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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

Overview

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 ...

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Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Nel has a gift for stitching together his exhaustive research into a brisk, highly readable narrative. His affection for his subjects is evident, and he has a firm grasp on the innovations they brought to their respective fields." --Jack Feerick, Kirkus Review's book blog network
Library Journal
In this insightful dual biography of Crockett Johnson (Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Ruth Krauss (A Hole Is To Dig), who were married but produced most of their work separately, Nel (children's literature, Kansas State Univ.; Dr. Seuss: American Icon) makes a case for their enduring influence on children's literature through their less-than-perfect child protagonists, minimalist drawings, and use of the child's point of view. Johnson's and Krauss's children's books have remained in print for more than 50 years and have sold millions of copies. Nel also explores Johnson's roles as political cartoonist (his work in the magazine New Masses garnered attention from the McCarthy-era FBI) and abstract painter and Krauss's collaborations with later-famous illustrators Marc Simont and Maurice Sendak (whom Nel interviewed), as well as her other work. Nel's use of the couple's personal papers and publishers' archives adds considerable depth. VERDICT This strongly researched book will please scholars of children's literature and those more broadly studying American culture in the decades after World War II.—Alison M. Lewis, Drexel Univ., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781617036361
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
  • Publication date: 7/30/2012
  • Series: Children's Literature Association Series
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,028,630
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


Philip Nel, Manhattan, Kansas, teaches courses in children's and young adult literature, and serves as the director of Kansas State University's Program in Children's Literature. His books include Keywords for Children's Literature (co-edited with Lissa Paul), Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature (co-edited with Julia Mickenberg); The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats; Dr. Seuss: American Icon; and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels: A Reader's Guide.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 3

1 Ruth Krauss's Charmed Childhood 9

2 Becoming Crockett Johnson 16

3 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman 25

4 Punching the Clock and Turning Left 32

5 First Draft 38

6 Crockett and the Red Crayon 43

7 "We Met, and that was it!" 51

8 Barnaby 61

9 A Good Man and his Good Wife 68

10 The Athens of South Norwalk 81

11 Art and Politics 91

12 At Home with Ruth and Dave 99

13 The Big World and the Little House 108

14 Artists are to Watch 119

15 The Art of Collaboration 132

16 Harold 145

17 Striking out into New Areas of Experimentation 153

18 New Adventures on Page and Screen 163

19 "Hitting on all 24 Cylinders" 171

20 Poet in the News, Cartoonist on TV 183

21 Lorca Variations and Harold's ABC 196

22 Provocateur and Philosopher 208

23 Painting, Passports, and Protest 219

24 Theorems in Color, Poems on Stage 231

25 "You're Only as Old as Other People Think you are" 244

26 What Would Harold do? 255

27 Life after Dave 258

28 Children are to Love 269

Epilogue 274

Notes 276

Bibliography 303

Acknowledgments 341

Index 346

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