Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Harold and the Purple Crayon has surprises and secrets. It was written more than 50 years ago by Crockett Johnson, who also penned the delightfully simple pictures that illustrate the story. But Johnson was a professional cartoonist, which may explain why the pictures seem to steal the show, creating a story that keeps on going and going. There’s over 60 pages (and 60 drawings) in “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” and they’ll give any children the joy of a good old-fashioned comic strip: they’re simple and they’re funny.

I love the enormous purple zig-zags that Harold draws on the book’s title page, and how they segue into the beginning of the actual story. Harold looks at the blank page and realizes he needs a moon for his walk in the moonlight – then draws one onto the page itself. A very simple drawing shows his half-completed moon over the half-finished purple horizon. But in the next drawing, the moon is finished, and Harold is now drawing the edge of a sidewalk…

Harold has the wide eyes of a baby – and a baby’s confidence. Soon he’s drawing three lines to form a road vanishing into the horizon, but then takes “a shortcut” off to the left. It’s a blank page, of course, but it led “right to where Harold thought a forest ought to be.” Harold’s magical crayon may make children want to start drawing themselves. By the next picture, Harold’s already drawn most of the line for a tree trunk – and six purple stubs that suggest grass. “It turned out to be an apple tree,” writes Johnson – because Harold has drawn nine circles in its leaves suggesting apples. Then he draws a dragon under the tree (to protect the apples until they’re ripe).

The book is a celebration of fantasy – by a professional artist who understands the power of imagination. And he plays a fascinating trick on Harold. The boy’s shaking hand makes the purple line jiggle – and Harold accidentally draws the waves of an ocean, which swallow him up. What to do? Harold draws a line over the ocean, and uses it to hoist himself up while he finishes drawing the rest of a boat. He draws a sail, and then when he reaches land: an anchor. (And then – nine pies, for a picnic on the beach!)

“He hated to see so much delicious pie go to waste,” Johnson adds, so Harold draws a skinny moose to eat it all up – plus “a deserving porcupine” with a smile on its face.

But he’s not finished playing pranks on his crayon-wielding doppelganger. There’s another weird trick when Harold draws himself a mountain. But he falls off the top before he’s finished drawing the other side – so he’s falling into thin air. Falling – and upside down – Harold draws a wide circle which becomes a balloon. Soon he’s added a basket and he’s floating below the moon. But he still can’t see his house.

Harold eventually draws a house – with windows – then draws more windows. Soon he’s drawn a whole skyscraper, filled with windows. And in a laughably complex picture, Harold has drawn an entire city with 11 skyscrapers, each filled with windows. “He made a whole city full of windows,” writes Johnson. “But none of the windows was his window.”

I know that feeling.

Harold draws a funny policeman with a round nose, but the policeman isn’t much help. But despite all the craziness, the book still finds its way to a cozy ending. And it’s Harold himself who has to solve his predicament. Where is his window? Why, it’s always around the moon, of course. Harold draws a frame across the window, and then draws his bed beneath it, and crawls under the covers.

“The purple crayon dropped on the floor. And Harold dropped off to sleep.”

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace, by Anne Shelby and Wendy Anderson Halperin

Homeplace is a fascinating book that brings to life an important subject: history. It’s back cover promises that it tells the story of one family from 1810 to the present – and the house that they all lived in. There’s a patchwork of memories on the front and back cover – a woman quilting, a horse-drawn carriage, a model T, a Howdy Doody puppet. But they’re drawn in an old-fashioned style by Wendy Anderson Halperin – which makes the book feel like a thing of history, too.

The title page shows seven pictures of a girl planting flowers – but they’re arranged like panes of glass in a stained-glass window. Even the title itself is set in a fancy seraph font. “Your great-great-great-great-grandpa built this house,” the girl’s grandmother explains in their nursery. But this picture – and every drawing in the book – is fringed with a colorful filigree, like the ornaments on the frame of a painting.

Anne Selby’s simple text is just a starting point for illustrator Halperin. (Halperin shows a second picture on the same page of a bearded man in the forest – and a third one which shows him chopping a tree that he’d use to build the house.) While Selby writes that the man cleared the land, built a chimney and planted corn, it’s up to Halperin to bring it to life. She contributes 15 separate drawings to the page of the man hard at work – moving rocks, chiseling boards, stacking logs, and reaping his harvest. They suggest an entire life that’s been preserved in fragmented memories.

