the first of several adaptations of Barnaby, appeared on the 12 June 1945 Frank Morgan Show.

The Carrot Seed (art by Crockett Johnson)15)  The Carrot Seed  Norman Rose (1950)      5:36

The classic adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s 1945 picture book (with art and design by Crockett Johnson).

16)  You Be You and I’ll Be Me  The Free Design (1969)      2:42

The Free Design’s song title seems too close to Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s I’ll Be You and You Be Me (1954) to be a coincidence, but it of course may well be just that.

17)  What a Dog / He’s a Tramp  Peggy Lee & Oliver Wallace (1955)      2:25

Johnson loved his dogs, and was quite content to let them be their doggy selves.

18) Dog  Bob Dorough (1966)      3:27

19) Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

Krauss had a great ear for the sound of words, something you see (and hear) both in her books based on the spontaneous utterances of children and in her later verse.

Crockett Johnson, Merry Go Round (1958)20)  Carousel (La valse à mille temps)  Elly Stone, Wolfgang Knittel (1968)            3:30

Johnson and Krauss owned the LP Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, on which this song appears. I expect it was more her choice than his. I’ve also included the song in tribute to Johnson’s least-known (and most experimental) book, Merry Go Round.

21)  Get Happy  Art Tatum (1940)      2:46

Mr. O’Malley wasn’t the only one who enjoyed boogie-woogie piano. Johnson liked it, too. He owned the LP Decca Presents Art Tatum, which includes this song.  “Happy” also has a nice resonance with The Happy Day (1949), Krauss’s collaboration with Marc Simont.

22)  Comic Strip  Serge Gainsbourg (1968)      2:12

I don’t have a recording of “Mr. O’Malley’s March,” and so instead here is a playful tribute to the comic strip medium.

23)  Pies for the Public  Zoë Lewis (1998)      4:57

“So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. There was nothing but pie. But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.”

24)  The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

This tribute to picture books begins with Where the Wild Things Are (written by Johnson and Krauss’s friend) and name-checks Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Carole King, Really Rosie (art by Maurice Sendak)25)  Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

In recognition of how important Maurice Sendak is to the biography, here is a song based on his book of the same name.

26)  Wake Up (Where The Wild Things Are version)  Arcade Fire (2009)      1:39

It’s impossible to stress enough Maurice’s role in this — both in their lives, and in mine. I wish I could thank him once more.

27)  Neverending Math Equation  Sun Kil Moon (2005)      2:53

During the last decade of his life, Johnson painted tributes to great mathematical theorems and even worked out a couple theorems of his own.

28)  Garden of Your Mind  melodysheep feat. Mr. Rogers (2011)      3:07

The works of Johnson and Krauss inspire us to think and to imagine.

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Remembering Remy Charlip (1929-2012)

Remy Charlip. Photo by Paul Chinn, SFC / SF

As you may have heard by now, Remy Charlip has passed away at the age of 83. The author of Fortunately (1964), Arm in Arm (1969), Thirteen (1975) and many others, Charlip was also a dancer, choreographer, and the model for Brian Selznick’s rendition of Georges Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

He was also one of many people I interviewed for the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  He knew them both, and illustrated two of Ruth’s books — A Moon or a Button (1959) and A Fine Day For… (1967).  During our interview (23 March 2003), he told me about working with Ruth on the first of these two books.

Philip Nel: Well, let’s see.  Maybe we should just start with when you first remember meeting them — or meeting Ruth.

Remy Charlip: OK.  Well, actually Ruth sent me a fan letter.  She saw my book that I did of Ruth Krauss’s [Margaret Wise Brown’s] called David’s Little Indian.

PN: Mmm-hmm.

RC: Do you know that book?

PN: I don’t know David’s Little Indian, no.

RC: Anyway, it was published after Margaret Wise Brown died, and it’s a story about a little boy who finds a little Indian and together they name the days.  So, she said she loved the book, and I don’t remember the letter very well, but I do remember that either she asked me to get in touch with her or I got in touch with her.  I don’t know.  I knew her books — I think I knew A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.  And I’ll Be You and You Be Me is a very — one of my favorite books of Ruth’s.  She influenced me in writing.  I think Arm in Arm actually came as a direct inspiration from her work.

I usually tried to read some (or most) of an author’s work before I interviewed him or her. In this case, I did not: I had grown more aware of the mortality of my interviewees. So, as soon as I had his telephone number, I gave him a call.

RC: Well, one thing I learned, for instance, was we did — I decided — she started to, after a while — let’s see, what was the first book that we worked on together?

PN: Well, A Moon or a Button?

RC: A Moon or a Button.  OK, so, we did that, and (Laughs).  And this is very interesting.  She brought me up to see Ursula Nordstrom, and Ursula would have no truck with me at all.  I made full-color paintings for that book, and the first thing Ursula said to me was, “Black-and-white separates the men from the boys.”  It was a total insult, and a total, you know, particu — you know.  Um.  I don’t know.  Maurice used to call her “the” — and you can’t print this —

PN: OK.

(I’ve cut Maurice Sendak’s occasional nickname for Urusula.)

RC: And, so, I think what Ursula really resented was that in Ruth’s generosity, she would always work with people who were younger, who were inexperienced, and who she thought had some talent and would like to help them — and as well as to work with people that she thought [their] work was exciting.  So, let’s see — so, she got very upset.

PN: Ruth did.

RC: Yeah.  At Ursula.  And, she took my paintings, she kind of gathered them up from the desk in her arms and hands, and threw them up in the air, and ran out, crying, to the ladies room.  Ursula ran after her.  And I sat there thinking, “The children’s book business is much more exciting than I thought.”  (Laughs.)

