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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss

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

Philip Nel

Publication Year: 2012

Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk, 1906-1975) and Ruth Krauss (1901-1993) were a husband-and-wife team that created such popular children's books as The Carrot Seed and How to Make an Earthquake. Separately, Johnson created the enduring children's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon and the groundbreaking comic strip Barnaby. Krauss wrote over a dozen children's books illustrated by others, and pioneered the use of spontaneous, loose-tongued kids in children's literature. Together, Johnson and Krauss's style--whimsical writing, clear and minimalist drawing, and a child's point-of-view--is among the most revered and influential in children's literature and cartooning, inspiring the work of Maurice Sendak, Charles M. Schulz, Chris Van Allsburg, and Jon Scieszka.

This critical biography examines their lives and careers, including their separate achievements when not collaborating. Using correspondence, sketches, contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts, archived and personal interviews, author Philip Nel draws a compelling portrait of a couple whose output encompassed children's literature, comics, graphic design, and the fine arts. Their mentorship of now-famous illustrator Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) is examined at length, as is the couple's appeal to adult contemporaries such as Duke Ellington and Dorothy Parker. Defiantly leftist in an era of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, Johnson and Krauss risked collaborations that often contained subtly rendered liberal themes. Indeed, they were under FBI surveillance for years. Their legacy of considerable success invites readers to dream and to imagine, drawing paths that take them anywhere they want to go.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Series: Children's Literature Association Series

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 3-8

Stepping out onto his porch, Johnson spoke with one federal agent while another surreptitiously snapped his photograph. As he stood there politely answering their questions, he had no idea that the bureau had for months been opening his mail, monitoring his bank account, ...

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1. Ruth Krauss’s Charmed Childhood

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pp. 9-15

During a midnight storm on 25 July 1901, Ruth Ida Krauss was born. She emerged with a full head of long black hair and her thumb in her mouth. According to Ruth’s birth certificate, twenty-one-year-old Blanche Krauss gave birth at 1025 North Calvert Street, a Baltimore address that did not exist. ...

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2. Becoming Crockett Johnson

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pp. 16-24

Crockett Johnson was born David Johnson Leisk (pronounced Lisk), in New York City, on 20 October 1906. His grandfather, David Leask, was a carpenter in Lerwick, in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. He and his wife, Jane, ultimately had ten children, all of whom attended school until they were old enough to learn a trade. ...

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3. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

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pp. 25-31

In the summer of 1919, eighteen-year-old Ruth Krauss was one of Camp Walden’s oldest campers. Founded three years earlier by New York City principal Blanche Hirsch and teacher Clara Altschul, Camp Walden sought to promote democratic cooperation, to foster a love of nature, ...

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4. Punching the Clock and Turning Left

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pp. 32-37

In 1926, unable to afford their home of a dozen years, the Leisks moved about two miles west into a house at 53 North Prince Street (now 33-43 Prince Street) in Flushing, Queens. The new house was only ten feet wide, especially cramped for a family that included Dave’s cousin, Bert Leisk, and his friend, Jim McKinney, ...

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5. First Draft

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pp. 38-42

While Dave and Charlotte were making friends with leftists in Greenwich Village, Ruth and Lionel were living nearby, in the West Village. She was at 325 West Twelfth Street (between Greenwich and Hudson), and he was two blocks north, at 78 Horatio Street (between Washington and Greenwich). ...

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6. Crockett and the Red Crayon

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pp. 43-50

New Masses appealed to Crockett Johnson because, as cartoonist and contributor Mischa Richter noted, the magazine was “the only place where you could be published regularly with ideas that attacked the fascists.” In a December 1934 cartoon, Johnson likened fascism to a racket run by a gang of thugs. ...

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7. “We Met, and That Was It!”

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pp. 51-60

By about June 1939, Ruth returned to America and moved back into her 36 West Tenth Street apartment. But she did not stay there for long. She “felt a definite need for a broadening of information and a deepening of insight in general—‘education’—so, when I met Maggie who was at that time just starting her postgraduate work ...

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8. Barnaby

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pp. 61-67

Crockett Johnson tried for more than two years to find a home for Barnaby. In addition to the abortive effort at self-syndication, Johnson’s idea was rejected by Collier’s. But shortly after the move to Darien, Charles Martin, Johnson’s friend and the art editor of the new PM, came to visit and saw a half-page color Sunday Barnaby strip. ...

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9. A Good Man and His Good Wife

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pp. 68-80

Dave’s working methods meant that he and Ruth kept very different hours. Ruth rose at seven in the morning, after which she would take their two dogs for a walk along the Five Mile River. While he slept, Ruth began working on story ideas in her upstairs studio. Dave rose at noon, and Ruth fixed his breakfast and her lunch shortly thereafter. ...

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10. The Athens of South Norwalk

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pp. 81-90

Crockett Johnson’s success brought financial security—and more work. People wrote to request original strips, ask him to donate artwork to various causes, and inquire if they might reprint Barnaby comics. Editors found Barnaby very useful for illustrating concepts. ...

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11. Art and Politics

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pp. 91-98

Freed from the daily obligation of writing and drawing Barnaby strips, Crockett Johnson at last had some time for all his other Barnaby-related projects. The second issue of the Barnaby Quarterly appeared in November 1945, with the third issue following three months later. ...

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12. At Home with Ruth and Dave

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pp. 99-107

For Ruth Krauss, the harsh 1947–48 winter brought writer’s block. Through the middle of December, the temperature had been a bit warmer than usual, but on the 26th, two feet of snow blanketed Rowayton, the beginning of a three-month stretch when New England received twice as much snow as usual. ...

