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Harold and the Purple Crayon

A Classic Children's Picture Book

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Harold and the Purple Crayon cover art


Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, is the first of seven picture books about the adventures of Harold, a little boy. With the help of an over-sized purple crayon, Harold uses his imagination to create a world where anything can happen. Especially for children 3 years and up, Harold has been a favorite character in children’s literature since this picture book was first published in 1955.

The Story of Harold and the Purple Crayon

This story of Harold begins in an empty world: “One evening after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” With the aid of a large purple crayon, Harold (named after Johnson’s nephew) begins his adventure by drawing a moon and a long, horizontal line for walking in the moonlight.

The imagination of Harold and his purple crayon run free, as he draws an apple tree, dragon, ocean, pies and more. Although there are no adults present in the story, Harold always chooses his adventures with precautions. He is able to create his own world without anyone saying, "NO!" The story ends reassuringly as Harold does find his way home...safe and happy.

The Illustrations

The illustrations of Harold are kept small, simple and consistent so that the focus remains on the drawings of the purple crayon. Like Harold, Johnson was bald. He said, “I draw people without hair because it’s so much easier! Besides, to me, people with hair look funny.” (Nel, 149) The clean style of Johnson’s art echoes the artistic style of Harold. The 34-page picture book's simplistic text, in a Times New Roman font, can be found at the bottom of each page. The small book can easily be held in the palm of an adult’s hand.

Author and Illustrator Crockett Johnson

Crockett Johnson was actually born David Johnson Leisk in New York City in 1906. He borrowed the name "Crockett" from a comic strip about the frontiersman Davy Crockett to use as his first name to distinguish himself from other boys named "David." Eventually, his childhood nickname became his professional name, but he used "Dave" privately.

As a child, Johnson loved to draw just as Harold does. Crockett Johnson received his art training at New York University and Cooper Union. Johnson often created his child characters from his own experiences.

At a party in 1939, Crocket Johnson met Ruth Krauss who would become his wife and a successful author of numerous children's books, including three featuring Johnson's illustrations: The Carrot Seed (1945), How to Make an Earthquake (1954), and The Happy Egg (1967).

When Maurice Sendak was but 23 years old, he considered himself lucky to spend weekends with the couple while they lived in Rowayton, Connecticut. Sendak, who illustrated eight of Krauss’s books, felt that Johnson’s name should be on all of them for his contributions of “technical savvy” and “cool consideration.” (Source: Sendak) Maurice Sendak, of course, went on to become well known as the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are and other picture books.

Before he became a well-known writer of children’s books, Johnson drew “Barnaby,” a successful comic-strip character. After his second Harold book, Harold’s Fairy Tale, writing and illustrating children’s books became Johnson's preferred occupation. In addition to more than 20 books for children, Crockett Johnson’s eclectic career also included inventing an adjustable mattress and creating geometric paintings. He remained active and curious for all of his life. (Source: Nel)

This popular and well-loved picture book has sold more than 2 million copies and is available in 14 different languages. The ingenious and original story, with simple drawings and few details, encourages children to fill in with their own imagination. Its uniqueness and the absence of an adult may explain the popularity of this under-sized book as it is still in print after more than years.

Also the message - that there is a solution to any problem and no matter where you wander you can always come home again - is reassuring. Harold’s story will encourage children to start a similar drawing adventure with a color of their own choice. Just as Harold did on his journey, children can let their imaginations run free where there is no one right answer.

Adults may have a tendency to read this story aloud with an energetic and lively voice, but Harold is actually taking a journey to sleep, so a slow, steady and soothing voice will be more memorable for your youngster. Harold and the Purple Crayon just may become one of your favorite picture books to share with your children. (Harper Trophy, HarperCollins, 1998 PB. ISBN: 9780064430227)

(Sources: Nel, Philip. Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, University Press, 2012. Sendak, Maurice. "Ruth Krauss and Me: A Very Special Partnership." The Horn Book Magazine 70.3 (May-June 1994): 286-90. HarperCollins 03/31/2005 Press Release: Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon celebrates 50th Anniversary)

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