PN: (Laughs.)

Discussing Ruth’s poem, “The Song of the Melancholy Dress,” he told me:

RC: And anyway, I asked her where she got the idea for the melancholy dress, and she said, “Oh, I overheard somebody say something at a party, and the woman said that she bought a melon-colored dress.”  And, so, a lot of her ideas came from misunderstandings, and I love that because I found that very helpful when one is working, you know, that you –.  And that’s really creativity, when you use something as something else.  And so, when I did the Paper Bag Players, which is a children’s theater, the costumes were all made out of common-place household objects and material — like, say, a shower curtain for the water, a box, big box, for the costume of a soldier — you know, that kind of thing.

PN: Mmm-hmm, mmm-hmm.

RC: And, or a lampshade as a hat, lace curtains for a dress.  So, the Paper Bag Players was all about how you can — so, that’s another thing that I actually learned from her — in another way, I mean, I also had friends who were, like Lou Harrison, for instance, who one day said, “I’m going shopping up in the Bronx.  Would you like to come with me?”  And I said, “Sure.”  And we went up to an automobile graveyard, and had a little meter with him, and he was hitting brake drums to get the sound that he wanted, a particular note. And he was very — it was very urgent that he do it because they were now not making the break drums in the same way that they were.  They made thuds instead of boungs.

PN: Ahh, I’ve gotcha.

RC: So, it was probably something at the time, where I myself take things that you ordinarily look at one way, but then you can look at it in another way.

PN: And that’s a good description of what Ruth does.

It’s also a good description of what Remy did.

For an example of that (and of his sense of humor), you might take a look at this excerpt from his It Looks Like Snow, which I posted back in March of 2011.

Photo by Paul Chinn, from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s obituary.

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It’s here, in hardcover and paperback.

Greetings, faithful readers. I am pleased to report that Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature — a book that was twelve years in the making — now exists in both hardcover and paperback.  I received my author copies today, which means that it should be available for shipping from warehouses in the next few weeks (the official publication date is September 1st).

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (hardcover). Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (paperback).
The author poses with the hardcover. The author poses with the softcover.

It’s already available on the Kindle, Nook and SONY Reader, but I find the ebook’s absence of book design a little disappointing.  So, I recommend purchasing the paperback. First, it’s cheaper.  Second, only the paperback has the full wraparound cover (designed by Chris Ware).  The Kindle version supplies only the front cover.1 On the hardcover, the artwork wraps around the spine and onto the back cover, but, since there is no dust jacket, the cover ends at the vertical edges of both back and front covers.  The paperback also has no dust jacket, but does have folded flaps that mimic a dust jacket  — they fold in along the vertical edges, tucking in between front cover and first page, and between last page and back cover.  Thus, the paperback allows you to view the full wrap-around cover.

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

The only other ways to see the full cover are on this blog or in the poster versions.  The generous Mr. Ware has designed a version of the cover — sans blurbs, UPC symbol, etc. — that is currently being made into posters.  I plan to sell them at book events. (I’m selling them rather than giving them away because I’ve underwritten the cost of this endeavor, and I’d like to make back my investment.)

Anyway.  My point is that the book is now officially real.  For me, a book is not a book until I hold it in my hands.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve signed the contract, delivered the manuscript, edited the manuscript (many times in this case), obtained rights to reprint the images (88 for this one), checked the page proofs, or seen the image for the jacket.  The book is only real for me at the moment I actually see a physical copy for the first time.  For this book, that moment was late this afternoon.

My biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss is now real.


1.  I haven’t seen the Nook or SONY Reader versions. I assume they look much as the Kindle version does, but cannot verify that assumption.

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Chris Ware’s cover

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)

Graphic genius Chris Ware designed the cover for my Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (due this September from the University Press of Mississippi). The front cover is above.  The full, wrap-around cover is below.  Click on it for a larger image.  Trust me: you’ll really want to see all of the detail.  It’s beautiful.  It’s perfect.  I’ve never been happier about one of my book covers.  And for those keeping count, there are six previous books (two co-edited), all of which have striking covers.  The other designers were no slouches.

But Chris Ware is a genius. And no, I am not overusing that word.  But, yes, perhaps we should add a few more words to describe the cover itself. Clever. Detailed. Vivid. Art.

Full, wrap-around 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)

He’s done the cover in the style of Crockett Johnson.  In the case of the girl dancing above Krauss’s typewriter, it’s Mary Blair filtered through a Crockett Johnson aesthetic; for the boy sliding own her back, it’s Maurice Sendak filtered through Johnson. (The girl is from Krauss‘s I Can Fly, illustrated by Blair; the boy is from her A Hole is to Dig, illustrated by Sendak.)  Finally, Ware transforms all of these styles into something uniquely his own.

Fans of Johnson and Krauss: Are you getting all of the references here?  Would you like some help?  I could fully annotate this cover, but I wonder if that would detract from the pleasure of exploring it yourself.  The academic in me wants to proceed with the annotations, but the art lover wants to stay silent, so that your eyes can linger on Ware’s art, looking slowly, experiencing it on its own terms.  And… the art lover wins.  (No annotations.)  Enjoy!

And: Thank you, Chris Ware!

