How to Read Harold

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverTo celebrate Crockett Johnson‘s 110th birthday, I offer some advice on how to read Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). Sort of. This is not so much “advice” as it is a glimpse of my work-in-progress, How to Read Harold: A Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson, and the Making of a Children’s Classic.  The book (when finished, and presuming anyone wants to publish it) is both a biography of a book and a succinct introduction to how children’s picture books work. Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon reveals how complex an apparently simple story can be, and offers a case study in what we miss when we underestimate, trivialize, or simply fail to look closely at the art of the picture book. Indeed, the book’s deceptively transparent aesthetic makes it ideal for this purpose because, at first glance, most people would deem the book self-explanatory. What more can be said about a boy, a crayon, and the moon?

In what is currently 15 very short chapters (and will ultimately be perhaps 25 very short chapters), I offer different ways in thinking about one book — and, in this sense, I’m making a nod to Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik‘s forthcoming How to Read Nancy, a brilliant close-reading of a single Nancy comic strip.  More than merely an expansion of their original essay, the book offers 43 ways of reading the Aug. 8 1959 Nancy and, in so doing, provides a master class in how comics work.  I’m hoping to achieve something similar for picture books.

Here, then, is an extract from How to Read Harold.  Enjoy!

One, Two, Three Dimensions; or, “And the moon went with him.”

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "He made a long straight path so he wouldn't get lost."

Thanks to the stylistic consistency of Johnson’s clear line, Harold and his artwork all inhabit the same reality. Their shared aesthetic allows Johnson to convince us that, for example, oscillating between two and three dimensions is perfectly normal. Or, at least, this oscillation — which begins at the moment when Harold draws the path — convinces most people. It puzzled both of Johnson’s editors. Looking at Johnson’s dummy, his editor Ursula Nordstrom said, “I found myself asking such dumb questions — like where did he draw the moon and the path and the tree?”  First among a list of “The parts I am not too sure of,” Harper reader Ann Powers also named “the pathway at the beginning (too strange?).” It may be strange, but when Harold is standing in an empty void, it also makes sense for him to draw a “long straight path.” It’s practical. It anchors him. It also creates the illusion of three dimensions in what has — up to this point — been a two-dimensional space. Unlike most pre-schoolers, Harold understands the vanishing point.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "And the moon went with him."

In one sense, the observation that “he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere on the long straight path” echoes such advice as “taking the road less traveled” or “getting off the beaten path.”  Harold’s decision to leave it announces his creativity. In another sense, the observation is literally true. His drawing only appears to have three dimensions. He’s actually on a flat page. The most he can do on this “path” is walk in place. To get anywhere, he needs to acknowledge the flatness of the page and walk off the path, into a new space, blank and ready for his crayon.

As he departs from the path, “the moon went with him” suggests a three-dimensional reality — even though only some of Harold’s drawings actually have three dimensions. The dragon and boat are 2-D. The pies and picnic blanket are 3-D. The balloon begins as one-dimensional (a curved line), becomes two-dimensional (a circle), and ends as three-dimensional (two ropes extending behind, and two ropes in front). But its basket stays two-dimensional, as does the house it lands in front of. Yet these differing numbers of dimensions (often on the same page) don’t seem inconsistent or out-of-place because the moon helps trick us into seeing these scenes in a three-dimensional space. When we walk at night in the real, physical world, the moon seems to follow us. The moon is the only part of Harold’s drawing that’s able to move, hovering over his head, far off in the distance, as he walks along.

Though neither named in the title nor represented on the cover, the moon is as important as Harold and his crayon. Perhaps acknowledging the moon’s key role in this trio, two later Harold books feature the moon on the cover: next to a tightrope-walking Harold on Harold’s Circus (1959) and as the “D” on Harold’s ABC (1963). The moon is Harold’s companion throughout Harold and the Purple Crayon, and the third constant visual motif. After its introduction, the moon appears in every scene (every page or two-page spread, in the four “city” pages) — along with the two other constants (Harold and his crayon). Harold might be read as a stand-in for the reader, the crayon as his (or our) imagination, and the moon a guiding light. Or, better: Harold is the artist, the crayon his medium, and the moon his muse.

Crockett Johson: Herald Tribune Children's Spring Book Festival, 1958

Crockett Johnson’s poster for the 1958 New York Herald Tribune Children’s Spring Book Festival courtesy of Chris Ware.

Fans of Harold might also enjoy these:

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Talent on Tape: Scattered Thoughts on Morton Schindel (1918-2016)

Mort Schindel with Wild Things (photo: Scholastic)You may not know the name Morton Schindel, but you certainly know the people he worked with. At his Weston Woods Studios, using his “iconographic” technique, he adapted works by Maurice Sendak, Robert McCloskey, James Daugherty, Ezra Jack Keats, Tomi Ungerer, and William Steig, among others. His film of Steig’s Doctor De Soto was nominated for an Academy Award. Schindel passed away a month ago, at the age of 98, but I just learned of this yesterday.

In June 2001, while working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I went to Weston Woods‘ offices in Connecticut, and interviewed Schindel. I had only a passing familiarity with his works (having seen some when I was a schoolchild), and so my questions were less informed than I would have liked. But Mort very graciously told me about his life, career, and acquaintance with Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) and Ruth.

