Philip Nel’s new book wins the award, hands down, for best title of the year Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature. But more than that it gives us a narrative that hisses and crackles with energy, even with two subjects whose lives lacked the kind of intrigue and mystery that ordinarily makes for exciting biographical research and writing. The first paragraph sets the scene: a knock on the door and two FBI agents, one interrogating Crockett Johnson, the other snapping photographs.
Here’s an extract from the review in the Wall Street Journal
“A small god in a white romper, Harold uses art to create the heavens and the earth,” observes Mr. Nel, a professor at Kansas State University. “There is no world except that which [Harold] makes.” White rompers aside, these ideas fitted a political agenda that sought to expunge tradition and to make man and society anew, though, as Mr. Nell cautions: “Harold uses his imagination to create new worlds but does so without causing harm. If the purple crayon is radical, it proposes a velvet revolution, not a violent one.”
Nel’s volume reminds us of how important books like A Hole is to Dig and Magic Beach were, not just for Maurice Sendak, but for countless other authors of children’s books:
Krauss and Johnson loomed larger in the last century than they do now, but Mr. Nel argues that it would be a mistake to miss the durability of their legacy. The petite and turbulent Krauss, who wrote more than 40 works for young readers, “helped pave the way for books that respect children’s tough, pragmatic thinking and unorthodox use of language,” he says. Of the wry and laconic Johnson, whose work is often cited by artistic sorts as a source of inspiration, the author declares: “He showed us that a crayon can create a world.”
Be sure to check out Philip Nel’s homepage, where you can wander around for hours in the world of children’s literature and try out “Nine Kinds of Pie.”