Book Report #1: Harold and the Purple Crayon

I read a lot of kids books these days. H can sometimes go through a dozen or more books a day, easy. As I read these books with him for the umpteenthed time, I occupy myself by thinking about them as metaphors. In fact, the best children’s books always function on symbolic levels beyond the illustrations and simple texts. I’ve always wanted to discuss the literary virtues and pitfalls of some of the best children’s books out there. (This means I would love to hear your thoughts on these books, too.)

My first pick for the Book Report series is Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (not his real name.)

Definitely one of H’s favorites. It was first published nearly 60 years ago. The illustrations are highly stylized, extremely simple line drawings in purple and black, no shading, no coloring in. If you haven’t read the story it’s about a kid named Harold who draws his world using a large purple crayon and midway into his walk in the moonlight, he gets tired and wants to go to bed, which he can’t seem to find.

Magical stuff.

But it takes an existential, atheistic, heartbreaking turn at the end.

After looking for his window by drawing buildings and even a city full of windows, what Harold realizes is that his safe, comforting bedroom can’t be found by looking for his window by searching for it from the outside. He only “finds” it when he draws his window from the inside. His window is his view from within, not something that he can see from without. It’s then that he draws his bed, draw his covers, and falls asleep.

Harold drawing up his covers in Harold and the Purple Crayon
Harold drawing up his covers.

I remember getting to this conclusion and feeling hollow, like hearing the echo of the stone you throw down a deep well finally landing on the bottom. You get to the bottom of things. But rather than satisfaction, you’re left with a clear ping that leaves you feeling ambivalent.

It was like the time when I realized that the world did not function independent from me to give my life meaning. There was no meaning out there. There was no god that laid out for me or anyone else how to live our lives or provide principles by which to live it. There was no moral center beyond my own conscience. Stories that gave meaning to my life were not to be discovered but to be created by me. I was the chef, the tailor, the handyman, the policeman, the judge. My life was a function of my imagination. Just like Harold’s. It gave me clarity and independence. And it gave me loneliness.

Harold draws a policeman and asks him for directions.
Harold draws a policeman and asks him for directions.

Should have seen it coming, too. Remember how Harold creates a policeman to ask for directions? The guy just ends up pointing in the direction Harold intended to go anyway. Like attributing morality to God, the drawing of a policeman to ask for direction seems to work as a metaphor for how humans created God as a guide, a lifecoach. But, the book says, aren’t the rules of most gods more than less how we would live anyways? Don’t murder. Don’t covet your neighbor’s wife. Listen to your parents. Don’t steal. Don’t be an asshole. Sure, you might change your mind about these things, but most regular people tend to hold these moral tenets to themselves and others as practical guidelines to live by. And like religion and God, whatever yours happens to be, Harold’s policeman just ends up pointing Harold the way Harold was going to go anyway.

So when Harold finally figures out how to find home, which is to essentially project his mind eye onto his blank, white world using his purple crayon, home was always wherever he wanted it to be. It was in his head all along. More than that, it was only in his head. Ping.

This is existentialism in purple: the individual’s, or Harold’s in our case, starting point is characterized by disorientation and confusion–Harold falls into an ocean (of his making), slips off a mountain and falls through nothingness. The world is meaningless and absurd–a forest with one tree and a city full of windows where nobody lives. The fact that it can be created by a purple crayon is itself meaningless and absurd. Kierkegaard said that each person, not society or religion, is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely. That’s exactly what Harold does–making a picnic on the beach with nine of his favorite pies, drawing an apple tree laden with ripe promise.

It’s a perspective at once liberating and lonely, which is probably why I feel sorry at the end of the book. Loneliness is a fact of existence that H will inevitably have to come to terms with but a fact I sort of wish he could avoid.

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