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The Most Wild Thing of All: Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012

Maurice Sendak, 2011

But the wild things cried, “Oh, please don’t go—

We’ll eat you up—we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

—Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)

In June 2001, I went to hear Maurice Sendak speak at Yale University. A couple of years earlier, I’d started working on a biography of Crockett Johnson, and I knew they were close. I had written him to see if he would be willing to chat, but, the previous April, he had declined via a letter from his assistant: “Mr. Sendak does not have any useful recollection relating to Ruth and Dave…. He hopes your research yields more valuable results and best wishes!” So, I thought: I need to try again. I’ll go, I’ll ask him during the Q+A period. When that time came, I was very nervous. He’d already turned me down once. What if he gets angry at me for pestering him? But… I plucked up my courage, and asked.

He looked me in the eyes, and after the briefest pause said Yes. I should talk to him after the Q+A. I did. He wrote his home number down in my notebook, and told me to call.  I did.

I remain astonished at his extraordinary generosity toward me, who (at that time) had published a handful of articles and no books… and yet was going to write a biography. Why even give someone like me the time of day?

This is why. Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson — along with their mutual editor, Harper & Brothers’ Ursula Nordstrom — were the most important people in shaping his early career. In the early 1950s, he began visiting their Rowayton Connecticut home on the weekends, while working on Krauss’s books. They were his “weekend parents” who helped shape him into the great artist he would become. He stayed with them many times during the ’50s, illustrating eight of Krauss’s books, starting with the groundbreaking A Hole Is to Dig (1952).

So, he was willing to help me. I phoned, we chatted, and then set up a time for a longer conversation later that evening.  At 9pm on June 22nd, I phoned him.  We talked for the next two hours.  The phone call began like this:

Philip Nel: Let’s hope the tape works.

Maurice Sendak: Oh, you’re taping it?

PN: Yes, if that’s alright with you.

MS: Yes, that’s fine.  You’re going to hear an odd sound now and then which is my putting a colored pencil into my sharpener ’cause I’m going to try and draw as we speak.

PN: OK.

MS: I have to finish a page a day, a layout a day, for the book I’m doing.

PN: What are you doing?

MS: Well, it’s a book based on an opera, an opera that I’m going to produce.  I have a little children’s theatre which I’m getting rid of, but this is our last thing to do.  It’s an opera that was performed in a concentration camp in Prague, there’s a very famous concentration camp called Theresienstadt.  It was actually Emperor Tieresias’ army encampment right outside the city.  During the war, it became a camp, and it was known as Hitler’s favorite camp.  There was a movie made to impress Red Cross and diplomats coming that all that they were hearing about dead Jews, dead gypsies, dead gays was all a lie.  And a film was made showing volleyball and chess and children, part of a children’s opera, some brief moments.  And the true fact is that there was an opera composed in the camp.  A young composer named Hans Krasa and his librettist wrote an opera for the children in the camp.  And the opera is called Brundibar, and it’s one of the only things we have of Mr. Krasa except for a trio and some songs because he was incinerated when he was about 35 along with the librettist and all the children who performed the opera.

PN: Wow.

MS: We now have the rights to the opera — took us a long time to get it — and Tony Kushner, the playwright

PN: Yeah, Angels in America.

MS: Yeah.  Is one of my very most wonderful friends.  I begged him to take the job of translation because the original English translation is horrible.  The Czech is beautiful, but it’s got to be sung in English, so we translated it, and we got people interested in doing it, staging it.  It has been done, but in schools, in community centers.  It’s never had a real production.  And so in order to raise the money for it, we agreed we would do a picture book.  So, Tony extrapolated from the libretto into a very gorgeous complex story — the first time he’s ever done anything like this.  He’s amazing.  He just adapted it, without any fuss or feathers.  Gorgeous, gorgeous funny language.  And I’m doing the picture book because we need the money for the stage production, and Hyperion will pay for a good part of the stage production and the trade is they get the picture book.  And I was very sick for a year and a quarter, and of course I’m terribly late.  So, I’m trying very hard to catch up.

PN: Wow.

MS: And, it’s beautiful, beautiful work — a perfect way for me to wind up, actually.  So that is it.

PN: Wow.  I’ll be fascinated to see that — the book — when it comes out.

MS: Yeah, the book is evolving because Tony keeps rewriting and I keep rethinking, and we swore we would not make it too dark.  It would be the sweet, little Czech peasant opera.

PN: Well, good luck.

MS: It’s hopeless already.  I have Hitler in it, I have Eva Braun in it, I mean I’m just uncontrollable.

PN: It would be difficult to avoid the darkness.

MS: Impossible.  But, really, seriously must to an extent in order to not obscure what these people really set out to do, which was to write a charming piece to amuse the children.  It’s just that history beclouds it so much.  It is difficult to do.  It is difficult.  But it’s also great fun.  I’m having a wonderful time.

PN: I’m fascinated.  I’ll be interested when it comes out to show it to my class.

He asked about my class.  I had just begun teaching Literature for Children at Kansas State University.  “I always wonder how you teach children’s literature,” he said.  I offered to send him a syllabus.

MS: To me, it’s really a great mystery.

PN: Well, I’m new to teaching it.  I’ve taught it only for a year.  So, I’m pretty close to that sense of mystery.

MS: Well, once the mystery settles deep on you, then you’ll know how complex this thing is.  It’s always been considered low man on the totem pole, one page in the New York Times, and it’s all treated like Peter-Pan-ville.

PN: Right.

MS: It’s very tiresome, and it used to irritate me profoundly when I was young and now I just can’t afford the energy that goes to being irritated.

