Draw Us Lines: Reading Harold and the Purple Crayon
I am teaching myself to write, again -- the final step to finishing the book I already wrote -- and so today I am re-reading Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon. It’s not a cute book. Harold is cute, I guess, with his open eyes and hands, his bald chubby body in a deep blue onesie, but his story is actually pretty scary. Not scary The Giving Tree-scary, i.e. secretly about rape and pillage, but scary like real talk. Like, here is a blank page an open room; let’s make something here.
Harold and the Purple Crayon was published in the fall of 1955, in a first edition of ten thousand that sold so quickly Harper ordered seventy-five hundred more before the winter holidays. This smash contradicted editor (and badass, and personal hero) Ursula Nordstrom’s first impression, which was that “it doesn’t seem to be a good children’s book… I found myself asking such dumb questions -- like where did he draw the moon and the path and the tree? And then when I got far enough to realize he was dreaming, OF COURSE, I was puzzled by the moon in the first picture.” My six-year-old friend, who is teaching himself to read while I’m teaching myself to write, said something similar. “Wait is he eating purple crayon apples? Waxy! Empty.”
Harold’s jacket copy is equally deceptively cute. “Let Harold and his purple crayon lead you on a fantastic journey of the imagination!” says the back of the current edition. “Whimsical, ingenious, unique!” says the rest of the series, in which Harold visits everywhere from the sky to the North Pole to a circus. And yet there is a subtle violence to these advertisements, because while Crockett Johnson certainly is unique and fantastic, Harold isn’t really leading anyone anywhere. It is a bad thing we adults sometimes do: talking baby talk to innocence and creative vision. Because Harold is actually kind of hungry and scared, and he makes dumb moves like drawing himself into lion cages. He wants an audience, and he wants a bed. The most beautiful thing about Harold, I think, is that he keeps moving until he falls asleep or takes a bow.
If you still get to read the Harold books for the first time: they are short, representational, pastoral. The character was named for Crockett Johnson’s nephew, whose adoption brought the artist closer to his sister. Both Crockett and Harold are bald, which is easier than hair to draw and occasionally makes Harold look like a senior stumbling around for his walker. The series begins one evening, when Harold is coloring and thinking and decides to take a walk in the moonlight. Only there isn’t a moon, so he draws one, and then he draws the road. Then he makes a path. Then he leaves the path for the field. The language is a personal third person, the pages big and blank, like Samuel Beckett dreamstages, and the only lines are ones Harold draws. The only space that isn’t white or purple is Harold’s skin, which is slightly tinted. The babysitter who first read him to me said he was black, and so I identified him that way for a long time, until I realized we better ask Harold himself how he identifies.
What is clear is that his body never changes scale, whether he’s in a hot air balloon, a bed, or talking to an Ernie-esque cop whose uniform resembles a star shirt from the Delia’s catalogue. His eidos and golden ethic are equally firm, for example he is hungry and so he draws nine kinds of pie, and the pie is pie and it tastes good. However Harold can’t eat it all, so instead of erasing or abandoning the food he draws “a very hungry moose and a deserving porcupine” to finish the picnic. The porcupine’s smile fills almost half of their body. These animals are not irked at being, or confused to be here. They’re just stoked on pie.
Like Ursula Nordstrom, Crockett Johnson is a personal hero. Johnson, and Ruth Krauss, whose work and romance are in Phil Nel’s gorgeous and rallying Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. I love those two so much I wish I still used Trapper Keepers so I could glue their faces onto one. They wrote all kinds of stories, together and separately, for both adults and children, all their lives, and as someone who wants this too I learn from how Nel maps their homes, remembers their arguments, and talks about how they talked about money and the government.
I learn from how they pushed, and when, and how Nordstrom responded (see Dear Genius, a book of her letters, edited by Leonard S. Marcus and in another holy place on my shelf). I mean, how cool?: Johnson wrote a comic strip called Barnaby and a book called Merry Go Round: A Story That Doesn’t End, whose pages could be turned round and round on loop, and he requested all-black pages for when Harold went to space. Krauss wrote books with anti-racist messages and fingerprints printed around the poems, and one that would be “a sort of bastard form between a record and a book,” and this love poem about the depression (1960): “wits / stars / tough and terrible times / two boiled potatoes / and you in my bed.”
Plus they both really listened to children -- their own younger selves, or entirely different people, on the street and in classrooms. In 1951 Krauss was visiting Harriet S. Sherman’s kindergarten class regularly, and she sent Nordstrom some favorite quotes. “Stars are not only to twinkle, but also when you make your bed you get a star.” “A face is something on your head.” “You put a house in a hole and a floor is to keep you from falling in the hole your house is in.” I feel squicky when people quote their students’ glitter-genius sentences on Facebook -- it doesn’t seem mentor-like or ethical -- but Krauss told these kids what she was doing. They treated each other as collaborators. Though absolutes are risky, I’m pretty sure that in every story Johnson and Krauss drew and wrote, the face on every kid is wise. The couple were engaged in form and content, and connecting desk-life to lived-life, and politics, and the autonomy of their love and characters both. They also fought like hell with each other, but anyway.
Harold draws fixed ideal shapes and objects, not borders. His revolution is velvet, decentralized. The lines he draws are not violent and destructive like urban planner Robert Moses’s, slicing through homes; straight and carefully-timed like painter Agnes Martin’s; or illuminating, framing like cinematographer Robert Bresson’s. They’re just lines. Deceptively simple. Harold is hungry, and so he eats. He moves to wander, to find work, or to fulfill a desire, not to conquer. The only time he scribbles is in the beginning, when perhaps all that white space seemed scary. The only friends he has are ones he draws, because otherwise he can’t draw everything he wants. Otherwise he’d be a caregiver first. My favorite parts are the purple swirls Harold makes when he falls, and when he draws the moon because both times his wrist has to limp and curl.
Also I love that ultimately, what Harold wants is his own window. This is different, though linked, to a room of his own, though I like to think about this window as a first full draft -- as when you’ve, when I’ve finally narrowed my focus to one subtopic with roots and shape. This is different from when Harold is on the beach, wondering where he is. The six-year-old pointed out duh, he’s on a beach, so we talked about how sometimes your feet are steady on and you recognize what you see, but you have no idea what it means to you. Where your friends are. Where are your friends? If you have beach friends. What you do for work, now. Sometimes you need a window, I said, and yeah the six-year-old said, I guess that’s right.
I love how in the end, Harold finds a window and a room and draws into bed, like a fat baby vampire tucking himself in just before morning, and then he mic-drops the crayon. Now Harold probably has to learn how to write again too.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a working writer in Colorado. Her book See You in the Morning comes out from featherproof in September 2015.