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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Gosh! Barnaby Volume Three (1946-1947) is here!

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016)

74 years ago this month, five-year-old Barnaby Baxter wished for a fairy godmother.  Instead, Mr. O’Malley — a loquacious, endearing, pink-winged con-artist — flew through Barnaby’s (open) bedroom window, and announced himself as the lad’s fairy godfather.  For the next ten years, devoted readers of Crockett Johnson‘s Barnaby saw O’Malley elected to congress, running a business, and — in this volume — becoming a diplomat trying to avert war between the U.S. and Sylvania.  Barnaby Volume Three brings our cast of characters from the relative clarity of the Second World War homefront into the anxieties of the Cold War era.

For those who may be new to the series, other characters include Atlas (the mental giant, shown above holding a slide rule), Gus the Ghost (too timid to be effective at haunting), Gorgon (Barnaby’s talking dog), McSnoyd (the invisible leprechaun who, in this volume, does briefly become visible), Jane (a no-nonsense little girl and Barnaby’s next-door neighbor), and Barnaby’s parents.  The strip is both fantasy and topical satire.  The children can see the fairy characters but the adults (usually) do not see them; we readers know, however, that the fantasy characters are real and not just a projection of Barnaby’s and Jane’s imaginations. Because O’Malley is a character of possibility, Johnson can put him into any situation he’d like to satirize, be it politics, filmmaking, diplomacy, or high finance. Barnaby never had a mass following, but — like Krazy Kat — did have many readers who either were or became influential.  The strip’s fans include Chris Ware, Art Spiegleman, Daniel Clowes, Charles Schulz, Dorothy Parker, and Duke Ellington.  As Ware says in his foreword to the first volume, Barnaby is “the last great comic strip” that has yet to be collected — which, of course, our five-volume series in the process of realizing.

Barnaby Volume Three‘s official release date is June 1st, but — I am told — copies of the book may well start shipping in May.

Crockett Johnson, Barnaby Vol. Three (1946-1947), ed. Philip Nel & Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, 2016): back cover

After you enjoy Daniel Clowes‘ book design and open the cover, you’ll find….

  • two years of Barnaby comics (1946-1947)

Barnaby, 20-21 Oct. 1947

Jeff Smith, foreword to Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

Nathalie op de Beeck, "Notes on a Haunted Childhood," from Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

  • an essay by yours truly

Philip Nel, Afterword: Escape Artist?, Crockett Johnson's Barnaby Volume Three

  • and, for those who may be curious about the strip’s many allusions, notes (also written by me).

I hope you enjoy the book!  You can buy it via Fantagraphics, the usual online retailers, and your local brick-and-mortar bookstores and comic shops (should you be fortunate enough to have either of these in your area). Our — that is, my and my co-editor Eric Reynolds’ — plan is to bring out Barnaby Volume Four: 1948-1949 in 2017, and Barnaby Volume Five: 1950-1952 in 2018.

To learn more about Crockett Johnson or Barnaby, see:

  • my Comic Art essay from 2004 (pdf)
  • my biographyCrockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012, featuring cover art by the great Chris Ware!)
  • my Crockett Johnson Homepage (established 1998, and still proudly Web 1.0!)
  • the relevant tags on this blog: Crockett Johnson, Barnaby

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

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Harold is 60. So is his purple crayon.

For Crockett Johnson‘s 109th birthday (today!), we’re celebrating Harold’s 60th birthday… with a few tributes from other artists.

URNewYork (2esae & Ski)

First, it’s graffiti artist URNewYork (2esae & Ski), as photographed by Michael Weinstein for C.J. Hughes’ “The East Village Embraces a Colorful Past” (New York Times, 9 Nov. 2015).

Harold by URNewYork. Photo by Michael Weinstein.

The art appeared in an abandoned property at 324 East Fourth Street, in the East Village. The developer decided to photograph the art before renovating the building.