After a little more conversation, he started to tell me about Ursula.  And Ruth.  And Dave. (David was Crockett Johnson’s real first name, and his friends called him “Dave.”)  Maurice was very open, direct, and shared an enormous amount of deeply personal memories with me — tears in his eyes, as he described his visit to Ruth just before she died. I felt like his therapist, mostly listening, asking the occasional question. By the end of the conversation, I felt as if during the course of those two hours we had become old friends. He invited me to visit him in Ridgefield. I accepted.

(I never did manage to get out there, which is something I now very much regret, of course.)

Maurice Sendak became the biography’s third central character.  Dave and Ruth are the two co-stars, but Maurice gets third billing — or would, if the book were a film.  Beyond the decade of the 1950s, when he was collaborating with Ruth and staying with them some weekends, he visited in 1963 when he got stuck working on Where the Wild Things Are.  What should he call the three wordless two-page spreads in which Max and the wild things cavort in the forest?  Dave suggested “rumpus.”  So, just before the wordless pages start, Sendak has Max say, “Let the wild rumpus start!”  Dave and Ruth were so important to Where the Wild Things Are that Sendak has said, “I feel as though Max was born in Rowayton, and that he was the love child of me, Ruth, and Dave.”

Maurice and I collaborated on getting Crockett Johnson’s Magic Beach published in 2005, with an afterword by me and a foreword by him. We kept in touch. Generally, I’d write him a letter, and then a few days later, he’d phone me back. It was always astonishing to pick up the phone and hear Maurice’s voice on the other end. Or to find his voice on your answering machine. I don’t think I ever quite got over the fact that Holy cow, I’m talking with Maurice Sendak.  That, truly, was “the most wild thing of all!”

In the summer of 2008, I sent both him and Nina Stagakis (who knew Johnson and Krauss very well) an early draft of the manuscript up until the mid-1950s. How was I doing? Anything I might improve? Anything missing? As he recuperated from triple bypass surgery, he read what had become a double biography of both Johnson and Krauss.  On September 10th 2008, he left a message on my office phone.  He said he liked it, it was good work, but he had a few questions. Call him back. I did. He was hesitant to criticize, but I wanted to know. So, he offered his critique: “For me, it was me and Ruth.  And, for you, it was you and Dave.”  Ah, I said, so I need to have more Ruth in there.  He said, well, it’s your manuscript and you can do what you like.  I said, no, I want there to be a balance between the two.  He said, it’s “like a missing color from a palette.”

So, after our phone call, I started going back through the manuscript, and creating a map for each chapter that included a one-line summary of each paragraph which I then labeled either “CJ,” “RK” or “CJ-RK.”  I made the same map for all subsequent chapters, too.  This allowed me to see where the book was unbalanced, and to create a balance, trimming “CJ” sections, expanding “RK” sections.

Maurice was a little out of sorts that September night. In addition to being in recovery, he was also in mourning — his partner of 50 years, Dr. Eugene Glynn, had died the year before. And, at the start of our conversation, he alluded to an article about him in that day’s New York Times, which he described as “a very odd interview that’s very frank.” So, he said, “I’m telling you because I may sound odd.” Wondering what he was talking about, I looked it up (on-line) as we spoke. That’s the article where he at last talks openly about his sexuality. The interviewer asks whether there were anything he had never been asked, and Maurice answers, “Well, that I’m gay.” So, I think he may have feeling a little more vulnerable than usual that evening. (I expect that, if I had just told the New York Times a secret I’d been keeping for 80 years, I’d feel vulnerable, too.)

That was the last time we spoke.

He continued to be supportive of the biography, granting permission to use artwork, and sending me a scan of a photo of him in his 20s — I wanted an image of how he looked at the time he met Ruth and Dave. I believe my biography of Johnson and Krauss will mark the photo’s first publication, though I’m not sure.  But this was all done through his assistant, Jennifer.

My sense of his final years was that he was devoting the life he had left to his work and to mentoring other artists. So, though he no longer returned my occasional letters by phoning me, I figured: well, if I were in my 80s, I would also claim as much of my time for myself as I could! And: He’s been so very generous to me. I can’t complain. I could worry about him, though. I did worry about him.  Whenever he talked to the press, he sounded sad. And he’d sounded sad to me, when last we spoke.

I did write him, and thank him for all he’d done. I was planning to write him again, in a few months’ time, sending him a signed copy of the bio. and another thank-you. (Sigh….) Well, at least he got to see page proofs. The publisher sent him those a few months back.

When I heard the news this morning, “No!” was my first reaction. Yes, I knew he was 83, and he’s never been in the best of health. (He was sickly as a child, and had his first heart attack just before he turned 39.) Still, I assumed he’d always be there. I assumed I’d get the chance to write to him again.

But it was time for him to board Max’s boat and sail away.

Farewell, Maurice.  And thank you.

More on Maurice Sendak (last updated 14 July 2012, 10:15 pm Central Time):

More on Sendak from Nine Kinds of Pie (this blog):

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Potter in Pittsburgh, Johnson & Krauss in Normal

I’ve managed to schedule two invited talks within three days of one another.  I believe both are open to the public.  The Johnson-Krauss talk (Normal, IL, 26 Mar.) definitely is open to the public, and the Harry Potter talk (Pittsburgh, PA, 23 Mar.) offers no indication that public needs permission to attend.  So, if you’re in the area, stop on by!  Here are more details.


March 23, 2012

University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA

I’ll be speaking on “Harry Potter: A Cultural Biography” at 1:30 pm, in 324 Cathedral of Learning.  This is part of a day-long Harry Potter conference attended by University of Pittsburgh students.  Karin Westman is also giving a lecture, “Harry Potter and the Object of Art,” in the same location at 3:15 pm.  You can learn more about the event on this University of Pittsburgh webpage.


