‘And the moon went with him’

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Maurice Sendak is one of many children’s authors who cite Crocket Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon as an inspiration and influence. When Harold turned 50 in 2005, NPR invited Sendak to reflect on the delightful classic, in which a young boy builds his own story, scene by scene, using a fat crayon. Sendak said Harold was “immense fun,” nothing but fun: “There are no lessons in Harold. You do what you like, you have fun, and no one’s going to punish you. You’re just a kid.”

Given that Sendak writes for kids himself, and given that he knew Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss, another celebrated children’s author (Sendak illustrated several of her books), I should probably put some faith in his perspective. But having read Harold enough times to my two-year-old to be able to recite it, I find myself disagreeing. From where I sit, Harold is teeming with lessons. Not those tedious, obvious morals that conscientious people love to stuff into so-called children’s literature, but lessons about human nature, and about the messy, exciting business of navigating your way, scene by scene, moment by moment, through the adventure that is your very own life. I believe that even a toddler can appreciate this kind of truth mirrored and plumbed in a story. Real literature ought not have an Adults Only designation.

On the surface, Harold is a charming tale enhanced by lovely line drawings and elegant language. One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight. This is the unassuming way the story begins. It’s simple and direct, yet already we have the makings of a plot and a sense of Harold’s character. He’s a deliberate child: he thinks things through.

And clearly, he’s not afraid of the dark.

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With his magic crayon, Harold draws himself a “long, straight path” so he won’t get lost. But he quickly deviates from this plan: he takes a short cut. The moon goes with him. Harold takes precautions as he journeys. He doesn’t want to get lost in the woods, so he draws a forest containing only one tree. The tree’s apples seem so precious, he throws in a dragon to guard them. Alas, Harold’s dragon is convincing! Shaking with fear, he accidentally sketches waves, under which he starts to sink. He makes himself a boat, climbs in and sails away. Later, after slipping off a mountaintop, he draws a balloon, and then a basket under the balloon, “big enough to stand in.” When Harold is ready to go home, he starts drawing houses and buildings, filling their walls with windows, trying to find his own. Here is where the crayon’s magic fails. It can make a million windows, but none of them is his window.

I love how Harold’s crayon suggests that (to a point) superhuman powers might be within reach of any ordinary boy or girl. Who needs delivery owls, capes, wizards, magic wands? The matter-of-fact way that Harold takes ownership of the world and its possibilities is deeply satisfying. It’s refreshing to encounter this bold, imaginative, capable child—who’s still young enough to be wearing one-piece pajamas with feet—in a time when it’s no longer socially acceptable to let your child walk to school alone. Harold finds himself in danger over and over, and finally quite lost. In all events, he calmly uses what he has at hand: his crayon, his knowledge of how things work, and his understanding that when all else fails he can turn to an adult for help. Or can he? Unfortunately, the policeman Harold draws “points the way Harold was going anyway.” This reads (to the grown-up) like an unforgivable failure on the part of the adult world: a child has been abandoned to fate and his own devices. Harold, however, simply thanks the policeman before going on his way.

The magic of this book doesn’t reside in the crayon alone, but in the understated elegance of Johnson’s writing. He has a way with rhythm, with the gentle pun, with the apt, judicious and occasionally unexpected adjective. When Harold falls beneath the waves he comes up “thinking fast,” and climbs aboard “a trim little boat.” He “makes” land without much trouble. He “draws up the covers” on his bed. When our hero gets hungry, he lays out a “nice simple picnic lunch” featuring “all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.” The “deserving” porcupine that Harold leaves behind to help a hungry moose finish off this feast has won a spot, alongside far more illustrious literary characters, in my heart.

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“Wow,” my son Henry says as we’re reading. “Mooooon.” When Harold finally figures out where his bedroom window is—“it’s always right around the moon”—we have closure. Our tired little boy has found his way home. Or has he? I think the ending of Harold, though it wears a sheen of comfort, is radical. Harold gets into a bed that he draws with his own crayon, beneath a window he has also drawn—around his own, purple-crayon moon. Is he truly home, or is he curling up in a make-believe substitute? It’s possible that Harold has come too far, that he may never find his way back, but his solution suggests that it doesn’t matter. Home is within you, home can be anywhere. The essentials—the moon, your own self—will not change.

In the course of his travels, it’s not the outside world that scares Harold most: it’s the dragon he draws, a creature that springs from his own mind. This is not what Harold, or the reader, expects, but it rings awfully true. I don’t know whether Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Jonathan Leisk (1906-1975), was thinking about all of this when he wrote Harold. I don’t know whether he saw how Harold’s story works as a metaphor for so much about life—but then, don’t all journey tales become metaphors for life?

Harold has never gone out of print. It was still on the U.S. National Education Association’s “Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children” in 2007 and on the School Library Journal’s “Top 100 Picture Books” in 2012. Sendak was right: this book is wickedly fun, and that must account for its success, at least in part. But no bit of fun, in the absence of deeper substance, has that much longevity. Harold shows us that we’re bound, in the course of life, to frighten ourselves, to make some disastrous moves, and to, at least temporarily, lose our way. Sometimes we’ll have to make do, no matter how desolate the figurative or literal locale we find ourselves in. This is the price of giving ourselves a story in which to live, our own plot. Harold’s journey is no heroic quest, no Jason and the Golden Fleece. He’s not out looking for treasure, he’s not trying to save anyone. He’s just going for a walk. He’s curious what will happen along the way, what he’ll conjure up. And so are we.

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Here is an analysis of Harold and the Purple Crayon through the window of cognitive science: The Frontal Cortex

I’ve also come across an online essay that asserts Harold is a story about deciphering reality from fiction. I don’t think real vs. imaginary is the point of Harold at all. There is, however, one worthwhile and somewhat chilling question in this blog entry: “Can there be accidents in Harold’s world even if he’s drawing them?”

And here is the NPR interview with Maurice Sendak about Harold

And here is the Crocket Johnson homepage, run by Philip Nel, director of the graduate program in children’s literature at Kansas State University, where you’ll learn, among other fascinating things, that Johnson’s editor’s first reaction to Harold was decidedly lukewarm.