Schindel: Eventually, probably in the late ’50s, I took an interest in [Krauss’s] A Hole Is to Dig.  Ruth and Dave were still living in Rowayton, but not long after that they moved up to Owenoke Park in Westport. And, we would get together ostensibly to talk about their work or our work, but in this field, there’s not much of a dividing line between the work you’re doing and the personal relationships that you develop.  That’s one of the joys of the whole thing.  And I can remember that I always felt that I could do a better job if I knew where it [the work to be adapted] was coming from.  And the more I knew about the people and how the book developed, the better.

Morton Schindel (photo credit: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)        The main thing that I can remember about A Hole Is to Dig was that I asked Ruth whether she really picked up these sayings from kids.  And in her inimitable style, I can remember a cackling laugh, and her saying almost apologetically with a big broad smile that no, most of it had been her idea.  And, obviously it was a good idea that was strongly supported by wonderful drawings which Maurice did.  And I think that that was their first collaboration.

Nel: It was.

Schindel: And I think it was one that they both treasured because Maurice was relatively new at that time.  And, I’m quite sure it was Ruth’s most successful book up until then.  She had another one that I think was called The Growing Story, by Phyllis Rowand, I think – is that right?

Nel: Yes.  Nina is her daughter.

Schindel: My memory is better than I thought.  We were interested in that one but for some reason we never did it.  Well, the reason was is that it was for very young children, and in the beginning for the first several years, I was making films and then filmstrips.  But preschools didn’t have filmstrip projectors….

He talked more as much about the business as he did about the people — the latter of which was more my interest.  My favorite part of the interview was his recollection of making short films about creators of children’s books.  I had never seen either Krauss or Johnson on film, though I figured some footage must exist.  Schindel said:

Now, another thing is that – just trying to pull all this together – at a certain point, I had decided to make some biographical films of children’s book illustrators and actually in the beginning I don’t think I started with the idea that I was going to make films.  I think I wanted to share these people with people in the schools and nobody tried to do that, and I didn’t know how to do it.  So, the logical place to start would be to do interviews with them, and then see what I could edit out of the interview, and then make them available on tape.  I did a little series called Talent on Tape.  And, I think the most successful one I did was May Massey because I still get requests for that one.  And it’s been put into some useful collections.  May, you know, was regarded as the principal editor of children’s books in the early days.  She was the editor at Viking Press, and she nurtured people like McCloskey and Don Freeman and people like that.  So, the tape that I made about her I think was the only one that existed.  So, most collections that had been collecting things about children’s books would like to have that tape.  Anyway, that’s leading up to the fact that I recall doing one with Dave and Ruth.

On the tape here, you hear me asking “Really?”  Because, I am thinking, this is the moment! He does have footage! Mort continued:

What I would do is I would conduct an interview with them and then I would sit down and try to edit it into something that makes sense.  And what took maybe two hours would maybe get edited down to 10 or 15 minutes sometimes.  I distinctly remember working on the one that I did with Ruth and Dave.  And I was interviewing them together.  And it says something about their reluctance to express themselves orally because I had this hour or so of tape – could have been less because maybe they were not as crazy about expressing themselves verbally – and when I was all through editing it, I had a piece of tape that was about two inches long.

I laughed, and he added:

There was just nothing.  It was all kind of – I can’t say it was gibberish – but it was more sounds than it was continuity of words.   I think that that’s – it says something about how they communicated.

I figured, OK, he didn’t have enough that would be useful for his Talent on Tape series, but surely he saved the tape he didn’t use.  So, later in the interview, I asked him: “you mentioned that you actually taped them: I don’t suppose you have that tape, do you?” He said, “No.  Literally, it was nothing.  If I had it, it would have been an impression, but there wouldn’t have been any information.”

To this day, I have never seen any footage of either Crocket Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Given their prominence in the world of children’s books (as well as Johnson’s work in comics and Krauss’s in avant-garde theatre), this surprises me.  I assume that somewhere, in some vault, there’s film of them.  But I’ve never seen it.

Later in the interview, he shared some impressions of the two of them:

His [Dave’s] expression and everything was hearty, there was an obvious strength.  Ruth was diminutive, even next to a man of normal stature, and she squeaked as much as she talked, if you know what I mean.  You know, I’m filling in now some of the nuances for you, since you said you obviously never met them, and you have to pick all of this up from hearsay.  Strangely enough, Ruth came across as a bit of a kooky artist, and Dave was all the way in the other direction.  Put a bowler on him, he could have been a banker.  Obviously, they were both exceptionally fine artists.

In my biography, I describe Johnson and Krauss as “complimentary opposites.” He’s one of many people whose memories conveyed that impression.

When I left, he insisted I take some videocassettes (this was 2001), including one on Robert McCloskey and one on Gene Deitch — who animated two of the Harold films that Weston Woods distributed. Indeed, it was Gene’s Facebook feed that alerted me to Mort’s death.

