#7: Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)
131 points (24 votes, #1, #7, #1, #3, #10, #7, #7, #6, #5, #1, #4, #8, #3, #9, #5, #10, #10, #9, #5, #5, #6, #4, #1, #6)
Crockett Johnson’s classic story of a little boy who creates entire worlds with his purple crayon is pure genius — it’s about the power of the imagination, yes, but it’s also a fantasy about being able to control your environment, something that little kids don’t manage to do very much. Neither, necessarily, do their mothers. – Stephany Aulenback
The nature of Harold’s worldiverse is unclear, but the way he controls his own circumstances is appealing. He is quite adept at creative problem solving. My favorite illustration in the book is the one of el horrendo dragón. (Hm. Yeah, the only copy I could get my hands on today was Harold y el Lápiz Color Morado.) I’ve sometimes wondered what about the porcupine made him so deserving, but I’m sure it was very pie-worthy. – Amy Graves
If I were actually to make psychological assessments about people based on the kinds of children’s books they read, I’d have to say that the Harold and the Purple Crayon readers of the world are the kind of folk who wait until the last minute to answer a poll and then FLOOD the pollster with votes for their favorite little guy. At least that’s my personal experience with such people. Your experiences may be entirely different. But yes! Harold! On the list at a cool #7. Kicking up his little purple heels. Splitting the Crockett Johnson vote too (my condolences, Carrot Seed lovers).
The plot synopsis from B&N reads, "Harold’s wonderful purple crayon makes everything he draws become real. One evening, Harold draws a path and a moon and goes for a walk-and the moon comes too. After many adventures, Harold gets tired and can’t find his bedroom. Finally, he remembers that the moon always shines through his bedroom window. He draws himself a bed, and ‘the purple crayon dropped on the floor, and Harold dropped off to sleep.’ This little gem is filled with visual and written puns."
As a child, Harold wasn’t my favorite book. I had the strangest sense of loneliness from it. Here was a boy in a world made entirely by his own hands. But none of the little purple people he creates really interact with him. They’re stuck in whatever position he’s placed them in. To me it read like a kid who was fooling himself into thinking he was making any real human connection with anyone or anything. It probably says a bit about me, but I found Harold to be a bleak tale. Not like Simon in the Land of the Chalk Drawings (and yes, I know it was a rip-off, but at least those dudes moved!).
There are many things to enjoy in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. What the book really does best, though, is give us a salty editor talking about the classics she’s editing in her customary off-hand manner. Take Harold and the Purple Crayon. In a letter dated December 15, 1954, Ursula has just gotten a revised version of this story and she is writing to Crockett, the author/illustrator. "I’m awfully sorry my first reaction to Harold was so lukewarm and unenthusiastic. I really think it is going to make a darling book, and I certainly was wrong at first. This is a funny job. The Harper children’s books have had such a good fall, so many on so many lists, etc. etc., and I was feeling a little good – not satisfied, you understand, but I thought gosh I’m really catching on to things, I bet, and pretty soon it ought to get easier. And then I stubbed my toe on Harold his damned purple crayon . . . ."
At long last I finally have an excuse to break out my old Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. You see if you know anything about Crockett Johnson you know he wrote Harold and the Purple Crayon and illustrated The Carrot Seed. If you know anything else about him, though, you may be aware that his real name was David Johnson Liesk and that between 1942 and 1946 (after which it was handed it over to others) he created the comic strip Barnaby. Barnaby has its fans. People have said it was a predecessor to Calvin and Hobbes, though the premise varies slightly. As the Smithsonian puts it, the story was really about "a boy and his cigar-chomping fairy godfather, Mister O’Malley." Johnson began as a magazine cartoonist, turned to picture books in the 50’s and, "in his later years (he died in 1975) he devoted himself to nonobjective painting." I’ve attempted to scan some Barnaby strips for you, in case you’re interested. I apologize for the shoddy quality of my scanner.
Want to read Harold for yourself? Go here.
Harold wasn’t afraid of a sequel or two either. If you want to see the full original line-up (everything from Harold’s Trip to the Sky to Harold’s Circus) Kansas State University has a rather lovely collection of variegated covers (from Philip Nel, to be precise).
When I first started exploring the scary world of online children’s literature resources, one of the first I stumbled across was Harold D. Underdown’s site The Purple Crayon. It’s still running too.
Feel like listening to something? All Things Considered had a short piece back in 2005 called The Appeal of "Harold and the Purple Crayon". The piece speaks to Maurice Sendak, and also contains a reading of the original letter wherein Nordstrom was unenthused by the initial draft of the story. I like how she concedes to feeling a little "dead in the head" and that she’d probably pass up Tom Sawyer if it arrived on her desk.
A couple of videos to tide you over, then. First up is the original 1959 animated version of this book (the site says it’s 1969, but I don’t think that’s possible). It has much to recommend it. For one thing, Harold moves in exactly the way you would expect. I admire good quality animation. This clip seems to contain exactly that.
It doesn’t stop there. Apparently there was an Emmy award winning 13-part Harold and the Purple Crayon series that ran on HBO. You can even view an episode or two here if you like. An interesting compare and contrast with the earlier ’59 version.
And, best for last. The glitter rock opera version of Harold. You’ll have it stuck in your head all day now.
Horn Book said, "An ingenious and original picture story in which a small boy out for a walk–happily with crayon in hand–draws himself some wonderful adventures. A little book that will be loved."
The New York Times Book Review agreed with, "Do we look at art to learn things, or to feel things? I’d vote for feeling, and that’s why the art book I most recommend is Harold and the Purple Crayon."
Previous Top 100 Picture Book Posts include: