- Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature by Philip Nel
Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), predating twentieth-century exemplars The Cat in the Hat and Where the Wild Things Are, distills enduring beliefs about children’s imaginations into witty and elegant picture book form. Americanist Philip Nel, author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon and coeditor with Lissa Paul of Keywords for Children’s Literature, has long been invested in Johnson’s career, which encompassed fascinations with design, editorial cartooning, and mathematical equations in addition to writing for children. Nel is also [End Page 292] coeditor, with Eric Reynolds, on Fantagraphics’s projected five-volume collection of Johnson’s syndicated Barnaby comic strips, originally published in the left-leaning PM magazine. For more than a decade, Nel interviewed a pantheon of figures in literature, art, and children’s publishing. He visited archives nationwide, discovering in Johnson’s life a classic American narrative. As the exhaustive appendix to Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss reveals, Johnson’s story connects the dots of twentieth-century magazine publishing, children’s books, and the art world. In her Book-a-Day Almanac blog, Anita Silvey writes, “If you are a fan of Crockett Johnson, then Philip Nel’s biography, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, will be a welcome addition to your bookshelf” (25 Sept. 2013).What readers may have forgotten, or may not have known in the first place, is that Johnson had a remarkable partner in Ruth Krauss. Krauss—frequently remembered for A Hole Is to Dig (1952), which introduced illustrator Maurice Sendak to children’s literature—was an artist and poet with an affinity for children’s firsthand perspectives.
When Krauss met Crockett Johnson in 1939—she was thirty-eight, he was thirty-three—Johnson was a talented magazine designer and comics artist. He seems not to have been a person who foresaw a future in picture books per se. True, while serving as art director for the radical weekly New Masses, Johnson produced witty strips and one-liners, and often utilized images of children in his visual rhetoric. Nel writes that Johnson’s early “cartoons figure children’s imaginations as powerful, evincing an interest in what Julia Mickenberg has called the ‘Pedagogy of the Popular Front,’ a movement in progressive parenting” (46). Nel describes Johnson’s full-page illustration of international children carrying flags and weapons for the Popular Front: “All charge into battle together, conveying the power of children to effect social change” (47). Readers will recognize an image of a marching, frowning young leftie from the eye-catching cover of Nel and Mickenberg’s 2008 anthology Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature. In 1939, Johnson already “was considering leaving New Masses and pursuing a career as a cartoonist” (54), and late that year his wordless Little Man with the Eyes comic strip had a following in Collier’s. Prior to meeting Krauss, though, Johnson had not yet found success with Barnaby. And not until The Carrot Seed (1945), which Krauss wrote and he illustrated, would Johnson collaborate on a book specifically for young readers.
Nel commendably includes Krauss in this blended biography, not as Johnson’s muse but as a force all her own. Krauss is a slippery subject compared to Johnson, and in Nel’s telling, Johnson’s story follows the [End Page 293] more satisfying, or traceable, arc. Born David Johnson Leisk, he grew up in Queens and studied typography and graphic design with none other than Frederick Goudy at NYU. (Nel handily describes how and why Johnson, a “perfectionist,” demanded italicized Futura medium for Barnaby, “the first strip to always use typeset dialogue” .) As a young cartoonist for the radical periodical New Masses, Johnson began signing his images with variations on his Davy Crockett-inspired childhood nickname and his run-of-the-mill middle name. Nel supplies the quaint detail that “by...