Weston Woods Catalogue, featuring Ezra Jack Keats' A Whistle for Willie

Morton Schindel was one of the last of his generation of children’s-book people. With his passing, a good bit of the history of children’s literature also leaves us. I feel very fortunate to have had a chance to talk with him and dozens of other artists, writers, and filmmakers. So many are now gone.

To learn more about Schindel’s life and work, you might take a look at some of these:

Photo credits:

  1. Photo of Morton Schindel from Scholastic (and included in the SLJ obit).
  2. Photo of Morton Schindel: Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times (and included in the NYT obit).
  3. Front cover of Weston Woods catalogue, featuring Ezra Jack Keats’ A Whistle for Willie.

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Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature: Call for Papers (1 Nov. 2017)

Drowned City, The Island, Number the Stars, War — What If?, How I Learned Geography

A Special Issue of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly

Edited by Philip Nel

Deadline: 1 November 2017

In September 2015, photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi — his corpse washed ashore on a Turkish beach — came to symbolize the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders promised to do more, people debated whether printing the pictures was appropriate, and charities experienced a surge in donations. In children’s literature, the figure of the child as refugee, migrant, or displaced citizen has long been a powerful trope, disrupting the assumed connection between personal identity and national identity, exposing virulent xenophobia, but also awakening compassion and kindness.  As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II (and demagogues stoke nativist/racist anger in Europe and North America), this special issue will examine children’s literature’s response — both contemporary and historical — to refugees, migrants, and members of diasporic communities.

Subjects papers might consider include (but are not limited to) how texts for children represent: the ways in which the term “migrant” can dehumanize people, whether persecuted minorities qualify for refugee status in their own countries, the many reasons for displacement (such as race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, war, economics), questions concerning human rights, and how the vulnerable figure of the child brings these questions into sharper focus.

Papers should conform to the usual style of ChLAQ and be between 6000 and 9000 words in length.  Please send queries and completed essays to Philip Nel (, with “ChLAQ Essay” in the subject line) by 1 November 2017.  The essays chosen will appear in the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 43.4 (Winter 2018).

The Arrival, Day of Tears, I Am David, Bamboo People, Inside Out & Back Again

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Children’s Lit vs. Brexit

According to my unscientific survey, most creators of children’s literature and YA literature thought that Britain should remain in the European Union. They did not see the EU as without problems, but rather understood that remaining a member was far more advantageous than leaving. Here, then, are a few responses to the Brexit vote. I’ve gathered some from Oliver Jeffers, Malorie Blackman, Lucy Coats, Neil Gaiman, John Green, Guus Kuijer, Andrew Prahin, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Stephen Savage, Bob Shea, and G. Willow Wilson. UPDATE: Added Patrick Ness and Michael Rosen.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Let me know, and I’ll add them.

Oilver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers, Brexit

Source: Jeffers’ Instagram.

Malorie Blackman

Lucy Coats

Neil Gaiman

John Green

Guus Kuijer

According to Google Translate, this is: “I believe that Britain is falling apart. So sad!”

Translation, courtesy of Vanessa Joosen: “I finally understand that being a patriot means you don’t want to belong to anything.”

Google Translate: “The North Sea remains as narrow though. Though ..”

Google Translate: “The gray establishment outstrips the young people”

Google Translate: “Go out of Twitter: ‘Twixit’? Worth considering.”

Patrick Ness

This last one is a response to Mr. Trump’s characteristically idiotic statements, made just after he landed in Scotland:

There are more Brexit-related Tweets in Ness’s feed.

Andrew Prahin

Philip Pullman

The following day, Pullman published an editorial, “on the 1000 causes of Brexit,” which includes two paragraphs that I’m excerpting primarily because they offer the strongest parallels to the U.S. media’s complicity in facilitating the rise of America’s fascist orange dumpster fire:

Then there is the tendency of our broadcast media to be seduced by strong personalities. The oafish saloon-bar loudmouth Nigel Farage was indulged with far too many appearances on Any Questions and Question Time. Producers seem to have felt his dog-whistle racism to be amusingly transgressive.

Similarly, Boris Johnson, a liar, a cheat, a man said to have betrayed a journalist to someone who wanted to beat him up, a shameless opportunist, an idle buffoon, to name but a few of his disqualifications for high office, was flattered over and over again by programmes such as Have I Got News For You. Without the completely needless exposure these two gained from the generosity of TV and radio, they would have found it harder to spread their lies and not-even-quite-covert racism during the referendum. They’d have been starting from a different place.

In the next paragraph, he identifies David Cameron’s “flippant, careless, irresponsible” decisions as the “immediate cause of the disaster.”  Read the entire piece at The Guardian.

Michael Rosen

You can read Michael Rosen’s modest proposal, “Time to cull old people,” on his website.  It begins like this:

Good evening

on what is a historic moment in history,

a truly momentous moment

and I want to take this opportunity to discuss something

which up until now has been swept under the carpet:

old people.

Quite frankly there are too many of them.

I’m going to say it simply

and you can quote me on this:

there are too many old people in Britain today;

we can’t cope

they’re putting pressure on our public services,

they’re forcing wages down through doing low-paid jobs
and volunteering all over the place;they’re hanging about on street corners
talking to each other in their own odd ways
they go to their own special places
segregating themselves off from the rest of us

failing to integrate.

