Harold and the Purple Crayon is simple and yet amazingly original at the same time. Take a little boy, in the wind-down of the day into evening and bedtime, give him a very special crayon, and see what ensues. Oh, and make that aforementioned crayon purple, in a world that must undoubtedly be pretty monochromatic. Truthfully, it's not far from other classic titles that are based on flights of the character's imagination - Where the Wild Things Are, for example - but yet Johnson's book is wholly unique and his Harold not one bit derivative.
Crockett Johnson (his real name was David Johnson Leisk) was a cartoonist prior to lending his hand to children's books, first through illustrating and then through writing his own titles. You have to imagine that Purple Crayon was a bit of a breakthrough for an artist who was used to working in such closely circumscribed a format as the comic strip. Though his character "Barnaby" was much beloved and had a huge circulation, it is Harold who took flight and spawned a number of sequels. These include Harold's Fairy Tale, Harold at the North Pole, and A Picture for Harold's Room. Johnson also collaborated with his wife Ruth Krauss to produce a number of popular titles - their book The Carrot Seed is, like Purple Crayon, completely genius in its very simplicity.
Sprout went through a phase about a year ago when The Carrot Seed and Harold and the Purple Crayon were on near-constant rotation in the bedtime routine. At two years old, I think Carrot Seed was more within his realm of understanding, but he was clearly as drawn to Purple Crayon as I remember being as a kiddo. Then we kind of put them aside for a while, but lately he's taken much more interest in Harold's exploits. I think he's finally starting to get the basic premise, the magic inherent in Harold's crayon. "He made this, Mama!" he tells me, pointing at Harold's fine boat with its swelling purple sails.
Or maybe he's just interested in those nine kinds of pie.
At any rate, it makes my heart swell to see Sprout so taken with a book that was a childhood favorite of mine. I don't remember reading any of the Harold sequels, though they were undoubtedly still in print when I was a kid. Mostly I remember Harold's moon - that not-quite crescent that guides his night-time journeys - and his apple tree. (I had quite forgotten that he draws a "terribly frightening dragon" to guard the apples on the tree. The sight of that dragon makes Sprout shiver deliciously and say, "Oooh, he scary!").
What's the lesson behind Purple Crayon? Well, it's obviously a lot about imagination, and making your own special world, but let's not forget that Harold has a good deal of unflappability about him for a somewhat chubby youngster in a sleeper suit. Hungry? Make yourself something delicious to eat. Falling off a mountain? Just draw yourself a balloon and you'll be fine. Can't find your bedroom window? Keep drawing windows until you remember just about where yours ought to be. That's self-reliance, folks - Harold's taking charge and showing kids that there's a certain brilliance to working through your own problems if you can.
And when you're home at last, don't forget to make your own bed and draw up the covers.
Wayback Wednesday verdict? Nearly as perfect as kidlit can get.
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, published by HarperCollins
Source: personal collection
Sample: "The sandy beach reminded Harold of picnics. And the thought of picnics made him hungry. / So he laid out a nice simple picnic lunch. / There was nothing but pie. / But there were all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best."
Bonus - read more about Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss at The Crockett Johnson Homepage. And check out Philip Nel's biography of the duo, due out later this year!