In Johnson’s 1955 classic, selected as part of our 101 Picture Book Challenge, the titular boy takes the titular crayon and literally creates his entire world with it. That’s all there is to it, but still, there’s kind of a lot going on there.
Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Harold
In just sixty-some sparsely illustrated pages there are lessons galore about life and art. Lessons in:
The power of context: A balloon is floating in the air, until Harold draws the ground it’s resting on. He’s on a shallow featureless plain until he draws two lines converging at a vanishing point, and suddenly he’s on a three-dimensional journey toward a horizon.
Self-knowledge: Harold is a guy who loves exactly nine kinds of pie and he knows that about himself.
The uncontrollable potential of the imagination: Harold draws a dragon so scary that, unleashed, it frightens Harold himself. (Having seen that dragon, we can agree that Harold really needs to not watch “Game of Thrones.”)
The mechanics of storytelling: The very first thing Harold draws – the moon – follows him across every subsequent page and plays a central role in the resolution whereby Harold finds his way home. Nice plotting, Harold!
Drawing: When I was a kid, the cunning ease with which Harold draws three lines to turn an intact pie into a partially-eaten pie was something I marveled at. Three lines are also all it takes to turn a moose into a very hungry moose. Art is basically all about where you put three lines.
Moderation: Those are his favorite pies in the world and he eats only one piece of each? Respect, Harold.
Indulgence: Then again, I guess that does still mean he ate nine pieces of pie in one sitting. Maybe it’s his cheat day.
Benevolence: If anyone ought to get the rest of the pies it’s a hungry moose and a deserving porcupine, but still we all know sharing isn’t easy, even when you’ve already scarfed nine pieces of pie.
Perspective: The way Harold gets home (SPOILER ALERT) is by looking at the moon, remembering that it was always visible from his bedroom, and drawing a window around it. He converts a massive, distant celestial satellite into a contained detail of his own small domain so that everything literally revolves around Harold. It’s provincial, but it gets the job done.
Anti-authoritarianism: I don’t know what’s up exactly with that police officer Harold draws, but I definitely don’t trust him.
Discipline: When first we meet Harold, he’s drawing wildly all over the page, aimless and uncontrolled, like a dissolute Jackson Pollock. There’s catharsis in his doodling but it’s ephemeral and unsatisfying. When Harold decides – “after thinking it over for some time” – to apply his crayon to more representational ends, he feeds himself, shelters himself, saves his own life more than once (admittedly only after being the one responsible for its endangerment), and turns himself into the quietly creative engine of a classic picture book. (Am only just now realizing this element can also be construed as a dismissal of abstract art in favor of the more sensible and bourgeois pleasures of realism, but that aesthetic conservatism is on Harold; don’t @ me.)
Purple Cray’n, Purple Cray’n
Despite being a simple combination of a few spartan ingredients, “Harold and the Purple Crayon” evokes elements from across the spectrum of popular culture: the preferred hue of Prince; the surreal anarchy of Looney Tunes’ “Duck Amuck.” But in some ways it most resembles a motivational self-help book for ambitious executives – a “Think and Draw Rich,” or “The 7 Habits of Highly Purple People,” or “Who Moved My Pies?”
Because in the space of two pages Harold goes from aimless scribbles to focused self-determination, creating his own destiny with resourcefulness and a masterful sense of artistic composition. That’s better than most of us can try to claim. And the guy’s only four years old.
The 101 Picture Book Challenge is for anyone at any age. Librarians hand picked the titles on the list which includes classics, new titles and everything in between.
To get started, register online. You can track your progress online or if you prefer a paper log booklet, pick one up at your neighborhood Library. The books are organized into categories but you can read the books in any order and at your own pace. When you read all 101 titles, you earn a free picture book (while supplies last).
This is the latest in a series of blog posts exploring some of the things we love about these books.