As I say, read the rest of it on his website, and remember that it’s satire — specifically, a commentary on the fact that those in favor of Brexit were older, and that a lot of the pro-Brexit rhetoric was anti-immigrant.

J. K. Rowling

Stephen Savage

Bob Shea

G. Willow Wilson

Credits: Thanks to Vanessa Joosen for translating one of Guus Kuijer’s Tweets, to Lara Saguisag for pointing me to the responses from Michael Rosen and Patrick Ness, and to Poushali Bhadury for pointing me to Philip Pullman’s Guardian piece.

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The Colors of Madeleine

Jaclyn Moriarty, Colors of Madeline (Scholastic editions, 2012-2016)If you have yet to read Jaclyn Moriarty‘s The Colors of Madeleine trilogy, then many pleasures await you. The third volume — A Tangle of Gold — was just published last month. It is fantasy that remains fully grounded in everyday experience. It has characters that I enjoy spending time with. It is about growing up, it asks big questions, and its themes resonate with our own uncertain times.

It is about many things.

(1) There’s an epistolary friendship between Madeleine and Elliot. She lives in Oxford, the World. He lives in the Bonfire, the Farms, in the Kingdom of Cello. They communicate via a crack between their worlds. In her world, this crack appears at a parking meter; in his, it is at a sculpture in his schoolyard. Initially, their relationship sustained my interest more than the fantasy.

(2) But that’s because the world-building is done with sufficient subtlety that you’re not fully aware it’s happening. Volume three — the book I’ve just finished — thus had a number of fully earned “a-ha!” moments. Themes and allusions that seemed to be telling us more about a particular character, or developing another subplot, turned out to be gestures towards a larger picture that — until that moment — was not fully visible. Information that appeared incidental was in fact central.

(3) As the previous sentences indicate, there are many mysteries. Where have the missing people gone? Is Elliot’s father dead… or just missing? Where is Madeleine’s father? Why are the color storms growing increasingly volatile and frequent? There are also deeper, more philosophical questions, such as: Where is the line between sane and crazy?  Where does art come from?  There are many other questions, but mentioning them might give away some surprises, and I’m trying not to do that.

Jaclyn Moriarty, A Tangle of Gold (2016)(4) Different elements of the series pull you in at different times. For the first book (A Corner of White), the relationship between our two protagonists kept me coming back. The second (The Cracks in the Kingdom) had more narrative drive. If I claimed that the first book were more devoted to character and the second more to plot, then I’d say that the third combines those in equal measure. But I say “If” both to invoke and to reject an admittedly facile plot-character dichotomy. The plot unspools at a slower pace in A Corner of White, but the book is never dull. So, perhaps I might instead say that the first book invites us to become its friend — just as Madeleine and Elliot become each others’ friends in that same volume. The Cracks in the Kingdom complicates and deepens that friendship, as Elliot and Madeleine get pulled in different directions, take on new responsibilities, and (Elliot in particular) make new friends — notably Kiera, who will become even more important in the third novel. A Tangle of Gold entangles and disentangles, weaves and unwinds, binds the strands of the narrative together while revealing a much broader canvas.

The books merit deeper consideration than this dashed-off review, but that’s all I have time for right now. In any case, that’s one use of the blog — a place to jot down ideas that may or may not get developed fully later on. And I do want to recommend the series!

Update, 14 May 2016: Ms. Moriarty kindly responded to this review. A brief Twitter conversation followed. Here it is.

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Seuss on Film

Dr. Seuss Working, c. 1940sAs a famous author whose life spanned the twentieth century, Dr. Seuss (1904-1991) should have been often in newsreels and on TV, right? From time to time, he does appear on camera — but less often than we might expect. In celebration of what would have been his 112th birthday, here’s a brief (but far from complete) collection of Seuss on film!

Below, are four film clips — two from the 1940s, one from 1958, and one from 1964. All are short: Unusual Occupations (1940) is 2 minutes, he’s only in the first 45 seconds of Making SNAFU (c. 1943), To Tell the Truth (1958) is under 8 minutes, and the New Zealand schoolroom (1964) is under 4 minutes.  However, if you’re running short on time, skip ahead to the New Zealand schoolroom.  That’s my favorite of the group.

Two of these (c. 1943, 1958) were already on YouTube, but the other two (1940, 1964) are — as far as I know — making their YouTube debut today. Enjoy!

Unusual Occupations (1940)

The earliest known film footage of Dr. Seuss is in color!  Sadly, there’s no audio. But you do get to see him with the sculptures he was making. He called them “Unorthodox Taxidermy” and sold them via mail.  Though his fourth children’s book (Horton Hatches the Egg) was published the same year as this clip, Seuss’s main occupation at this time was advertising: the “Seuss Navy” line in the narration references his adds for Esso.  Also, though the narrator describes him as a “doctor of literature,” he wasn’t.  He dropped out of his M.A. program, and never pursued the Ph.D.  But he did use “Dr.” for his professional pseudonym.

