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How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

by Philip Nel

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61703-636-1
Publisher: Univ. Press of Mississippi

A thoroughgoing, if dispassionate, portrait of two relentlessly creative types whose contributions to children’s literature—epochal as they are—make up only part of the story.

While Krauss’ A Hole Is To Dig (1952) and Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) are well-known classics of children’s literature, Nel (Director, Kansas St. Univ. Program in Children’s Literature; The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity, 2002, etc.) makes sturdy cases for regarding Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby as a landmark in the history of cartoons, and Krauss as a significant creator of avant-garde poetry and theater pieces for adults in the 1960s and ’70s. Aside from shared interests in each other and in leftist politics, the two seem better defined here by their differences: He was big, quiet and bearlike, she was small and intense; he thought of himself as a cartoonist, she as primarily a writer. His most renowned published work largely reflects his own experiences and inner child; hers (for younger audiences) was inspired by observations of, and overheard remarks by, actual children. They collaborated on just four of their many dozens of books. Later in their lives, while she was making a splash in the New York cultural scene, he took to painting visual representations of mathematical and geometrical formulas—many of which are now in the Smithsonian Institution. Succumbing only occasionally to the temptation to drop tedious lists of family, friends or famous guests at various functions, Nel draws on a decade of archival research and more than 80 interviews to track their personal and professional relationships—notably with Maurice Sendak, whose career was launched with his illustrations for A Hole Is To Dig, and the entertainingly fiery editor Ursula Nordstrom—and multifaceted careers.

Likely to become the go-to biography of these two iconic figures—for specialists, but not just those in children’s literature.