Lane Smith

Harper Collins has invited artists to create their own tributes to Harold. In this one, Lane Smith has his monkey from It’s a Little Book reading Harold and the Purple Crayon to Harold himself!  An appropriately meta tribute to a book that itself reflects on the art of storytelling and picture-making.

Lane Smith: Harold & It's a Little Book

Bob Staake

In another of the tributes solicited by Harper Collins, Bob Staake adds a touch of color to Harold’s Trip to the Sky.

Bob Staake's Harold

Karen Hallion

Dipping into the Nine Kinds of Pie archive for Karen Hallion’s Harold and the Purple TARDIS (April 2012).

Harold and the Purple Screwdriver

Madeline Stuart

In another one from the archive, Madeline Stuart renders Harold in 3-D for a display window at L.A.’s Compas. Johnson’s book plays with perspective, as Harold uses his line to render some items in 2-D, and some in 3-D. So, I particularly like seeing Stuart’s 3-D rendition — viewed, appropriately, through a window.

Harold and the Purple Crayon, at Compas (designed by Madeline Stuart)

Fans of Harold might also enjoy these:

Thanks to Michael Patrick Hearn for alerting me to the Harold mural (in the Times article), and to Lane Smith for sharing his artwork. I’m reposting Bob Staake’s art from his Facebook page. (I hope he doesn’t mind!)

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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager (in the Iowa Review)

Iowa Review 45.2 (Fall 2015): art by Shaun TanI’m honored to be a part of The Iowa Review‘s special section on children’s literature, and even more honored that the journal has chosen to feature my essay on-line, for free. Two and a half years ago, “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” began as a blog post.  It means a great deal to me that, revised and substantially expanded, the piece now appears in The Iowa Review‘s fall 2015 issue.

There are several reasons why. Though it’s immodest of me to admit, I think it‘s the best thing I’ve written. Also, I am a scholar: to be in a publication that prints the work of great writers is a singular honor. Yes, I strive to write with precision. I hope that each sentence inspires you to read the next one. But scholarly publication encourages the tendency to over-subordinate, obfuscate, or meander in arcana. As a result, stylish academic writing often seems an oxymoron, even though Helen Sword’s excellent book proves that it need not be.

Perhaps it goes without saying that it’s mind-blowingly amazing to be in the same issue with Shaun Tan (whose art also graces the cover) and Jeanne Birdsall? I mean, wow. To be included alongside writers I admire is wonderful. Finally, I’m also happy that the essay’s publication happens to coincide with the sixtieth birthday of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Perhaps that fact — coupled with its on-line presence and Shaun Tan’s artwork — will help more readers find their way to it.

So, a hearty thanks to Harry Stecopoulos for encouraging me to expand and submit this essay. Additional thanks to the Iowa Review‘s Deputy Managing Editor Jenna Hammerich, to the other contributors, to HarperCollins and the Estate of Ruth Krauss for letting us use the image, and, of course, to Crockett Johnson.

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Created Equal: The Planned Integrated Community of Village Creek, Conn.

Village Creek: Shelley Shaw and Ellen Dewhirst, 1960For America’s Independence Day, here’s a little-known chapter in the history of American anti-racism. Following the Second World War, progressives founded a dozen planned integrated communities across the country. While working on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, I learned about one of those communities — a section of Norwalk Connecticut directly adjacent to where Johnson and Krauss lived, and where they both had several friends. Its name is Village Creek.  It was and is a fully integrated community. Here’s how it began.

In 1948, city planner Roger Willcox was looking for a home within commuting distance from New York.  He and about thirty other people, most of whom were veterans and sailors, wanted waterfront property where they could raise their families and go sailing. As Willcox recalled, when discussing the kind of community they would like to have, they decided that “one of the basic principles” was that there should be “no discrimination because of race, creed or color. The world is made of all colors, creeds, and if we’re going to build a community that we want families to grow up in, and have it recognized in the world, it ought to represent the kinds of people who live in the world.”1 In July of 1949, when they bought the land just across the creek — Village Creek — that would become the Village Creek cooperative neighborhood, they drew up a covenant prohibiting discrimination “on account of race, color, religious creed, age, sex, national origin, ancestry or physical disability.”2

