As Philip Nel states at his informative blog, Nine Kinds of Pie, he teaches, reads, blogs and, fortunately for us all, writes.
Nel, who directs Kansas State University’s Program in Children’s Literature, has written several meticulously researched books about children’s lit. His latest explores the lives of legendary picture book creators Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson.
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Together, Krauss and Johnson created the children’s book classic The Carrot Seed, published in 1945. In collaboration with Maurice Sendak, as Nel notes below, Krauss captured the outspoken child. And Johnson brought readers that “small god in a white romper,” as Nel describes it, Harold of Harold and the Purple Crayon. Nel writes that this book “has captivated so many people because Harold’s crayon not only embodies the imagination, but shows that the mind can change the world: What we dream can become real, nothing can become something.”
In Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (published by University Press of Mississippi), Nel takes readers through the lives and careers of these two visionaries, showing us how their work affected not only children’s literature, but also fine art, comics and graphic design.
I took a moment of Nel’s time to ask him about his research, as well as what’s next for him.
Part of your book's subtitle is How an Unlikely Couple...Transformed Children's Literature. What do you think their most enduring contributions are to the field of children's literature?
Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon—the most succinct, profound distillation of imaginative possibility ever created—has inspired many.
In his Caldecott acceptance speech for Jumanji, Chris Van Allsburg actually thanked "Harold and his Purple Crayon." The influence of Harold emerges in the artist protagonists of Anthony Browne's Bear Hunt, Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman's The Pencil and Thacher Hurd's Art Dog.
Harold shows us that to create a universe, all you need is a blank piece of paper and a crayon.
Ruth Krauss' influence has become so pervasive as to be invisible. She didn't invent spontaneous, loose-tongued children, but she, in eight books created with Maurice Sendak, did establish for them a place in children's literature.
After the first Sendak-Krauss collaborations A Hole Is to Dig (1952) and A Very Special House (1953), other children's writers began attempting similar books. Imitators (Joan Walsh Anglund, Phoebe Wilson Hoss) didn't get it, creating books that sentimentalized the unruly Krauss-Sendak child character. Fortunately, better artists embraced that vital, rebellious spirit: Lane Smith, Laurie Keller, Kevin Henkes. When you see outspoken children in children's books, you can thank Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak.
Tell me about your research.
Writing a biography is assembling a vast puzzle for which you have no box, missing pieces, and no sense of how many pieces you'll need.
I interviewed over 80 people who knew Johnson and Krauss, including Sendak, Syd Hoff, Jules Feiffer and Marc Simont. I visited over three dozen archives and special collections, looked at century-old city directories and insurance-company maps, birth certificates, marriage certificates, census data, property deeds, wills, FBI files and photographs. I drove to Maine’s Camp Walden, where Ruth spent two formative summers: I found her first published writing in the 1919 camp yearbook. On Staten Island, I met 67-year-old Thomas Hamilton, who 60 years earlier starred as Barnaby in the 1946 stage production of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip.
Writing a biography is a challenge. But it's also fascinating detective work. I was on a quest, and had to continue until I finished! And I did—a dozen years after I began.
Tell me what Chris Ware has done on the wonderful book jacket.
Every time I look at it, I find something new to admire.
He's created the art in the style of Crockett Johnson. Fans of Johnson and Krauss can play "spot the character" to their hearts’ content. Ellen and her lion (from Johnson's books) sit at the foot of her table. On the spine, The Carrot Seed boy plants a seed. On the back cover, Johnson's Frowning Prince scowls up at the silhouettes of two FBI agents. Surrounding the ISBN and UPC code, the bookshelves contain their works and works by people important to them. Appropriately, a Pythagoras volume (a tribute to Johnson’s love of mathematics) is at a diagonal angle, creating the hypotenuse of a right triangle!
It is SUCH an honor and a privilege to have a cover by the great Chris Ware!
What's next for you?
I have several big projects, one of which is under contract: The Complete Barnaby. Eric Reynolds and I are co-editing this for Fantagraphics, collecting for the very first time all 10 years (1942-1952) of Crockett Johnson's classic comic strip. The first volume (of five), encompassing 1942 and 1943, will be out late this fall. It features an Introduction by Chris Ware, design and cover by Daniel Clowes, a short essay by comics scholar Jeet Heer, and an afterword and notes by me.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.
Author picture used with permission of Nel.