Crockett Johnson

Crockett Johnson
When I was about 8 years old my parents made the mistake of giving me a wonderful book.

It looked like an innocent enough childrens’ book. It had a brown cover and a drawing of a young boy, who, I would soon learn, was “Harold”, and he had a large purple crayon with which he was apparently drawing large purple lines all over the cover of the book on which he resided.

The book was, in fact, called Harold and the Purple Crayon and it was indeed a dangerous thing to give to a child prone to flights of fantasy and a strong tendency to want to use his crayons “outside the lines”.

Harold, you see, has a large purple crayon with which he creates and modifies his world. The book doesn’t outline this in such fancy words, of course, it just starts out with Harold deciding, “after thinking it over for some time”, to go for a walk in the moonlight.

Inconveniently, there is no moon, so Harold draws one. He needs a path for his walk, so Harold draws one; and whatever Harold draws with his wonderful, magical purple crayon becomes the reality in which Harold lives and moves.

He draws, apparently on some kind of wall behind him, a forest (consisting of one apple tree), a dragon (to guard the apples), an ocean, a boat, a mountain and an entire city; and they all become magically real (although it all seems quite normal to Harold), and he can walk through them at will — drawing and creating his world as he goes.

Wow.

That giving a book with this radical and mind-altering concept to his impressionable young son was indeed a mistake, only dawned on my father when heard me making odd scraping noises behind the couch and, pulling the couch away from the wall, discovered that I had drawn and scribbled, with my own magical crayons, my beautiful, multi-colored crayons, my waxy, incredibly-hard-to-wash-off, paint-resistant, indelible, cling-to-your-wall-forever, hours-of-elbow-grease-to-remove crayons,… on a considerable area of the wall behind the couch.

My parents didn’t scold me though, bless their hearts forever. The were never likely to discourage me from drawing or creating in any way, but it was… strongly suggested that I use my crayons on other surfaces; and I was kept in supply with lots of coloring books (which I wasn’t all that interested in) and big sheets of inexpensive paper (much more to my liking) from which I would eventually learn to coax the magic of creating a world of my own liking by drawing what I wanted.

 
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9 Replies to “Crockett Johnson”

  1. Oh my, Harold and the Purple crayon!! I haven’t thought about him in ages…I LOVED that book when I was a kid!!! I always loved crayons especially the big 120 color set with the built in sharpener LOL. Eventhough I paint I never tire of drawing and still keep a daily sketchbook and somehow I think Harold was part of the inspiration for that, thanks for reminding me about him!

    Jan Blencowe

  2. I’m with Jan – I rememember that book as well and can’t remember the last time I saw it. is it out of print?

    I do believe there are even slide photos somewhere of me (aged under 5) behind the sofa doing one of my extra special murals – I was into the “big picture” from an early age!

  3. Thanks for memories of Harold, Jan and Katherine.

    It seems to me that “wax” crayons (as opposed to adult crayons like Conté) are a medium we leave behind as we get older that may be worth picking up again, if only to remember that childlike sense of fun and infinite possibilities.

    The links at the bottom of the post are to the currently available editions of Harold and the Purple Crayon as avaliable on Amazon.

  4. Mr. Parker,
    I only discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago, and while I don’t remember how I found it, I’m sure glad I did. This morning I followed the link in your article about the absolutely charming and inventive wall meanderings of Charlotte Mann to this post about my childhood hero, Harold.

    I owned all the “Harold and the Purple Crayon” books when I was young. Pretty sure I first discovered him on the bookshelf in my first grade classroom. It wasn’t until I was a much (much) older adult that I could fully appreciate the power lurking in Crockett Johnson’s “seemingly simple” little book.

    Thought you might like to know about another book, this one written by Stanford University lecturer Ellen Handler Spitz, and titled “Inside Picture Books.” Spitz devotes a segment in the book to Harold, and, unlike many academics who write or speak about the creative process, I think she gets it right. In thinking about the significance she posits to the line “And the moon went along with him” I realized that if Crockett Johnson had not reassured his young readers and budding artists in this way, the prospect of a life spent making things up out of one’s own head would have been too daunting and possibly too frightening to consider.

    In fact, I just decided to include “Harold and the Purple Crayon” as required reading for my spring semester art history students. Most of them are graphic or interior design majors, and many of them are scared to death about their prospects in the “real world.” I think Harold could help them out, but if they don’t know him, to paraphrase Berkeley Breathed, “It’s never too late to have a ‘purple’ childhood.”

    In closing, let me just say that I love your blog, and look forward to reading it every morning. I’ve even pointed my students toward it; I hope at least a few of them have shown up.

    All the best,
    Janet Oliver

  5. Janet,
    Thanks for your nice words about Lines and Colors, and your suggestion for Inside Picture Books.

    I think it’s great that you’re including Harold and the Purple Crayon on your art history reading list!

    The book continues to have an effect on subsequent generations, whether first exposed to it as children or adults. You may be interested in the way the concept has been carried forward in Aaron Becker’s Journey (my post).

    For the benefit of other readers, here are Amazon links for Inside Picture Books, and Harold and the Purple Crayon.

  6. Charley,
    I think you are correct about Crockett Johnson’s influence on Aaron Becker. When I was looking through the children’s section at my local bookstore recently, I looked through “Journey” and had the same reaction. Becker’s illustrations also reminded of the work of Moebius.

    Hmmm, possible research topic for a student paper?

    J.

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