Embrace Life’s Journey
Harold and the Purple Crayon, the 1955 classic children’s book by Crockett Johnson, is one of those deceptively simple stories that can be read on many levels. The basic plot follows a boy who ventures into the night for a walk, taking along his big purple crayon. Whatever he draws with his crayon comes to life, and Harold must deal with the ensuing consequences. After numerous adventures, he eventually finds his way back to his own room and drifts off to sleep.
Johnson’s spare prose and simple drawings appeal to young readers. However, the story is far from simple. It’s made clear from the beginning that Harold is not acting on a childish whim when he sets out on his walk but has been “thinking it over for quite some time.” And he isn’t really alone because he has the moon to guide him. It’s the first thing he draws and the last thing he looks for to find his way back. The moon acts as Harold’s spiritual guide, always there to ground him and remind him of what’s truly important.
Leaving the Long Straight Path
Harold initially sets out on a long, straight path but soon realizes that “he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.” He appears to have a destination in mind but it’s never explicitly stated. However, he’s anxious to move on and decides to draw a short cut across a field.
Harold has a true entrepreneurial spirit–creative, confident, and undeterred by the odds. He never once looks back longingly at the straight (presumably safe) path, even when confronting a menacing dragon, almost drowning, or falling off a high cliff.
Instead, he focuses on moving forward and improvising when necessary, which leads him to new and exciting experiences and opportunities. When threatened with drowning, he draws a boat and sets sail for new lands. In mid free-fall off a cliff, he quickly sketches a hot air balloon and is soon enjoying a fantastic view of the countryside.
Inspiring or Terrifying?
Most children are entranced by the book–even if they don’t enjoy it. My now-adult son, for example, recently told me that the book initially terrified him. As a young child, he had an extremely vivid imagination. He could spend hours staring at one page in a picture book, imagining different scenarios, personalities, and plot lines. For him, the idea that his imaginary worlds could suddenly come to life without warning was extremely disturbing. He associated imaginary play with safety and security–the opposite of Harold’s world.
Other children might find Harold’s adventurous, independent spirit inspiring. A review on Common Sense Media, describes Harold as a story about “a calm, upbeat but mostly silent little boy who creates his surroundings with his ever-present purple crayon….a wonderful celebration of imagination and independent play.”
Harold does whatever he wants, unburdened by the rules of the adult world. He’s able to get himself out of scary situations without relying on adults, by using his own ingenuity and creativity. That can be reassuring to a child who feels small and powerless.
Making sense of reality
As readers, we’re never entirely sure whether Harold’s journey is meant to be dream or reality. It seems unlikely that he could really place the moon in the sky or draw an actual ocean but, nonetheless, we buy into the plot. We feel anxious when he’s in danger and curious as to how he will survive.
Ultimately, the distinction doesn’t really matter. Whether fantasy or fact, Harold’s adventures help children decipher reality, says Jayme Johnson in a post on Teaching Children Philosophy. The book can be used to guide students in a philosophical discussion on the nature of reality, says Johnson. For example, if the moon is “real” why did Harold have to draw it into existence?
“What makes the moon we observe any more “real” than Harold’s moon?” writes Johnson. “This line of questioning leads the children to discuss the relationship between perception and reality. Must things be experiential in order to be real? Or can they exist simply in our minds?”
The genius of Harold is in its layers of meaning that get peeled away over time. As adults, it’s not hard to interpret it as a metaphor for life’s journey. How many times have we created mental monsters that envelop us in fear or gotten mired in seemingly hopeless predicaments of our own making? Harold is a great role model for how to cope with just about anything. Face your problems head on, trust your instincts, take action, and don’t waste time looking back.
Keep the Moon in View
The moon accompanies Harold through all of the twists and turns, adventures and dangers of his journey. It acts as a kind of guardian or spiritual guide. Harold stays safe as long as he keeps the moon in sight.
Near the end of the story, Harold loses his bearings and can’t find his way back to his room. He seems to be spinning his wheels as he draws a whole city full of buildings in search of his own bedroom window. But then, a friendly policeman reassures him that he’s on the right path. He just had to pause for a moment and orient himself. He had to find the moon.
“Then, suddenly, Harold remembered. He remembered where his bedroom window was, when there was a moon. It was always right around the moon. And then Harold made his bed. He got in it and drew up the covers. The purple crayon dropped on the floor. And Harold dropped off to sleep.”