It is possible to read too much into a picture book. A funny statement since what were talking about is literature for people who haven’t even seen a decade of time pass them by. But historically picture books have been places where prejudices are both intentionally and unintentionally on display. Yet for every Denver by David McKee (a picture book about the beauty of trickle down economics) you’ll find fifty people reading WAY too much into something like Rainbow Fish (Communist propaganda) or Click Clack Moo (inculcating kids into unionism). The thing is, picture books are meant to teach and inform our children. Yet along the way a parent or gatekeeper might be worried about the unintentional messages getting pushed along the way. At the end of the day you have to weigh your reactions carefully. You can’t be pointing fingers left and right, claiming authorial intent where there is none. Okay. So round about now you’re trying to figure out what the heck any of this has to do with The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. I mean, talk about an innocuous title. Why am I going on and on about unintentional messages in works of children’s fiction in preface to talking about this book? Well, here’s the trouble. I have a major problem with this story and it’s entirely possible that it’s just in my own head. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to lay out the facts as they stand and you can judge for yourself whether or not this book does indeed make a major you-can’t-do-that-in-the-21st-century mistake, or if I’m simply suffering from a case of Reading Too Much Into It. Either way, it sure makes this Daywalt/Jeffers collaboration into an interesting point of discussion.
Duncan’s your average kid. Not the kind of person who’s going to expect that when he reaches for his crayons at school he is, instead, going to find himself with a bundle of letters. Each letter is from a different crayon voicing their complaints. Says gray, “I know that elephants are gray but that’s a lot of space to color in all by myself.” Or pink saying, “Could you please use me sometime to color the occasional pink dinosaur or monster or cowboy?” Red and blue need a rest, white feels empty, yellow and orange both claim the sun, and all black ever wanted in life was, for once, to color in a rainbow or a beach ball. By the end of the letters Duncan wants to make the crayons happy. And that’s when he comes up with the perfect solution to everybody’s woes.
Now let’s talk crayon history for a bit. This is fun. In 1962 the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was underway. America was going through big changes. Assumptions that had lain dormant for years were finally getting challenged and even crayons were getting a double glance. You see 1962 was the year that Crayola decided to officially change the crayon known as “flesh” to “peach”. You see where I am going with this, I suspect. While white children certainly would use the color as flesh, it wasn’t exactly on the up and up to assume that white was the de facto skin color. Fast forward to 2013 and the publication of The Day the Crayons Quit. Peach does indeed make an appearance in this book and in that section complains vociferously that its wrapper has been removed. “Now I’m NAKED and too embarrassed to leave the crayon box. I don’t even have any underwear!” That Daywalt is linking peach to flesh again is no crime. Interestingly, on the previous page the pink crayon has been making a very different complaint about never being allowed to draw cowboys or dinos or monsters. The monster that it HAS drawn is covering its private parts, obviously believing itself to be naked as well, as the dinosaur points and laughs. So. Pink and peach are clearly equated with flesh tones.
Then what’s the deal with brown?
There is only one vaguely brownish crayon in this book and it is the much maligned beige. The official brown does not make an appearance it would seem. Beige’s sadness is the fact that while “Brown gets all the bears, ponies and puppies . . . the only things I get are turkey dinners (if I’m lucky) and wheat.”
This is precisely where the difficulty comes into play. How much am I reading into this through my own prejudices? Let me give you a bit of comparison. This year is also seeing the publication of The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers. In that particular book a little white rabbit keeps seeing a “scary” big black rabbit that he runs away from. The black rabbit is, in fact, the little rabbit’s own shadow and at the end he comes to love the big black rabbit after all. A librarian recently commented to me that it would have been far preferable if the little rabbit had been brown or some other color. Otherwise you have a book where a white character fears a big black one. At first I was inclined to agree, but after thinking about it I wasn’t so sure. After all, the white rabbit’s fears are entirely in its own head. There’s also the fact that the book, I believe, is originally Australian, so the author wasn’t working with a lot of the codes and keys common in American culture. I was even reminded of the huge brouhaha surrounding The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams. In 1958 the Alabama state library system removed the book from circulation because it featured a black rabbit and a white rabbit getting married. But sometimes a rabbit is just a rabbit.