Village Creek: map of lots, 1952

To ensure that it would remain an interracial community, the rules of the Village Creek Home Owners Association specified that Village Creek had to be one third black-owned and two-thirds white owned. To keep the ratio intact, anyone wishing to sell their property had to sell it back to the community. When one of the former residents told me about this ratio, I thought, “Ahh, they’re keeping it two thirds white to placate the whites in the surrounding community.” He said, no, “if we didn’t have this covenant, then if anybody wanted to sell, the real estate agents would immediately go to a black family and say you can move in here because there’s a lot of black people living here. And, of course, then it would start to become a black community. The whites would move out.” And the whole point was to keep it integrated.3

Village Creek: children playing, 1953 or 1954

At the time, integrated communities such as Village Creek were virtually unheard-of: this was the first in Connecticut, and, at the same time it was founded, across the United States veterans with similar goals were creating eleven other co-operative communities — some integrated, some simply co-operatives. Although Johnson and Krauss approved of Village Creek (and likely would have bought there if it existed when they moved to Connecticut), many Norwalk residents were suspicious. Detractors called it “Commie Creek” and claimed that the houses’ roofs were designed to guide Soviet bombers to New York City.4 But Village Creekers united against such adversity. When local banks refused to underwrite mortgages on Village Creek homes, Village Creek property owners either built their houses themselves or sought mortgages from New York City banks. When real estate agents would not show Village Creek houses to white families, Village Creekers helped sell houses by word of mouth.5

Although it was not “Commie Creek,” Village Creek did attract many progressive residents. Philip Oppenheimer, one of Village Creek’s founding members, met other founding members through their mutual support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign.6  Some other early residents included Doxey Wilkerson, African-American professor of Education and Daily Worker columnist; Frank Donner, civil liberties attorney, AFL-CIO lawyer, and active critic of Anti-Communist witch hunts; and Antonio Frasconi and Leona Pierce, artists who (along with their two children, Pablo and Miguel) would become friends of Johnson’s and Krauss’s.

Village Creek: Leona Pierce, Antonio Frasconi, Yolanda and Doxey Wilkerson, 1987

When Village Creek parents wanted to set up a cooperative nursery school for their children, they asked Norma Simon to help her do it. Norma — whose students inspired Krauss’s A Very Special House — and her husband Ed had moved up to the area in 1952. She had attended the Bank Street School, and by 1952 was teaching at the Thomas School in Rowayton. Norma Simon, with the help of her husband and Village Creek parents, transformed the basement of Martin and Sylvia Garment into the Community Cooperative Nursery School — which would become another place where Ruth Krauss would visit, talk with children, listen to children, make notes, and transform their ideas into children’s books. Founded on Bank Street principles, the Community Cooperative Nursery School was a progressive nursery school; enrolling the children of Village Creek, it had black children, white children, and children of many nationalities. Suspicious of its liberal founders, detractors dubbed it “the Little Red Schoolhouse.”7

In a way, this was hardly surprising, since such detractors also thought that all Village Creekers must be Communists, and even went so far as to say that the modern architecture of Village Creek houses were in fact signals to enemy planes. Norma, whose first children’s book (The Wet World) was published in 1954, soon discovered that her association with “the Little Red Schoolhouse” led to an unofficial blacklist: a PTA would invite her to speak, discover that she was director of the school, and, instead of accusing her directly, would then phone up to say, sorry, but the meeting had been cancelled, no need to come.8

That’s a bit of Village Creek’s early history, most of which had to be cut from my biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (2012). To the best of my knowledge, no one has written about these post-war utopian experiments. Here’s hoping someone reads this post and writes a full history, or a children’s book. 65 years after its founding, Village Creek is still going strong.