Horton Hatches the Egg would be Seuss’s last children’s book until 1947. With the World War raging in Europe and the Pacific, Seuss set aside children’s books and “Unorthodox Taxidermy.” Instead, he began working on propaganda — first, political cartoons, and next, educational videos for the U.S. Army.

Making SNAFU (c. 1943)

In April 1941, Theodor Seuss Geisel — a.k.a. Dr. Seuss — became a political cartoonist for PM, New York’s Popular Front newspaper. Convinced that America would be drawn into the rapidly expanding World War, he feared that isolationism made the United States vulnerable.  As he recalled,

The way I went to work for PM is that I got annoyed with Lindbergh and his America-Firsters. I was already somewhat prominent as a cartoonist, but nobody would print my cartoons against Lindbergh. So I went to work for PM for almost nothing. When the United States got into the war I started receiving a lot of letters saying I was a dirty old man who had helped get us into the war, and I was too old to fight. So I enlisted.

In January 1943, after having written over 400 political cartoons for PM, Geisel left New York and took the train out to Hollywood, California, where he would be a captain in the U.S. Army’s Information and Education Division — “Fort Fox,” headed by Major Frank Capra, the Oscar-winning director.

Capra placed Ted Geisel in charge of the animation branch and assigned him to make educational films that would run in the Army-Navy Screen Magazine, a biweekly newsreel shown to the troops. Ted Geisel and Phil Eastman (later famous for Go, Dog. Go!, but then an ex-Disney animator) teamed up with directors Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; vocal impressionist Mel Blanc; composer Carl Stalling; and the other creative minds behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig. Exactly who came up with the idea of Private SNAFU is not clear, but the idea itself was simple: Teaching by negative example, Private SNAFU would embody his name, an acronym for (as the first cartoon put it) “Situation Normal All … All Fouled Up.”1

In the clip below, you’ll see Ted Geisel, at the desk on the left (0:15-0:40).  As Jerry Beck says, the clip is “unedited footage shot by the First Motion Picture unit, likely intended to be used for a newsreel or other production.”  They’ve added some of Stalling’s score (from SNAFU shorts) as a soundtrack. Though Beck lists this piece as circa 1944, I think it slightly more likely to have been 1943: once the SNAFU cartoons started being screened (July 1943), they were very popular. By 1944, there would have been no need to create promotional footage. But either date is close enough.

To Tell the Truth (1958)

Up until 1957, Seuss was more famous for his advertising work than his children’s books. Then, he published The Cat in the Hat (spring, 1957) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (fall, 1957) — both of which were very popular and, to this day, remain two of his best-known works. Buoyed by this popularity, he appeared on the April 29, 1958 episode of the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth.

New Zealand TV (1964)

During a book tour in Australia and New Zealand, Seuss visited Auckland’s May Road School, where this film was made. This is my favorite footage of Dr. Seuss because he’s improvising with the children, playfully answering their questions with what he was by then calling “logical nonsense.” I also like it because it refutes the oft-repeated claim that Seuss did not like children. His response to children was similar to his response to adults: he liked some, and not others.


  1. All information in this and preceding “Making SNAFU” paragraphs lifted from the opening of my article “Children’s Literature Goes to War: Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Munro Leaf, and the Private SNAFU Films (1943-46),” The Journal of Popular Culture 40.3 (June 2007), pp. 468-69. <> (Full text available to subscribers.)

Since it is Seuss’s birthday, you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss. Here’s a selection:

From time to time, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • Joshua Barajas, “8 Things You Didn’t Know About Dr. Seuss,” PBS News Hour blog, 22 July 2015.
  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website design impedes its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.) Happy Read Across America Day!*

*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’s being celebrated on Wednesday, March 2nd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

Credit: Photo of Dr. Seuss working from Marcus Ashley Fine Art Gallery.

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Setup Wizard

Setup WizardAttention Harry Potter Fans! While you await Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (script to be published July 31), check out The Setup Wizard, the “Daily Accounts of a Muggle I.T. Guy working at Hogwarts.”  Its premise is that, at Hogwarts, “students and staff alike have finally caved and demanded that their cell phones work on school grounds.” The muggle they hire, Jonathan Dart, having “learned through the grapevine that other magical schools are planning on making the same jump,” decides to write a blog in the hope that his “experiences can help other outsiders down the road.”

This offers him many opportunities to venture into unexplored areas of the Potterverse and consider one of its curious absences — muggle technology. Here’s a sample post:

Have you ever tried to set up wifi under a lake? The damn Slytherin kids almost refused to even let me into their common room until I explained to them what Spotify is and how, with the magical power of the internet, they can stream all the emo music their little hearts could ever desire.

And here’s one more:

If my “improper” spelling of the word ‘color’ hasn’t cued you in, I am originally from the other side of the pond from Hogwarts. Let me tell you, you cannot find a decent cup of coffee anywhere in Hogsmeade. I’m cool with tea, but sometimes a man needs a taste of what singlehandedly got him through his early 20s.

Luckily, I was able to work a Keurig into the budget this month. The Headmaster asked what the device was for and I insisted that it was a flux relay needed to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow and maintain the balance of the force of the server’s matrix capacity. Long story short he thinks I’m a technical genius and I have a cup of hazelnut flavored happiness.

