Friday, April 15, 2016

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

"Mommy, don't step on my words," said a cross four-year-old to her mother when she interrupted her. Children phrase words in such unique ways that I wish I was a better record-keeper. So here is my first recording of a comment told to me by a grandma about a phrase her granddaughter likes to use on adults. Why tell you this? Ruth Krauss used to go and listen to children speak at a nursery and kindergarten school near her home. Her picture books were innovative in that she tried to replicate how young children actually spoke in her stories creating an authenticity not seen before in the children's literary field. Her unorthodox use of language and poetic skills gave her text a rhythm and imagery that appealed to children and adults: "Mud is to jump in and slide in and yell doodleedoodleedoo" or "Rugs are so dogs have napkins" or the neologism "bears, bears... everywheres." Ruth Krauss was a spitfire that never stopped moving or talking while her husband, Crockett Johnson, was the calm, pragmatic person. The two creative geniuses worked together and had a long-lasting marriage and careers as children's book authors, comic writers, poets, and artists.  This well-written book gives a glimpse into their lives, the history of McCarthyism and how it affected them, and the impact they had on other artists.

Maurice Sendak was a frequent visitor to the Johnson-Krauss home collaborating on picture books with Krauss. When he branched out on his own it was Crockett Johnson that came up with the word, "rumpus," in his famous book, "Where the Wild Things Are." Crockett started his career in writing the comic strip "Barnaby" that was a social satire on American society. Although not as widely popular as other comic strips of the time, it had fiercely loyal followers and is regarded as one of the top comics in the twentieth century according to Comics Journal. After a decade of producing "Barnaby," Crockett turned to children's books because he needed a break from the intense schedule of producing a comic strip. "Harold and the Purple Crayon" rocketed him into children's literary stardom. It has sold millions of copies and shows how a person can invent his or her own world using a big imagination.

Crockett kept reinventing himself as an artist so it is easy to see a bit of Harold in him. When he got tired of creating children's books he turned to art using his love of mathematics to create geometric forms that were exhibited and sold in galleries. Ruth Krauss was a prolific writer cranking out 36 children's books before turning to poetry. Krauss was an experimental writer that was willing to take risks and not deterred by mistakes. Her poetry is now all out of print and has not sustained over time. Philip Nel shows her verse as a "curious blend of progressive education, children's literature, and the twentieth-century avant-garde"; however her emphasis was on freshness and surprise and this worked as an impediment as the surprise wore off. She even questioned whether "good poetry should necessarily be astonishing and surprising all the time." While her poetry was extremely popular, it is not studied today.

Ruth and Crockett's relationship with Ursula Nordstrom shows angst and humor. After reading "Dear Ursula: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom," by Leonard Marcus, I found this an interesting follow-up on her as a director of children's books at Harper Publishing. Nordstrom is a hoot and Nel shows how sensitive she had to be with the authors she worked with critiquing their works. She could get tough need be though. There is one letter she sends to Crockett Johnson that shows anger when he accuses publishers of withholding a printing of Harold books. Nordstrom, Johnson and Krauss respected each other inspite of occasional differences and she was critical in their success as a meticulous editor demanding a high quality of work from them as writers and artists. A terrific glimpse into the creative process and life of two very successful artists.

5 Smileys

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