  1. Roger Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  2. Roger Willcox, “President’s Report: Welcome to our 50th Anniversary Celebration.” Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 1.
  3. Martin Garment, telephone interview with the author, 24 Sept. 2002.
  4. Philip Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000. p. 13.
  5. Willcox, telephone interview with the author, 26 Sept. 2004.
  6. Openheimer, [reminiscence], Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration (South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000), p. 13.
  7. Norma Simon. Telephone interview with the author. 20 June 2002; Martin Garment, telephone interview, 24 Sept. 2002.
  8. Simon, telephone interview, 20 June 2002.

Further Reading

Source for photographs

Village Creek Home Owners Association: 50th Anniversary Celebration. booklet. South Norwalk, Conn.: P.M. Ink, 2000

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The Archive of Childhood, Part 1: Crayons

John Tenniel, illus. of Mock Turtle, Alice, & Gryphon from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)We tend to imagine the self as an unbroken whole, but it might better be described as plural, a series of selves that, though temporally contiguous (and often overlapping) are not always the “same” self.  That’s one of the conclusions suggested by Robert Krulwich in “Who Am I?,” a Radiolab podcast from 2007.  It is also a central theme of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), whose protagonist answers the Caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?” like this: “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then” (35). Later, she offers to tell the Gryphon “my adventures—beginning from this morning,” adding, “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” (81).

The ever-changing self is one reason that encounters with the past can be surprising.  They remind us of earlier versions of ourselves — discarded, forgotten selves. They remind us of parts of our current selves that we no longer recall. They tell us who we were, who we are, and — perhaps — who we have yet to become.

"Madeleines with tea" by Lulu Durand PhotographyThis blog post launches an occasional series of excursions into my past, each one motivated by a particular thing. This first one is Proustian. As he had a cup of tea and a madeleine, Marcel Proust experienced a “shudder,” as his senses transported him to his childhood, when he would wish his aunt Léonie a good morning, and she would give him a madeleine, “dipping it first in her own cup of tea.”

For Proust, it was the taste of madeleines and tea.  For me, it was the smell of crayons.

In the process, this past September, of helping my mother move, I had to face the vast archive of my childhood — well over a dozen boxes, some containing items I’d not seen in 30 years. I needed months to sort through it all, but I had only days. She was moving at month’s end, and I couldn’t ship everything from her house to mine. I made snap decisions, some of which I regret. The saddest item to throw out was a cigar box full of crayons, most of them well-worn, some of them broken.

My cigar box of crayons (photo taken Sept. 2014)

The smell of those crayons transported me to my many childhood hours spent drawing. Then, the boundary between the real world and imagined ones was literally paper-thin. The crayon was the key that opened the door.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverAs a child, I knew that my art was only lines on paper (to paraphrase R. Crumb), but it did not feel that way. Drawing was an emotionally immersive experience. While I was moving those crayons across the paper, I was in the drawing, part of it. I realize that this is one reason that Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon resonates on such a deep level. Harold enters his drawing because that’s what childhood art-making feels like.

Before I threw out the box of crayons, I first photographed it, then dumped the crayons out onto the floor, and ran my fingers through them. So I could retain just a little, I decided to save the purple ones. As Crockett Johnson’s biographer, that choice seemed a reasonable compromise.

my purple crayons

But it’s hard to make reasoned compromises about irreplaceable things. My mother had saved my childhood drawings, in recycled manila envelopes, each labeled by year. I thought: well, I can’t save all of this — so, I’ll save representative samples. I put out most for recycling, but saved a few pieces of art created by me at 5 and 6 years old. Later, I thought: why not save more of these? I even went out to retrieve one drawing I’d thrown into the recycling bin. Now, I think: why not save them all?  Had I kept them, these drawings would have taken up the space of a large art book. Maybe two.

In that moment, having no idea what I’d uncover, I was conscious mostly of limited time at mom’s house and limited space at home. So, I thought: better to be ruthless about this.

So many lost things. So few saved. But I’m grateful for these glimpses into the past, traces of that crayon line that extends from my childhood bedroom floor to my adult career. I’m also surprised by how much of what interested me then still interests me now. I’m four decades removed from that small boy who made those drawings. Yet I am also still that boy, dreaming that art can transform the world.