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13. The Big World and the Little House

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pp. 108-118

On 20 July 1948, a federal grand jury indicted twelve Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act (the Alien and Registration Act of 1940). Crockett Johnson personally knew at least one of the “New York Twelve,” having campaigned for New York City councilman Ben Davis. ...

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14. Artists Are to Watch

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pp. 119-131

On 6 February 1950, Crockett Johnson signed a friend of the court brief supporting the American Communist Party in United States v. William Z. Foster et al., the trial of the final member of the New York Twelve. Three days later, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy claimed to have a list of fifty-seven State Department employees ...

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15. The Art of Collaboration

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pp. 132-144

Neither Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss nor their friends and neighbors knew that the FBI had turned its attentions elsewhere. At least some Rowayton residents believed in the early 1950s that when the couple gave a party, the FBI would record the license plate numbers of those who attended. ...

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16. Harold

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pp. 145-152

In November 1954, Dave finished dummies for Harold and the Purple Crayon. The previous year, his sister, Else Leisk Frank, and her husband, Leonard Frank, had adopted a boy, whom they named Harold David, after Harold Gold, the attorney who helped with the adoption, and her father. ...

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17. Striking Out into New Areas of Experimentation

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pp. 153-162

Though pleased by the swift sales and strong reviews of Harold and the Purple Crayon Crockett Johnson viewed his success from a gently sardonic perspective. In November 1955, his clipping service sent him the Winston- Salem Journal and Sentinel’s single-sentence review by Dave Marion, age four: ...

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18. New Adventures on Page and Screen

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pp. 163-170

As she considered pursuing new directions, Ruth Krauss still had to earn a living. To find ideas for her children’s books, she continued to do what had worked in the past—visiting the Rowayton Kindergarten and the Community Cooperative Nursery School. Even though they knew she was older, children accepted her as one of them. ...

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19. “Hitting on All 24 Cylinders”

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pp. 171-182

Creatively, 1958 began very well for Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. She was working on a book based on the artwork she had collected from children at the Rowayton public schools over the past six years. One child had drawn “Girl with the Sun on a String,” a bright round yellow circle with yellow lines radiating outward; ...

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20. Poet in the News, Cartoonist on TV

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pp. 183-195

In that same January 1959 letter, Ruth Krauss announced, “I have become a Poetry Nut. I’m not kidding. It has become the major interest of my life—at this point.” She was reading and writing poetry for an adult audience and wondered whether Nordstrom would be interested in a book of children’s verse. ...

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21. Lorca Variations and Harold’s ABC

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pp. 196-207

Ruth Krauss was so invested in her new career as a poet that at age fifty-nine, she decided to learn French. Having read Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and Arthur Rimbaud in Kenneth Koch’s class, she felt that she should learn the language in which they had written. ...

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22. Provocateur and Philosopher

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pp. 208-218

Now back in touch with Ad Reinhardt, Crockett Johnson was taking an interest in his old friend’s career. In April 1963, noting that Reinhardt’s paintings were on display “around the world,” Johnson asked, “Have you thought of Rowayton?” Kidding Reinhardt, who was then being canonized as a major American painter, ...

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23. Painting, Passports, and Protest

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pp. 219-230

With Ruth recovered from her bout with spinal meningitis, she and Dave decided to travel abroad, applying for new passports in the fall of 1964. She was sixty-three and he was fifty-eight: If they were going to see more of the world, now was the time to do it. ...

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24. Theorems in Color, Poems on Stage

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pp. 231-243

On the afternoon of 5 April 1967, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss arrived at the Glezer Gallery, 271 Fifth Avenue, New York. He wore a dark shirt, with a lighter tie and jacket. She wore a simple necklace, a light-colored, loose-fitting dress, stockings, and shoes that were formal but not entirely comfortable. ...

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25. “You’re Only as Old as Other People Think You Are”

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pp. 244-254

Slim, petite, and lively, Ruth Krauss appeared to be about ten years younger than she was. Since the year of her birth contradicted her appearance, she decided to do something about it. Through 1971, reference works list her birth year as 1901, if they list it at all. From 1973 on, the books list her birth year as 1911. ...

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26. What Would Harold Do?

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pp. 255-257

The news of Dave’s cancer threw Ruth into a state of collapse. For thirty-five years, he had been the one person on whom she had allowed herself to depend. Life without him was inconceivable.1 ...

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27. Life after Dave

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pp. 258-268

Ruth never got over the loss of Dave. After the mute shock of bereavement, she struggled to cope, seeking a way forward. Immediately after his death, she knew she could not bear to stay in the house alone. So, Dick and Betty Hahn took her back to Baltimore to stay with them. ...

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28. Children Are to Love

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pp. 269-273

In the fall of 1989, Dave’s studio was empty again. When Nina Stagakis visited, Ruth asked whether she and her family could move in, living there rent-free in exchange for serving as her caretakers. Stagakis realized that having the five members of her family living in a single room would be impractical. So Ruth placed another ad in the paper.1 ...

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pp. 274-275

In the decades since their deaths, Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson have receded in the public memory, she more quickly than he. Where once her poetic and dramatic achievements ranked among the best of the contemporary avant-garde, they are today a footnote to her better-known career as children’s author. ...


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pp. 276-302


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pp. 303-340


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pp. 341-345


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pp. 346-367

E-ISBN-13: 9781621030645
E-ISBN-10: 1617036366
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617036361

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 88 b&w
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Children's Literature Association Series