What makes a good bedtime story? Is it the narrative and how the story flows? Is it the storyteller and their way of creating the world and characters? Is it the pictures you see – either on the page or in your mind? For me, it’s the satisfaction of all of these elements coming together whenever my mom would read me Harold and the Purple Crayon.
Harold and the Purple Crayon is a children’s book both written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson in 1955. The first in a series, including other books like Harold’s Fairy Tale (1956) and Harold’s Circus (1959), this story follows a young boy named Harold who decides to take a walk in the moonlight. However, Harold’s world is a perpetual white backdrop that follows him wherever he goes, and so it’s up to Harold’s limitless imagination and his trusty purple crayon to create reality around him.
The book’s pages serve as his canvas, and by keeping his purple crayon running against the edge of his world, Harold finds himself in all sorts of exciting and frightening situations. He encounters a dragon guarding an apple tree, sails across the ocean, has a picnic lunch of pies, climbs a steep mountain, rides in a balloon, and journeys through a large city – all drawn and explored by Harold himself. By the story’s end, Harold proves that there is nothing he can’t do, and yet nothing can quite compare to the comfort and safety of his own bed.
This book accomplishes so much with so little. The premise is simple, and while the illustrations are just that of a young boy with a crayon, Crockett manages to evoke a sense of agelessness in the reader with every page turn. To me, the book’s strongest attribute is in how it manages to form a direct connection to a person’s imagination by establishing Harold as the very personification of childhood wonder. While Harold himself doesn’t speak, his actions – or rather his drawings – provide a direct look into his psyche. We see all of his ideas and his quick-thinking come to life before our very eyes, and in that moment, we feel that we have the power to do the same thing. Despite hearing this story countless times as a child, I always anticipated what else Harold might draw next. I’d even immerse myself in Harold’s world by daydreaming about what I’d do if I had a magical purple crayon. I vaguely remember drawing wings on myself and flying to the North Pole as being one of my better ideas.
This book is also the essential guide to improvisation, as every drawing serves a purpose and no crayon mark is accidental. As a child, this taught me not to worry about making mistakes but to use them to my advantage, and that every problem has any number of solutions. As an adult, it teaches me to recognize how my mistakes have crafted my life as it is now, and to take a step back and admire the growth I’ve experienced over the years. In fact, there is one line in the story that probably best demonstrates its own genius when recounting Harold’s timeless struggle of perseverance in the heat of adversity: “But luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon.” We the readers may not possess the physical security of Harold’s purple crayon, but we have our own ambition which is equally emblematic of a limitless potential. I believe that Crockett Johnson was conscious of this when he wrote this simple story and drew these simple illustrations. It wasn’t all just to make this book approachable to children, but instead to make it meaningful for everyone.
Harold and the Purple Crayon, in my humblest opinion, is nothing short of brilliant.