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Crockett Johnson and His Purple Crayon

Author John Cech
Air Date 10/20/2004

Crockett Johnson and His Purple Crayon Transcript

Brief sound clip

You’re hearing the opening for the Weston Woods animated film version of Crockett Johnson’s well-known 1955 children’s book, Harold and the Purple Crayon. It’s Johnson’s birthday this week; he was born on October 20th, 1906, in Manhattan. For several years after graduating high school he studied art, and then he continued his education by working, as he described it, “in an ice plant, and … play[ing] professional football,” as well as in commercial art related jobs. He was tall, athletic, and bald — which was why, perhaps, that many of the characters he drew were also free of all but a few lines of hair. “It’s so much easier,” he said. (Crockett once referred to himself as “the laziest man in the world.”) “Besides, to me, people with hair look funny.”

Johnson became famous in the early 1940s when his cartoon strip, Barnaby, began appearing in PM magazine. Barnaby was about a little boy, his Irish fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley, and his parents, who are continually visiting a child psychologist because Barnaby blames his strange behavior on the instructions he receives from Mr. O’Malley, whom Barnaby and the reader sees, but who remains invisible to his parents. Barnaby became such a hit that he received fan letters from the likes of Duke Ellington, and words of praise from the famously acidic Dorothy Parker, who claimed that “Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American Arts and Letters in Lord knows how many years.”

But it was Harold in his Doctor Dentons with his magic purple crayon, that never runs out of things to draw through the seven books in the series, who endeared Johnson to generations of children. Here, for once, is a child who is endlessly inventive, and who makes use of his creativity in the most productive of ways — to get into and out of the adventures that his active fantasy life always seem to bring him. If Harold needs to cover some ground, he draws himself a balloon; if he’s hungry, he draws himself pies, and then, after sampling a little of each of his favorites, he draws a hungry moose and porcupine to finish them off. No waste, no problem. He tames and claims the world with a line, and then he goes to sleep. Not a bad day’s work, this quintessential dream of the artist, and the child in the artist and the adult, and the child in the child.

Posted in Film, Literature