• Happy birthday Cooper Edens (If You’re Afraid of the Dark, Remember the Night Rainbow), Jim Murphy (An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793), James Ransome (Uncle Jed’s Barbershop), and Andrea Davis Pinkney (Duke Ellington; Let It Shine).
  • It’s the birth date of Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic.
  • In 1639, the first printing press in what will become the United States of America opened in Cambridge. Read The Printing Press by Milton Meltzer.
  • On this day in 1957, United States Army troops integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Read Remember Little Rock by Paul Robert Walker, The Little Rock Nine by Marshall Poe, illustrated by Ellen Lindner, Cracking the Wall: The Struggles of the Little Rock Nine by Eileen Lucas, illustrated by Mark Anthony, and The Power of One: Daisy Bates and The Little Rock Nine by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindle Fradin.
  • For National Comic Book Day read Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud and Adventures in Cartooning by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost.
  • It’s also National Museum Day, sponsored by the Smithsonian. There will be free admission to museums across the United States. Read Museum Trip by Barbara Lehman and How to Take Your Grandmother to the Museum by Lois Wyse and Molly Rose Goldman, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay.

September 25 has been designated National Comic Book Day. From Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm’s Babymouse series to Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid offerings, comic books (sometimes called graphic novels) have been the hottest publishing phenomena of the past few years—including in books for children. Entire imprints, like First Second, have been established to explore what authors and illustrators can creatively accomplish in comic’s unique blend of words and pictures.

But like everything under the sun that seems new, comic books and children’s books go way back and include some of our most beloved classics, including Hergé’s Tintin series and the creations of comic-book genius Crockett Johnson. Johnson, the nom de plume of David Johnson Leisk, created the very popular Barnaby series. Married to children’s book writer Ruth Krauss, he was eventually drawn into the children’s book world. This comic book master fashioned two enduring classics, The Carrot Seed and Harold and the Purple Crayon.

Today Harold and the Purple Crayon has sold two million copies and has never gone out of print, but it failed to impress Johnson’s editor Ursula Nordstrom when she first saw it. “It doesn’t seem like a good children’s book to me,” the ever-frank Nordstrom quipped. But she admitted in the same letter that she might have turned down Tom Sawyer given  the mood she was in that day. Looking at the book again, Nordstrom apologized for her initial unenthusiastic response and published the book in 1955.

In both his comic strips and children’s books Johnson distilled figures and landscape to their bare essentials. Bald himself, he claimed he drew people without hair because it was easier. Harold sets out for a walk, and with a worn, stubby purple crayon draws an entire adventure and world for himself—including a picnic with the nine types of pie he loves best.

A celebration of the creative spirit and the power of imagination, Harold and the Purple Crayon has appealed to a legion of artists over the years. In Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, both the grandfather of the American picture book, Maurice Sendak, and the father, Chris Van Allsburg, discuss the influences of this book on their work. As Sendak notes, the book “is just immense fun. Harold does exactly as he pleases.” Van Allsburg states, “I believe that the empowerment of Harold  appealed to me as a reader—I loved the idea that I could be in control and create my own world.”

So if you want to celebrate National Comic Book Day with a classic, pick up Harold and the Purple Crayon. The book naturally lends itself to activities such as drawing your own universe and eating at least one kind of pie.

Here’s a page from Harold and the Purple Crayon:


Originally posted September 25, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Humor, Imagination
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Harold and the Purple Crayon


  1. Philip Nel says:

    Predictably, I’m delighted to see this here! The greatest children’s book ever written (in my humble opinion)! And proof that the imagination can create a universe.

    Crockett Johnson, the nom de plume of David Johnson Leisk, wrote Barnaby as Crockett Johnson. The only work he published under his given name (David Johnson Leisk) are the cartoons in his high school’s literary magazine.

  2. Anita says:

    Thanks for the clarification of Johnson/Leisk. As you know, I have been waiting for years for your forthcomng biography of Johnson and Krauss.

  3. Me too. I grew up reading Barnaby comics, which really weren’t written for children, but I adored them. Coffee rustlers, invisible cigar-smoking fairy godfathers who cursed, blackouts for the war–I loved it all. What a marriage that must have been!

  4. Philip Nel says:

    Thank YOU for featuring Harold today! According to its publisher (University Press of Mississippi), the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss will be out in the fall of 2012. And, Leda, The Complete Barnaby Volume One is due out from Fantagraphics in June of 2012. So… 2012 should be a good year for Crockett Johnson fans!

  5. Anita says:

    Phil: Thanks so much for the update. I’m glad to hear both of these books are going to become available.

  6. As a child this book stuck with me, but mostly because it creeped me out. The line between real and imaginary was just too shaky for me to handle.

    Then I rediscovered it as an adult, and was absolutely blown away by the … mindblowingness, for lack of a better word. It’s now my favorite picture book ever, and one of my favorite books period ever. And people say picture books are just for kids….

  7. Donna Bills says:

    Harold is one of my heroes. I love his spirit of adventure and creativity. I think his story is very empowering for children. He even helps me to remember not to panic when i am in trouble, but look for my own purple crayon. Thanks for sharing the story behind the book today

  8. As a kid, I reread this book probably 200 times a year for about 4 years. Okay, so I am exaggerating – but only a little.

  9. Anita says:

    Peter: Always good to hear these stories — amazing how a book can become so important.

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