The Appeal of 'Harold and the Purple Crayon'

Fifty years after his creation, Harold continues to enchant children with the power of his purple crayon. Host Jennifer Ludden reflects on the impact of Crocket Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon with one of his proteges, children's book author Maurice Sendak.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Fifty years ago a little boy with a big bald head took a purple crayon and began drawing his own adventures. Harold draws the moon and a path for walking in the moonlight. When he's hungry, he draws a picnic lunch of nine pies. When he draws a dragon, then becomes scared of it, his purple crayon fashions an ocean and a sailboat to escape in just in time.

Mr. MAURICE SENDAK (Author): Harold is just immense fun; that's all, just fun.

LUDDEN: That's Maurice Sendak. He was a protege of Crockett Johnson, the creator of "Harold and the Purple Crayon."

Mr. SENDAK: But, also, Harold does exactly as he pleases. There are no adults to demonstrate or remonstrate. It comes out of the same theory: Let the kid do his own thing. Let him have fun. It's fun. Not to teach; there are no lessons in "Harold." You have fun, you do what you like and no one's going to punish you. You're just a kid.

LUDDEN: It took Harold a while to draw his way into his editor's heart at Harper & Row. Her name was Ursula Nordstrom, and this is what she wrote in 1954 after first reading the draft of "Harold" she received from Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Johnson Leisk. `Dear Dave,' she wrote, `The dummy of "Harold and the Purple Crayon" came this morning, and I've just read it. I don't know what to say about it. It doesn't seem to be a good children's book to me, but I'm often wrong. And this post-children's book week Monday finds me dead in the head. I'd probably pass up "Tom Sawyer" today. Let me keep the dummy a few days, will you?'

Luckily, Nordstrom reconsidered. "Harold" has sold more than two million copies and has never gone out of print. He also went on to draw himself through six more adventures, including "Harold's Trip to the Sky" and "Harold at the North Pole."

Crockett Johnson, by the way, was married to fellow children's book writer Ruth Krauss. She's best known for "The Carrot Seed," about the little boy who lovingly tends his planted seed, even though no one else thinks the carrot will come up until, of course, it does. And if you've ever thought that little boy looks a lot like Harold, it's him. Crockett Johnson also illustrated "The Carrot Seed," and he used that same big-headed boy in an earlier popular comic strip called Barnaby. Johnson, who was bald, once said he drew people without hair because, `It's so much easier. And besides, to me people with hair look funny.'

Crockett Johnson was a minimalist, simple lines to illustrate sweet stories. But five decades ago he and his wife Ruth Krauss help foster the very different style of Maurice Sendak, the prize-winning author of "Where the Wild Things Are." We traveled this week to speak with Sendak about his relationship with Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, a relationship that led to Sendak's newest work. We hope you join us next weekend for that conversation.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Never smile at a crocodile. No, you can't get friendly with a crocodile. Don't be taken in by his welcome grin. He's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin. Never smile at a crocodile. Never tip your hat and start to talk a while. Never run. Walk away...

LUDDEN: This is NPR News.

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