March 26, 2012

Illinois State University, Normal, IL

I’ll be speaking on “Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature” at  7 p.m., in 138 Schroeder Hall.  This is the spring’s Lois Lenski Lecture, and it will allow me to premiere what will be the “book talk” for my biography of Johnson and Krauss (which, not incidentally, has the same title as the talk).  You can learn more about the talk here.  They’ve got a spiffy poster for the event, too!

Philip Nel: Lois Lenski Lecture, Illinois State University, 2012

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That’s Not in the Book, You Know: The Absolutely, Positively, Possibly Final Post Concerning the Editing of the Biography of Crockett Johnson and Krauss

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeThe index and (now proofread!) page proofs for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (forthcoming this September) are in the mail, heading back to the publisher.  To commemorate this occasion, here are yet more cuts and a few other changes — most of which I’m fine with, but others of which inspire more mixed feelings.

First, some cuts!  I started sketching categories for the index long before the book went into copy-editing phases; as a result, there were names in my draft of the index that no longer appear in the biography.  Here are some of those names and the cuts that prompted their omission.

Abrashkin, Ray

A reference to the co-creator of the Danny Dunn series got relegated to a footnote, then cut altogether.  Here’s the footnote version:

Ruth [Krauss] seems to have adapted her book herself: a draft of the lyrics, in her hand, appears on the back of some notes and sketches for Is This You?  That said, the Children’s Record Guild’s archives have an unsigned contract that credits Ray Abrashkin for writing the record.  Perhaps they collaborated?

I now believe that Krauss wrote the lyrics, though I wouldn’t completely rule out input from Abrashkin. One result of this omission is that the image of The Carrot Seed record now appears … nowhere near the place it’s mentioned in the book.  Originally, the record appeared twice in the text, once at the time it was released, and once when W.D. Snodgrass cited it in his essay on the poet’s tact.  The latter reference remains, but the earlier one (where the record’s image appears) has gone.  (For more about the Children’s Record Guild, check out David Bonner’s Revolutionizing Children’s Records.  Bonner, incidentally, is my source for that unsigned contract.)

Capote, Truman,

When it went into copyediting, the bio. also included this short paragraph (the “Marc” is Marc Simont, who illustrated four of Krauss’s books):

Ruth and Dave also saw Marc socially.  He recalled accompanying them to “a party in Greenwich Village, where a group of young men were doing a farewell party for Truman Capote.”  They had prepared “big signs saying ‘Ciao,’” suggesting that the party was in February 1949, when Capote was leaving for Italy.  But Capote didn’t show up.

If Capote had shown up, this would have been worth including.  He didn’t.  So, cutting this makes sense.

Diary of a Nobody, The,

One of Johnson’s favorite books.  Since I can work this into one of the Complete Barnaby afterwords, I agreed to omit it from the bio.  If I hadn’t had the Barnaby option, then I would have certainly argued that it remain — a writer’s favorite book should be included in the biography of that writer.

Ernst, Max,

Surrealist and father of Jimmy Ernst, who is in the book, as is Jimmy’s spouse, Dallas Ernst.

Flaxer, Abram,

Flaxer was a union organizer and the second husband of Crockett Johnson’s first wife.

Grossmith, George,

Grossmith, Weedon,

The co-authors of The Diary of a Nobody (see above).

Hirschfeld, Al,

In a draft from early May 2011, I still had a reference to Al Hirschfeld, but that disappeared prior to copy-editing phase.  The context was Johnson’s early New Masses cartoons (1934-1935):

            Stylistically, Johnson has not yet arrived at the Otto Soglow-esque minimalism for which he is famous. Although the detail is less abundant and the lines more fluid than his earliest work, these lines display more dramatic variations in thickness — beginning thin at an end, and then inflating to show the shadow of an elbow or to accentuate the nape of the neck, before slimming back down to a point. Unlike Crockett Johnson’s characteristic style, these lines often do not close, instead just suggesting the boundaries of a figure. The faces of those whom he satirizes even include elements of caricature. These features bring his early cartoons nearer to that of his contemporary Al Hirschfeld. Johnson lacks Hirschfeld’s delight in rendering minutiae, and uses a lesser degree of exaggeration, but there is an edge that softens in Johnson’s later, characteristic style — a style which would emerge in just a few years, and which he would not alter for the rest of his career.

No trace of this paragraph remains.

Johnson, Lyndon Baines,

The original paragraph provided a little more context for petitions Johnson and Krauss signed:

Before traveling abroad, Dave and Ruth began speaking out at home. Though they likely voted for President Johnson in 1964 (or, certainly, against Senator Barry Goldwater), Dave and Ruth started opposing Johnson’s foreign policy before his new term began. After the North Vietnamese’s alleged attack (which in fact never occurred) in the Gulf of Tonkin, the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave the president carte blanche to escalate the Vietnam War.  Though the vast majority of Americans supported this, Dave and Ruth did not. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Dave was among the 75 national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and Women in the Arts, Concerned with Vietnam.  Joining him were old friends Kay Boyle, Antonio Frasconi, and Ad Reinhardt; New Masses-era colleagues Maurice Becker and Rockwell Kent; and Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, E. Y. Harburg, and Tillie Olsen.

Courtesy of the copy-editor (who, as I say, was charged with doing a lot of actual editing), the final version reads like this:

Before departing, however, they began speaking out against the Vietnam War, which had begun to escalate with the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August. In late December 1964 or early January 1965, Johnson was among the seventy-five national initiating sponsors of the Assembly of Men and Women in the Arts, Concerned with Vietnam.  Joining him were old friends Kay Boyle, Antonio Frasconi, and Ad Reinhardt; New Masses-era colleagues Maurice Becker and Rockwell Kent; and Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsburg, E. Y. Harburg, and Tillie Olsen.

