The amazing surfeit of children’s books produced, printed and pushed onto the shelves every year threatens to eclipse some of the more exceptional and profound contributions to children’s literature – I am speaking of the classics here. While some classics are endearing, simply because they speak to our nostalgia and strike those quiescent emotional chords, many of these beloved classics may also pale in comparison to the verve and visual splendor of some of the newer contemporary offerings. Thankfully, the austere poetry of Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, does not suffer this fate, not even close.
First published in 1955 (with more than two-million copies sold and having never gone out of print), Harold and the Purple Crayon is an unapologetic product of its time. In some respects, you could trace the growing mid-century awareness of Freudian and Jungian theory and analysis, as this narrative functions more or less as an existential celebration of the human capacity to create meaning out of relative nothingness (but that is a whole other story).
For anyone unfamiliar with this tome, it posits Harold, a baby-faced boy, in a world of endless, boundless, and limitless white space, armed with nothing more than his imagination and a purple crayon. He moves through the pages of the book creating characters, situations, and interactions that are purely of his own making. He draws a dragon, which frightens him. He draws a picnic with nine kinds of pie. And he draws a cavernous cityscape devoid of any true human element (yes, there is a policeman, but he is of little help). Throughout there are moments of peril for Harold that require him to craftily (and artfully) draw himself out of (he draws himself over the ledge of a cliff and then quickly sketches a hot air balloon to facilitate a safe landing). Ultimately, Harold is moved to find his way home. This is achieved, not by lifting him out of the tabula rasa world he has created and bringing him back to a reality with parents and three dimensions, but by allowing Harold to solve his own problem and orient himself by the moon, and then draw his room, bed, and comforts of home around himself moments before he falls off to sleep.
The magical and exceptional thing about this book is that there are no life lessons or adults dictating behavior; there is just pure experience, imagination and childhood run wild. It is a celebration of fantasy, but above that it is an inspired movement through nothingness towards total expression and consciousness.