“Your great-great-great-great-grandma baked corn bread on the fireplace stones,” Selby continues. And soon the illustrations are showing glimpses of the homesteading wife and the rest of the family. There’s stew-cooking with an enormous pot, and feeding the children with ears of corn. One of the children grows up to be “your great-great-great-grandfather,” explains the narrating grandmother. “He grew like corn in the field…”

“Then he cleared more land.”

I’ve always been fascinated by history, and the idea that we could somehow, for a moment, make contact with lives from the past. So this book is almost magical, granting that wish of seeing our history. There’s rows and rows in a long-ago field, filled with thin stalks of wheat and grains. And there’s more pictures showing the plants, plus the family’s cows, and their sheep. On the fence rail around the field, there’s even a grey and white cat!

The sheeps’ wool is spun into warm shirts and britches by that man’s wife. She strings dry beans and apples to dry for dinner in winter. She stitches quilts into baby blankets, which will warm “your great-great-grandpa.” And he grows just as tall, in a house which is now larger. As the next generation begins…

Hurry!, by Jessie Haas

Hurry!, by Jessie Haas

“Hurry!” tells the story of a farmer’s life in one remarkable afternoon — when a summer’s harvest of hay is threatened by rain clouds. “We can’t make the sun dry faster,” says a little girl’s grandfather, who waits on the sun — and worries. He re-checks it nervously, watching the graying sky. “The sun feels weak, but the wind feels strong,” hints the author — and the grandfather has sent Nora to check whether their hay is dry yet.

Jessie Haas is a talented writer who’s written several books about the farmer grandparents of a little girl named Nora. (“Sugaring” tells the story of turning sap into syrup, and in “No Foal Yet,” they nurture a mare that’s birthing of a colt — and she’s written a whole series of books called “Beware the Mare.”) But in this book, it’s the hay that looks magical in the little girls hands — crazy strands of green and brown, as Haas describes the hay appealing to the senses. “It smells as sweet as flowers… It makes a rustling, papery, hurry-up sound.” But Haas also captures the real tension that surrounds the once-a-year harvesting of a crucial crop. The grandfather rakes the hay into rows — but the sky is growing dark. Grandpa’s wife fetches the pitchforks as grandpa hitches up the hay wagon…

There’s grand illustrations for the story supplied by Jos A. Smith. Using water colors and pencils, he creates a simple beauty for the family that tends the land. On the first page he’s drawn white clouds on a blue sky over a hay field with changing shades of green — and in the center the little girl with the plow horses. Later there’s a hayloader scooping up hay, and Haas describes all the details of packing the hay into the wagon. (Grandpa and his wife move the hay to the corners of the wagon, and trample it flat so there’s more room for the rest.) But the next picture completes the story, showing the hay wagon filled with hay — Nora riding high above the ground — as a shades of grey fill the background sky. The hay wagon is a shadowy grey itself, with small shadowy people riding its load and two shadowy horses pulling.

Its load of hay “is as big as the moon” — so big that “The big moon tips.” But it doesn’t slide off. “Good job,” says her grandfather, as they hurry the wagon to the barn, which holds in the sweet hay smells. “All of summer is inside here. The rain patters, then it splashes…”

And the family sits on their enormous haystack, and watches the rain outside.

The 500 Hats of Dr. Seuss

Hat drawing by Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss had a private collection of hats!

There is the iconic red and white striped hat from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat”… There is the red felt cap with a white feather famously featured in Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins”…

And his hats are now touring the country, starting at the public library in New York City and travelling as far as Sausalito, California. Seuss had more than 150 hats, according to the curator of the Dr. Seuss art collection, and he told the San Francisco Chronicle that visitors will recognize them from their memories of the hats in his books. Fitting, the hats were hidden in a secret room behind a book shelf in his house in La Jolla.

And Dr. Seuss also had a second secret…

Unbeknownst to his reading public, Dr. Seuss also created a series of secret paintings, which he labored on privately to deliver ” elaborate works from the imagination”. The paintings are described as “compelling” by the curator of a new traveling exhibit, who described them as “midnight paintings” (created on the artist’s own time). Both the paintings and the hats give a better idea of the life of Dr. Seuss. And it also makes it seem like his life must’ve been a lot of fun.

For example, in 1937 his sister Marnie told one newspaper that ” I have seen him put on an impromptu show for guests, using the hats as costumes! He has kept a whole party in stitches just by making up a play with kitchen knives and spoons for actors…” And of course, he even worked his hobbies into some of his hobbies.

The second book he ever published was “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”