In retrospect, I wish I’d pushed back more on this one — and I encountered several such moments in the page proofs.  However, the copyedited text arrived with a quick deadline when I was already very, very busy.  I did my best, but had I more time to consider, I suspect I would have resisted a bit more.  Ah, well.  The copyeditor did make many improvements to the text.  At the page proofs phase, I of course notice only the changes that I dislike.  And I’ve changed some of those in the proofs phase — but only the critical ones, since changes at this stage require more labor from the press.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): movie posterKaye, Danny,

Reviewers compared Ruth Krauss’s The Great Duffy (1946, illustrated by Mischa Richter) to James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was adapted into a film starring Danny Kaye.  The Mitty film (1947), I had written, may be one reason why Krauss’s film treatment of her own The Great Duffy didn’t get picked up.  But that’s purely speculative.  Mention of her film treatment remains, but the Mitty movie has departed.

Kenny’s Window,

The first book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Introducing the reviews of Ruth Krauss’s I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue (which he illustrated and which was published the same year), I had the following sentence: “Much praise went to Sendak, whose first picture book, Kenny’s Window (1956), won an honor award from the New York Herald Tribune Book festival that spring.”  That’s gone, and so is the need for this reference in the index.

Leask, Alexander,

A reference to an ancestor of David Johnson Leisk (Crockett Johnson).  I originally had a whole paragraph on this guy.  That got condensed to a passing reference here (David Sr. is Crockett Johnson’s father, and this scene takes place in the 19-teens):

At home, while the nieces played piano, David Sr. sang along, carrying the bass part on tunes like “Mother McCree” and “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”  The latter is a Scottish song allegedly composed by supporters of Charles Edward Stuart (“Bonnie Prince Charlie”) — the son of James Edward Stuart, whom Dave’s ancestor Alexander Leask supported two hundred years earlier

The first sentence remains in the book; the second sentence has been cut.  So, in this case, we’ve gone from a paragraph to a sentence fragment to… nothing!

A lot of family members have (wisely) been cut:

Leask, Arthur (CJ’s great-great grandfather),

Leask, Christina (CJ’s aunt),

Leask, John (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Robert (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Thomas (CJ’s uncle),

Leask, Thomas James (CJ’s great grandfather),

Leask, William (CJ’s distant ancestor),

Leisk, Ella (CJ’s cousin),

I was able to assemble quite a thorough genealogy of Crockett Johnson, but how interesting is this?  To me, very.  To others, not as much.  So, it’s gone.

Masses, The,

Art Young was a mainstay of The Masses, but also contributed to New Masses while Johnson was editor.  Young is still in the book, but the reference to his earlier career has left.

McCrea, Joel,

In a discussion of a 1948 Barnaby narrative, I’d invoked the great Preston Sturges film Sullivan’s Travels (1941, starring Joel McCrea) as a point of comparison.  The entire paragraph is gone, but a version of it will return in The Complete Barnaby, Vol. 4: 1948-1949.

Mencken, H. L.,

I’m completely fine with this cut.  Krauss studied violin at the Peabody Conservatory of Music — Mencken was a frequent visitor at the time.  Himself a pianist, he was also friends with Gustav Strube, Peabody teacher (and conductor of the newly established Baltimore Symphony).  And he knew some of Krauss’s teachers at Peabody, too.  This deserved to be cut because the connection to Krauss is far too tenuous: sure, she likely attended the same symphony concerts as Mencken, and may have been aware of his Peabody connections.  But these connections are not sufficient to keep Mr. Mencken in.

I Led 3 Lives (advert for TV program)Philbrick, Herbert,

I had a very brief reference to Mr. Philbrick (itself condensed from an even longer mention).  It appeared in the context of the FBI’s monitoring of Johnson:

As Herbert Philbrick notes in his memoir, I Led Three Lives (the basis for the Emmy-nominated TV series, 1953-1956), being a successful informant requires convincing the Communists of one’s loyalty: obvious visits from federal agents would give the game away.

Is it necessary?  No.  And so, it’s gone.

Psychoanalyst and the Artist, The,

Book by Daniel E. Schneider, Ruth Krauss’s psychoanalyst — the biography still includes a brief quotation from the book, but its title is now relegated to a citation.

Schwed, Peter,

Johnson was friends with Fred Schwed, Peter’s brother.  But Peter — a Simon & Schuster editor — appeared in the context of his fellow Simon & Schuster editor Jack Goodman.  Goodman & Fred Schwed remain in the book, but Peter’s gone.  Incidentally, Fred Schwed is author of the classic satirical look at Wall Street, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? (1940, repub. 1955).

Searchinger, Marian,

Spouse of documentary filmmaker Gene Searchinger.  The Searchingers went on a vacation with Johnson and Krauss in the early 1950s, but that trip got cut.  Gene Searchinger is still in the book, though.  A number of his conversations with Johnson were quite illuminating.  I was saddened to discover, a few months ago, that Mr. Searchinger passed away in 2009.  I really enjoyed talking with him, and I think he would have enjoyed the biography.

Zigrosser, Carl,

In 1938, New Masses was planning an art supplement, thinking that such a feature might draw in more readers.  Johnson and contributing editor Herman Michelson went to the Weyhe Gallery to talk to Carl Zigrosser about this.  This entire paragraph has been cut.  Incidentally, someone looking for a project should consider publishing either all of or simply extracts from Zigrosser’s diaries.  I read them on microfilm in the Smithosnian’s Archives of American Art.  Meticulous, and fascinating.  Zigrosser knew everyone.