To get a sense of the full narrative, I recommend reading the series in order.

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MLA 2017 Call for Papers! Border Conflicts: Migration, Refugees, and Diaspora in Children’s Literature

Drowned City, The Island, Number the Stars, War — What If?, How I Learned Geography

In September 2015, photos of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi — his corpse washed ashore on a Turkish beach — came to symbolize the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis. World leaders promised to do more, people debated whether printing the pictures was appropriate, and charities experienced a surge in donations. In children’s literature, the figure of the child as refugee, migrant, or displaced citizen has long been a powerful trope, disrupting the assumed connection between personal identity and national identity, exposing virulent racism and xenophobia, but also awakening compassion and kindness.  As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II, this guaranteed session (sponsored by the Children’s Literature Forum) will examine children’s literature’s response — both contemporary and historical — to refugees, migrants, and members of diasporic communities.

Subjects panelists might consider include (but are not limited to): the ways in which the term “migrant” can dehumanize people, whether persecuted minorities qualify for refugee status in their own countries, the many reasons for displacement (race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality), questions concerning human rights, and how the vulnerable figure of the child brings these questions into sharper focus.

The panel will convene at the Modern Language Association Convention in Philadelphia, which will be held from January 5 to 8, 2017.

Send 1-page abstracts by March 15, 2016 to Nina Christensen <> and Philip Nel <>.

The Arrival, Day of Tears, I Am David, Bamboo People, Inside Out & Back Again

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Here’s some news I’ve been itching to share: Oxford University Press will publish my next book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and Why We Need Diverse Books. Also, this coming Monday, I will be turning in (to Oxford) the complete manuscript of the book. Though it’s too early to confirm a publication date, I’m hoping it will be out by late 2016.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hatNo, the entire book is not about the Cat in the Hat, though Seuss’s famous feline features prominently in one chapter. The book is about different manifestations of structural racism in the world of children’s books: the subtle persistence of racial caricature, how anti-racist revisionism sustains racist ideas, invisibility as a form of racism, whitewashing young adult book covers, and institutional discrimination within the publishing industry. The book takes its title from the Seuss chapter (which looks at, among other things, the influence of blackface minstrelsy on the Cat) because several of his works illustrate how racism hides openly — indeed, thrives — in popular culture for young people. Since the hidden racism of children’s literature is my central theme, a Cat-in-the-Hat riff on Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? became the title.

Here’s my opening paragraph:

        Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, we have a new civil rights crusade — the Black Lives Matter movement, inspired by the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, and galvanized by the 2014 Ferguson protests. Fifty years after Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” article (1965) asked where were the people of color in literature for young readers, the We Need Diverse Books campaign is asking the same questions. These two phenomena are related. America is again entering a period of civil rights activism because racism is resilient, sneaky, and endlessly adaptable. In other words, racism endures because racism is structural: it’s embedded in culture, and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides — and the best place to oppose it — is books for young people.

As the Publishers Weekly blurb says, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? is indeed an “attempt… to do for children’s books what The New Jim Crow does for the justice system.”

"Nel Walks ‘Cat’ to OUP" (Publishers Weekly)

I realize that this is a tall order: Michelle Alexander’s book is both powerful and beautifully written. But this is indeed my aim. I want not just to get more people thinking about racism’s resilience in children’s literature. I want people to act. I want not merely to recognize the dire need for more children’s and young adult books that better represent the experiences of non-White people. I want people to join the movement for diverse books. So, rather than just conclude, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? ends with a call to action — “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)Finishing this book (on top of teaching, writing other things, grading, editing, and everything else) is one reason this blog has recently been a little quieter than usual. As regular or even irregular readers of Nine Kinds of Pie have likely already guessed, fragments of this work-in-progress have appeared here. My earliest (and admittedly flawed) thinking on what developed into Chapter Two started as “Can Censoring a Children’s Book Remove Its Prejudices?” Parts of an autobiographical post appear in the introduction. Indeed, I gave an earlier, article version of the title chapter its own blog post. Scattered here and there across the blog are glimpses of me thinking about racism in children’s literature. Many of these pieces will vanish when the blog does, but others — almost always in a significantly revised form — find their way into the book.

So, a hearty thanks to those who have read and commented here, answered my questions, offered feedback when I’ve presented portions of this work, or educated me via your books and articles. I’ve learned so much from all of you. (Hint: Look for your names in the book’s Acknowledgments!) I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you.

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Children’s Literature and Comics/Graphic Novels at MLA 2016

MLA Convention: Austin, Texas, Jan. 2016

Attending MLA in Austin, Texas this January? These are all MLA sessions devoted* to children’s literature, children’s culture, or comics/graphic novels. There are other panels with individual papers on these subjects, but (to the best of my knowledge) these are the sole panels with a central focus on these areas of inquiry. If I’ve missed any panels, let me know!


* N.B.: For the purposes of this document, “devoted” means that 50% or more of the panel addresses the subject matter. I assembled this via keyword searches of the conference program.