Image sources: Tenniel from “Literary Snapshot: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Madeleines with Tea” from Fine Art America, photos of crayons and scan of Johnson’s book from yours truly.

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Harold Around the World

Harold and the Purple Crayon in ten different languages

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverFor Crockett Johnson‘s 108th birthday, it’s… Harold around the world!  Whether you know him as Valtteri, Paultje, Pelle, Tullemand, Harold, or something else, you can read about his adventures in at least 14 languages. I have copies of Harold and the Purple Crayon in nine languages (Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and its original English) and have found some additional covers in other languages (German, Polish, Swedish) on-line.

So, grab your crayon, draw up a chair, and take a look at the many versions of Harold!


The book is available in at least two versions in Chinese. Here’s the one published by Hsinex International Corporation in 1987. On the cover, Harold’s skin tone is a darker shade of tan than it is inside the book (where it is the same light tan color that it is in the English-language edition).

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Chinese edition, 1987)

And here’s the one published by Jieli Publishing House in 2004.  This publisher also translated the other six Harold books — including Harold’s ABC, which must be strange to read. The letters are in English, and the items they name are English words, but all the print narrative is in Chinese — followed by a parenthetical mention of the English word named by the letter.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Chinese edition, 2004)


Tullemand!  Translated by Bibi & Thomas Winding.  Published by Gylendal.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Danish edition, 2000)

(For this copy, my thanks to Stewart Edelstein, Executor of Ruth Krauss’s Estate.)


For the Dutch edition, one of the Netherlands’ greatest children’s writers did the translation: Annie M.G. Schmidt, author of Jip and Janneke, Tow-Truck Pluck, and many others (most of which have not been translated into English).  Published by Lemniscaat.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Dutch edition, 2011)


Translated by Riitta Oittinen. Published by Pieni Karhu (Little Bear).

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Finnish edition, 1999)

(Thanks to Leena Reiman, who sent me this copy back in 1999 — during the earliest days of my Crockett Johnson Homepage.)


In French, Harold’s crayon is pink.  Translated from the American by Anne-Laure Fournier le Ray. (Really — from the American, not from the English. “Traduit de l’américain par Anne-Laure Fournier le Ray.”)

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2001)

In the latest French edition (same translator), Harold’s crayon is now violet.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2013)


According to GoogleTranslate, this German title translates to “I’m making my own world.” I don’t have a copy of this, but if I remember correctly (I’ve seen a copy with those of Johnson’s papers housed with Ruth Krauss’s), the crayon is red in this edition.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (German edition)

There’s a new German edition, which (mostly) retains Johnson’s title: “Zauberkreide” is “magic chalk,” which makes this much closer to Harold and the Purple Crayon than the above version.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (current German edition)


Note that the binding is on the right side here. The pages are all mirror images of the English-language version.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Hebrew edition)


Translated by Giulio Lughi. Published by Einaudi Ragazzi.  Contains both Harold and the Purple Crayon and Harold’s Trip to the Sky.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Italian edition, 2000)


Translated by Tomasz Zając. Published by Media Rodzina.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Polish edition)


Translated by Teresa Mlawer. Published by HarperCollins.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Spanish edition, 1995)


The 1958 edition — specifically, Ole Könnecke‘s childhod copy. Note that Harold’s crayon is also red here.  As Könnecke explains, “‘Och den röda kritan’ means ‘And the red crayon.'”  Yet, he adds, “when I added a belt to Harold’s pyjama, I used a purple crayon.”

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Swedish edition, 1958)

(Thanks to Mr. Könnecke for sharing this! Incidentally, if you’ve not read his children’s books, start with Anton Can Do Magic.)

The current edition, translated by Eva Håkansson.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Swedish edition)

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A Very Special House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nina Rowand Wallace’s desk was here in 1954.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, Rowayton Historical Society, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

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

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

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

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Purple Crayons in Connecticut: Two Talks This Week

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 4:00 pm

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

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

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

Friday, September 26, 2014, 7:30 pm

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

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

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

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