Zindel, Paul,

Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson went to parties thrown by Willard Maas and Marie Menken. So did Andy Warhol and Paul Zindel.  Warhol’s still in the book, but the copy-editor cut Zindel.  I let it stand, but now doubt that decision.


The changes that inspire the most mixed feelings are stylistic.  The copy-editor — who was also charged with editing the manuscript — made many helpful changes, which were valuable (and necessary) for reigning in my large manuscript.  Indeed, you can see many of the good changes in the list above, and in previous posts on this process.  In the copy-editing phase, I pushed back against some suggestions, and let others stand.  As noted above, the copy-edited manuscript arrived with a quick deadline when I lacked time to go through it with the degree of specificity I’d have preferred.  I did my best, but while reading the proofs I noticed some changes I wish I’d caught. I was able to correct some of them, but others had to remain.  With apologies to the copy-editor, these are some of the copy-editor’s changes that most rankled:

  1. Adding passive voice.  I suspect that this may from the copy-editor’s training in history, although I cannot say for certain.  I use passive only very rarely.  I restored most of my active voice, but sometimes let passive sentences stand.  In the proofs, I caught a number of instances in which traces of both sentences were there.  When I caught them, I crossed out the passive verb so that the text made sense.  I suspect, though, that I may have missed some.
  2. Making my sentences needlessly long.  I suspect that this, too, may derive from the copy-editor’s training in history — but I’m not sure.  My response may simply derive from the fact that I resist this trait common to an academic style. I dislike long, twisty academic sentences, and so I try to avoid them whenever I can.
  3. Making my paragraphs needlessly long.  I really want the book to have paragraphs of manageable length.
  4. Cramming all the dialogue together in a single paragraph instead of treating it as dialogue. Where possible, I’ve separated conversations out again.
  5. Cutting dialogue all together.  Dialogue helps create character.  Some of the conversations were clearly not neccessary.  But others,… I’m not so sure.  For example, I wish I’d retained more of Krauss’s last conversation with Sendak.

If I could have had a novelist (instead of an historian) as my copy-editor, that would have been ideal: I want this to read more like a novel, and less like a history. But, of course, I focus here on the changes that rankle because I forget the many (many!) beneficial changes instituted by the copy editor — who, let me repeat, made some very helpful suggestions.  I also focus on these things because I’ve been working on this book for over a dozen years, and (given that massive investment of time and energy) I want it to be the best that it can be. In sum, I focus on these things because I’m a perfectionist and thus have a hard time letting things go!

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)Anyway. Enough obsessing. It’s done. As I mentioned at the top, the marked-up page proofs and the index are on their way back to the publisher. And the biography will be out in the fall!  Even better, you won’t have to read yet another blog post in which I discuss writing the biography.  Probably.

 


Far, far too many posts on this blog relate to the writing of this biography.  Believe it or not, the list below does not even contain all such posts.  So, depending on your tolerance for tedium, you might proceed at your own risk here:

Posts tagged Crockett JohnsonRuth Krauss, or Biography may also be of interest.

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The Joy of Index

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeOK, “Joy” might be the wrong word — unless we modify that title to “The Anticipatory Joy of Finishing the Index” or “The Joy of Finding a Great Index.”  Creating an index can be a mind-numbing slog, and creating it while checking proofs (as I am doing right now) doesn’t make it any more fun.  But the index is also the most important part of any book.  It’s one reason that I tend to create my indices myself.  Sure, you can hire an indexer.*  But who knows your book better than you do?

Many people will enter Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (coming fall 2012) via the index. Sure, I like to flatter myself and imagine that people will read the book from cover to cover.  But many people won’t.  The index is there to guide them.

It’s also there to guide people who have read the book, and are trying to locate something they remember reading.  We’ve all done this: OK, I know the book mentions this, but where does it mention it?

So, my index is very detailed.  For the two central characters (Johnson and Krauss), I’ve even created sub-indices.  I’ve only indexed the manuscript up to page 202, but here’s what they look like right now:

Krauss, Ruth Ida:

aesthetics of, 28, 33, 148, 153, 155

athletics of, 12, 14, 25, 68, 154

anthropology and, 51-54, 58, 63-64, 66, 69, 71, 93-94

anti-racism of, 11, 52, 64, 66, 93-94, 102, 104, 120-121, 162, 182

artistic ability of, 29-31, 124

birth of, 9

celebrity of, 187-188

childhood of, 9-15, 25-27,

childlessness of, 97-98

childlike aspects retained by, 14

death of, 102

dogs owned by, 53, 191-192

education of, 12-15, 26-31

family background of, 9-10

fan mail received by,

finances of, 28, 31, 68, 72, 111, 116, 138-139, 166, 201

friendships of, 28

health of, 11, 13, 51, 143

jobs held by, 28, 31, 39

marriages of, 39-40, 58, 68

meets CJ, 54

as mentor, 7, 124, 179-180, 189, 202

music of, 14, 26-27

narcolepsy of, 58, 100

nicknames of, 25-26

phobias and anxieties of, 12, 99, 101, 159-160

physical appearance, 4, 54, 158

political beliefs of, 11, 52, 64, 69, 79, 88, 93-94, 102, 104, 111, 120-121, 199

pseudonyms used by, 39, 189, 200

psychoanalysis and, 159-160

rapport with children, 84, 97-98, 133, 140, 142, 148, 163

religious background of, 4, 10, 13, 42

residences of, 3, 9-10, 12-14, 28, 31, 38-40, 57, 59

and sex, 31, 158

sexism faced by, 15, 39, 58, 72, 104, 127, 181

as surrogate parent,

travels of, 40-42, 51-52, 95, 187, 202

Krauss, Ruth Ida, works of:

advertising, 111, 165, 193

alternate titles for, 80, 114, 122, 126, 144, 166, 180, 182, 189

anti-racist message in, 162

audience for, 66, 96, 142, 155, 162, 170, 181-183, 188, 194

awards and honors, 111

childhood influences on, 25, 121

children’s language in, 5-6, 26, 109, 117, 122, 126, 130-131, 142, 144, 148, 153-154, 188

creative process, 5-6, 13, 72, 82-85, 98-100, 103, 117, 122, 124, 126, 140, 144, 160, 169-171, 188

editor for, 115

fiction for adults, 39, 96

imagination in, 82, 89, 126, 131

as influence, 6, 165-166, 193

innovation in, 116-117, 122-123, 126-128, 137, 140, 142-143, 153-154, 190

moral themes in, 66-67, 69-70, 93-94, 111-112, 121, 126, 130, 137, 162, 199

plays,

poetry, 38-40, 110, 154, 170, 183, 189-191, 195, 197, 199-201

promotional efforts for, 72

revisions of, 82-85, 95-96

sales of, 80, 127, 130, 138, 166, 170

on stage,

on television,

in translation and foreign editions, 120, 176

unpublished, 69, 71, 90, 93-96, 99, 116, 162-163, 169-170

see also specific works.

Leisk, David Johnson (aka Crockett Johnson):

aesthetics of, 7, 17, 24, 33, 44, 49, 68, 72-73, 149, 177-178, 185-187

athletics of, 24, 33, 46

anti-racism of, 47, 54, 79, 88, 104, 119

artistic ability of, 19

birth of, 16

carpentry of, 102, 143

celebrity of, 72, 96, 187-188

childhood of, 16-24, 189

childlessness of, 98

death of,

dogs owned by, 17, 35, 53, 102-103, 156, 191-192

education of, 17, 23-24

family background of, 16-21

fan mail received by, 71, 129

finances of, 32, 34, 44, 72, 81, 92, 147, 157

health of, 59

humor of, 19, 103, 135, 158, 177

jobs held by, 32-34, 44

manner of speaking, 19

marriages of, 35, 50, 58, 68

and mathematics, 23, 73-75

meets RK, 54

as mentor, 7, 124, 158, 180, 202

nocturnal habits of, 67-68, 73, 101-102, 155

origins of name, 16, 19

physical appearance, 4, 33, 54, 57, 149, 158, 179

political beliefs of, 18, 34-37, 43-44, 46-50, 54-56, 58-59, 63, 66, 76-77, 79, 86-88, 95, 103, 106, 108-109, 113, 119, 161, 194, 197

pseudonyms used by, 19, 21, 23, 37

religious background of, 4, 19

residences of, 3, 16-18, 20, 32-33, 35, 38, 57, 59

and sailing, 17, 68, 80, 155, 176, 179

and smoking, 24, 67, 71

as surrogate parent, 143-144

travels of, 49, 95, 187, 202

and typography, 24, 32-33, 73, 88, 176

Leisk, David Johnson (aka Crockett Johnson), works of:

advertising, 32-33, 56, 71, 134-135, 178, 193, 197

alternate titles for, 180-181, 199

animation, 79

audience for, 62-65, 71, 74, 77-78, 180, 185-186, 189

awards and honors, 178

cartoons, 193

comics, 18-22, 35-37, 43, 46-49, 53-65, 67-68, 70-74, 77, 79-82, 86-87, 90-92, 103, 106, 108-109, 113-114, 128-129, 135-137

childhood influences on, 19, 149, 157, 189

creative process, 19, 60, 67-68, 82, 98, 103, 140, 169, 173, 189

editor for, 33-34, 44-45, 49-50

editor for RK’s work, 78, 88, 124

imagination in, 5, 21, 23-24, 46, 67, 114, 148-152, 169, 171, 184, 186

illustrations for others’ work, 47, 66, 72, 78, 88, 139-142, 158

as influence, 5, 7

innovation in, 73, 140, 142-143, 145, 160-162

inventions, 124, 129, 148-149, 155, 158, 180

mathematical theorems,

moral themes in, 35-37, 43, 53-56, 58-59, 66, 75-76, 79, 161, 175-176

paintings,

promotional efforts for, 71

revisions of, 145, 154-155

on radio, 81-82, 105

sales of, 5, 6, 130, 149, 164-165, 170, 180-181, 200

on stage, 79-81, 91-93, 95-96, 104-105

on television, 148

in translation and foreign editions, 156, 176

unpublished, 91, 140-141

see also specific works.

In addition to indexing the book all the way to the end, this index may yet change in other ways — some categories may get removed, and others may be added. But the above entries are one example of how I hope to make the book useful to others.  And the level of detail represented serve as an example of why authors — if they have the stamina — should create their own indices.


* For the record, Lissa Paul and I did hire an indexer for Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011). Jon Eben Field did a fine job.  But I did my own indices for Dr. Seuss: American Icon (2004) and The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002).


An extraordinary number of posts on this blog relate to the writing of this biography.  I can’t imagine that all (or even most) of them will be of interest, but, for the heartier among you, here are most of them:

Posts tagged Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, or Biography may also be of interest.

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