39. The Anxious Publics of Literature for Young People

Thursday, 7 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 406, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Presiding: Derritt Mason, Univ. of Alberta

  1. “Against the Assumption of Guilty Pleasure: Excavating Adult Readers’ Ethically Engaged Encounters with YA Fiction,” Ashley Pérez, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
  2. “Growth, Freedom, and Anxiety: The Displacement of Education in Contemporary School Stories for Young People,” David Aitchison, North Central Coll.
  3. “Young Readers, Young Heroes, and Dime Novel Hysteria,” Martin Woodside, Rutgers Univ., Camden

125. The Counterpublics of Underground Comix

Thursday, 7 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 10B, ACC

A special session

Presiding: Margaret Galvan, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York; Leah Misemer, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

Speakers: Ian Blechschmidt, Northwestern Univ.; Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, City Univ. of New York; Aaron Kashtan, Miami Univ., Oxford; Joshua Kopin, Univ. of Texas, Austin; Samantha Meier, independent scholar; Lara Saguisag, Coll. of Staten Island, City Univ. of New York

Session Description:

In the 1970s and 1980s, underground comics provided an opportunity for less dominant groups to form communities by representing alternative kinds of experience. Panelists aim to open up the conversation on underground comics to include the ignored voices, such as those of women, minorities, and LGBT communities in San Francisco and elsewhere in the United States.

137. Race, Ethnicity, and Culture in Jewish Children’s Literature

Thursday, 7 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 308, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association and the forum LLC Sephardic

Presiding: Meira Levinson, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

  1. “Jewish-American Young Adult Literature and the Missing Global Jew,” June S. Cummins, San Diego State Univ.
  2. “American Novels of the Beta Israel: Narrating Exodus Abroad to Shape Alliances at Home,” Naomi Lesley, Holyoke Community Coll., MA
  3. HaMelech Artus: Concepts of Childhood in a Medieval Hebrew-Italian Arthurian Romance,” Esther Bernstein, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

Responding: Tahneer Oksman, Marymount Manhattan Coll.

180. Print, Materiality, Narrative

Thursday, 7 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., 4BC, ACC

A special session

Presiding: Jeannine DeLombard, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

  1. “The Politics of Format in Early Black Print Culture,” Joseph Rezek, Boston Univ.
  2. “Personifying Periodicals: Big Magazines and Modernist Form,” Donal Harris, Univ. of Memphis
  3. “‘Something to Hold Onto’: Materiality and the Graphic Novel,” Hillary L. Chute, Univ. of Chicago

222. Developments in Comics Pedagogy

Friday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 8A, ACC

A special session

Presiding: Keith McCleary, Univ. of California, San Diego; Derek McGrath, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York

Speakers: Maria Elsy Cardona, Saint Louis Univ.; Susan E. Kirtley, Portland State Univ.; Elizabeth Mathews Losh, Coll. of William and Mary; Elizabeth Nijdam, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Joe Sutliff Sanders, Kansas State Univ.; Nick Sousanis, Univ. of Calgary

For abstracts and biographies, visit

Session Description:

Participants discuss how they have used comics and graphic novels to design unique courses in composition, language, literature, and new media, offering overlapping perspectives in program creation, multimodal integration, gender and cultural studies, and project-based learning. The session welcomes audience participation to discuss new approaches in teaching comics.

248. The Afterlife of Popular Children’s Culture Icons

Friday, 8 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 203, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: Paul Cote, Univ. of Maryland, College Park

  1. “From Madcap to Mourning: The Muppets after Henson,” Paul Cote
  2. “The Afterlife of the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up,” Carrie Sickmann Han, Indiana Univ.–Purdue Univ., Indianapolis
  3. “How Do You Solve a Problem like Mickey Mouse?” Peter Kunze, Univ. of Texas, Austin
  4. “‘His Active Little Crutch’: The Adaptations and Influence of Tiny Tim,” Alexandra Valint, Univ. of Southern Mississippi

297. Children’s Literature Scholarship and Its Publics

Friday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 303, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Presiding: Philip Nel, Kansas State Univ.

Speakers: Julie Danielson, Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast; Marah Gubar, Massachusetts Inst. of Tech.; Don Tate, Artist and Author; Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Univ. of Pennsylvania

Session Description:

Because children’s literature is so popular, and children’s literature studies is an interdisciplinary field, scholars of young people’s literature have always addressed multiple publics—work continued today through social media. What are the risks and rewards of this more expansive, inclusive kind of work? Who does it? How is it valued? Should it be valued more, and—if so—why?

314. New Work in Language Theory

Friday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 305, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum TM Language Theory

Presiding: Thomas F. Shannon, Univ. of California, Berkeley

  1. “Creating and Translating Ideophones in Italian Disney Comics: A Linguistic and Historical Inquiry,” Pier Pischedda, Univ. of Leeds
  2. “An Aspect of Interdigitations: Lexical Blending in Language Contact,” Keumsil Kim Yoon, William Paterson Univ.

318. Fables, Folktales, Games, and Comics: Folklore and Visual Media

Friday, 8 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 407, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the American Folklore Society

  1. “Representing Black Folk: Jeremy Love’s Bayou and African American Folk Culture,” Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, City Univ. of New York
  2. “Animal Terrorism: Adam Hines and the Crisis of the Animal Fable,” Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia
  3. “Slippers, Pumpkins, and Branches: Resisting Walt Disney in Disney’s Cinderella (2015),” Katie Kapurch, Texas State Univ.