So is a crayon just a crayon? I think the difference may lie in what a kid gets out of reading this book. In the case of The Black Rabbit, few kids are going to equate themselves with fluffy bunnies. Even if they do, the black rabbit is ultimately the hero of the story. There’s a bit of a difference with crayons. Kids are constantly coloring themselves and the people they love with the crayons they have on hand. Crayola, knowing this, even released a brand of multicultural crayons of varying brown tones in response to the public’s desire for that very product. So to produce a book where pink and flesh are equated with skin tones and that possibility isn’t even considered with beige or brown makes for a complicated reading. It’s an easy mistake to make if you’re not thinking about it at first, but you would have thought that someone in the course of editing this thing might have brought the point up with Mr. Daywalt. Heck, they might have brought it up with Jeffers too, since he’s the one who came up with the naked monster picture in the first place.
Getting away from brown, beige, and peach crayons entirely, let’s look at the book in terms of its other merits. When I was a kid I definitely ascribed personalities to inanimate objects. Not just dolls and toys, oh no. I could turn a game of War into a long drawn out romantic epic, thanks to the personalities ascribed to various playing cards. And crayons were no exception. Each one had a different part to play. They dealt with jealousies and romances, the whole nine yards. So in that frame of mind, The Day the Crayons Quit speaks to something very real. Kids like to believe that the objects that they play with are as invested in the experience as the kids themselves. So Daywalt has clearly found a unique but necessary niche. If he follows the book up with a story of playing cards we’ll know he’s on the right track.
This is also an epistolary picture book. I don’t know if Daywalt knows this, but a common assignment given by a variety of different elementary school teachers requires kids to read epistolary books (Dear Mrs. LaRue, The Journey of Oliver K. Woodman, etc.). As such, The Day the Crayons Quit is no doubt destined to remain on multiple children’s book lists for decades and decades to come.
Which is a bit of a pity since the book itself is tailor made for an adult readership. Sure, some kids are going to get a real kick out of it. But as I read through the book I kept thinking that were it not for the art of Oliver Jeffers, this title would be a difficult read. After all, it’s pretty much all about the words. Jeffers does what he can to give as much life and vitality as he can to the text, but there are twelve letters in here and around the orange and yellow crayons you’ll be forgiven if your attention starts to wane.
That’s why the success of the book (and success it indeed is) can be ascribed primarily to its illustrator. I began to notice that the childlike style of the art can really, believably be the style of a kid. This is undoubtedly why Jeffers was picked for the project in the first place. Aside from David Shannon it can be difficult to find artists that replicate children’s art styles without coming off as half-cooked. Jeffers has also taken great pains to put in as many small clever details as possible, and it makes for a very rewarding rereading. At first you wouldn’t notice. His Santa on a fire truck is straightforward. The dragon accidentally burning a clump of grapes is cute but for me the book really picks up with (no surprise here) the moment when Jeffers gets to draw a penguin. Even the paper he chooses for each crayon is interesting and significant. Admittedly I was a little surprised that the purple crayon’s letter wasn’t written on lined paper (since it’s such a stickler for staying inside the lines) while the gray crayon’s was. His faux coloring books are fun in and of themselves but it’s the final picture that’s worth it. There are a lot of hat tips to the crayons’ demands to be found here, from black rainbows to white cats. I think the character of Duncan still totally forgot to pay heed to blue’s request, but otherwise it’s on the up and up. You could even ignore that all the humans are drawn with pink or peach or white crayons, if you had half a mind to.
That’s sort of what makes the problems I have with the book such a bummer. There’s really good stuff going on here! Oliver Jeffers is fun to watch no matter what he does and Daywalt has the makings of a fine author for kids. The troubles come when you look at what the book is saying. Fans of a certain stripe are sure to disregard my concerns with a wave of their hand. “She’s reading WAY too much into this”, they might say. Probably. But it seems to me that you cannot write a book about crayons and mention peach and pink as naked without acknowledging that not every kid in the world thinks of those colors as a flesh tones. I mean, that’s just obvious. Here’s beige again: “I am BEIGE and I am proud.” Beige power, eh? Come on, little crayon. Time for you to think outside the box.
On shelves now.