This book, beloved of myself from the moment I was given it aged four and much loved by my children, is relatively unknown in the UK, and undeservedly so. On a superficial level it is a lovely simple picture book with bold line-drawings that jump off the page, telling the reader about a sweet baby hero and the adventures he gets into. On the other hand, Harold And His Big Purple Crayon serves as metaphor for childhood and for growing up, dealing as it does with so many childhood challenges and fears. Harold has to manage himself with regard to the way night-time separates him from his parents; his subsequent travels away from the safety of his bed and the fact that he has to problem-solve without their assistance.
As the book opens, we see Harold has scribbled meaninglessly across the flyleaf and opening page but as the story starts and we read the first line of text, “ “One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight,” Harold’s crooked and meandering scribbles become a purposeful straight line from left to right, mirroring the English language. As the character explores what is imagination and what is reality, the process of artistic creation is laid bare. Harold is the embodiment of the art of drawing, something the artist Paul Klee describes as “taking a line for a walk.”
What does it mean to be real and how does something become real? For children, living lives of magical realism where the boundaries are blurred between reality and what feels like it, this is an ever shifting concept. Must we experience things for them to be ‘real’ or can they simply exist in our minds? Does their retelling in a story realise them? By interacting with them in a physical manner, Harold gives them a sense of universal actuality and through his understanding of what the drawn objects mean to him, they become imbued with a rationalists sense of reality.
Harold is followed by a moon that he himself had to draw because he awoke and noticed that it had mysteriously disappeared. His imagination, whilst unbounded, needs first to make tangible something both mystical and mysterious, and something of huge practical importance too: moonlight will help him navigate the darkness.
The knife edge of hazards that parents must help their children negotiate is reflected in Harold’s falling into the ocean he draws and tumbling down the hill that he climbs. But good parenting builds resourcefulness and Harold draws himself a boat when he tumbles into the ocean. In this way we arrive at the idea of fate and external locus of control versus control of our destiny and an internal locus of control. Harold’s own actions lead to possible danger- dragons and water and hills to tumble down. He starts to learn that one faces the consequences of ones’ own actions and eliminating risk is not the answer; it is how we manage and react to it that is the more important.
When Crickett Johnson submitted the first draft to the legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, her first reaction (as she later admitted in her own words) was luke-warm and unenthusiastic although she acknowledges that on the day it arrived, she was so “dead in the head that she’d probably pass up Tom Sawyer.” Later on, Nordstrom writes to him and aplogizes: “I think it is FINE, and the little changes you made are just perfect. Thanks for the part about the forest, and for all the other little touches.”
Crockett Johnson went on to write several more Harold books under her capable hands and sold more than two million copies of the first ‘Harold’ book. It has never gone out of print.
Nordstrom, the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, went on to edit many other classics, including The Carrot Seed, written by Johnson’s wife, Ruth Krauss. Crockett Johnson illustrated his wife’s book and he drew that same large bald-headed boy in an earlier comic strip called Barnaby. In an NPR article, Crockett Johnson is described as saying that he drew people without hair because, `It’s so much easier. And besides, to me people with hair look funny.’ He too, was bald and Crockett’s animal characters in Will Spring Be Early? Or Will Spring Be Late?, published in 1959 also share that naive and bald headed quality- his skunks, ground-hogs and bears lack any discernible fur.
Maurice Sendak himself was a protogee of Crockett Johnson, and the style he adopted in “Where the Wild Things Are” was floridly different to that of Crockett Johnson. Nonetheless, Johnson and Ruth Krauss had a creative hand in the wild abandon of Sendak’s famous illustrated book. Like Where the Wild Things Are, Johnson’s book acknowledges that the imagination of a child can carry him away from the safety of his home and his parents and after spending a safe amount of time out in the wilderness, the child desires to go home and is thus able to.