Responding: Alexandria Gray, Univ. of Washington, Seattle

421. Satire and the Editorial Cartoon

Friday, 8 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 311, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Nhora Lucia Serrano, Harvard Univ.

  1. “The Radical Genealogy of the Editorial Cartoon,” Frank A. Palmeri, Univ. of Miami
  2. “Between Words and Pictures: Telling the Graphic Story of United States Slavery in Abolitionist Satirical Cartoons,” Martha J. Cutter, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs
  3. Punch, Counter-Punch: Mimicry, Parody, and Critique in the Colonial Public Sphere,” Tanya Agathocleous, Hunter Coll., City Univ. of New York
  4. “Pulling John Chinaman’s Queue to Get Him in Line: Domesticating Gestures in Nineteenth-CenturyPunch Cartoons,” Joe Sample, Univ. of Houston, Downtown

443. Cash Bar Arranged by the Forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Friday, 8 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., JW Grand 1, JW Marriott

489. Keep Children’s Literature Weird

Saturday, 9 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., 306, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: Karen Coats, Illinois State Univ.

  1. “Will the Real Author Please Stand Up? Issues of Ownership and Agency in Chloe and the Lion,” Tharini Viswanath, Illinois State Univ.
  2. “The Weird, the Wild, the Wonderful: A Cross-Cultural Look at Normality in Children’s Literature,” Nina Christensen, Univ. of Aarhus; Philip Nel, Kansas State Univ.
  3. “Wild and Weird: Delineations in Duhême dessine Deleuze: L’oiseau philosophie,” Markus Bohlmann, Seneca Coll.

494. Latina/o Comics

Saturday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Lone Star C, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forums GS Comics and Graphic Narratives and CLCS 20th- and 21st-Century

Presiding: Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia

  1. “Super-politics: Relámpago and Chicanismo,” José Alaniz, Univ. of Washington, Seattle
  2. “Prepotencia por impotencia: El Santo versus El Santos and the Struggle for Identity,” Christopher RayAlexander, Johns Hopkins Univ., MD
  3. “The Tragic in the Comic: The Use of Childhood Flashbacks in the Work of Jaime Hernandez,” Melissa Coss Aquino, Bronx Community Coll., City Univ. of New York

521. Dystopia and Race in Contemporary American Literature

Saturday, 9 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 4A, ACC

Program arranged by the College English Association

Presiding: Francisco Delgado, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York

  1. “The Direction from Which the People Will Come: Shifting International Borders in Leslie Marmon Silko and Karen Tei Yamashita,” Francisco Delgado
  2. “Sickness and Cities: Octavia Butler, Speculative Fiction, and the Rise of Neoliberalism,” Myka Tucker-Abramson, Univ. of Warwick
  3. “Redrawing Race Relations: The Use of the Graphic Novel to Rewrite American History,” Scott Zukowski, Stony Brook Univ., State Univ. of New York
  4. “Which Faction Are You? The (Dis)Abled Coding of Race in Divergent,” Jennifer Polish, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

543. Gender in Young Adult Dystopias

Saturday, 9 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 10A, ACC

Program arranged by the forums GS Speculative Fiction and TC Women’s and Gender Studies

Presiding: Madelyn Detloff, Miami Univ., Oxford; Ian MacDonald, Wittenberg Univ.

  1. “‘Black and Fat’: Deviant Gendered Bodies in Patrick Ness’s More Than This,” Erin Michelle Kingsley, King Univ.
  2. “‘A New History’: Alternate Constructions of Gender and Kinship in Queer Dystopian Literature,” Angel Matos, Univ. of Notre Dame
  3. “Mother of Revolution: The Failure of Self-Sacrifice in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games,” Bethany Jacobs, Univ. of Oregon
  4. “Dystopian Feelings: Disciplining Affect in The Hunger Games and Divergent,” Sarah Sillin, Gettysburg Coll.

574. The Verse Novel for Young Readers

Saturday, 9 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., 4BC, ACC

Program arranged by the forum GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature

Presiding: Michelle Ann Abate, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

  1. “Drawing In and Pushing Back: The Verse Novel and the Problem of Distance,” Mike Cadden, Missouri Western State Univ.
  2. “Why Aesthetics Matter: Discovering Poetry in the Verse Memoirs of Marilyn Nelson and Jacqueline Woodson,” Richard McDonnell Flynn, Georgia Southern Univ.
  3. “What Can Verse Novels Tell Us about the Aesthetics of Poetry for Young Readers?” Karen Coats, Illinois State Univ.

741. Charlie Hebdo and Its Publics

Sunday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Lone Star C, JW Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant Univ.

  1. “‘Jeg er Charlie’: Charlie Hebdo and the Danish Mohammed Cartoons,” Frederik Byrn Kohlert, Univ. of Montreal
  2. “The Other Charlie Hebdo,” Mark Burde, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  3. “‘Comment sucer la droite sans trahir la gauche?’: Charlie Hebdo in Its Contexts,” Bart Beaty, Univ. of Calgary

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