Crockett Johnson was born October 20, 1906 in New York City and grew up on Long Island. His real name was David Johnson Leisk but used Crockett (a childhood nickname) Johnson as his pen name.
Rather like Gaul, the career of Crockett Johnson was divided into three parts; as cartoonist, children’s author/illustrator, and as artist with significant accomplishments in each. He attended Cooper Union for his education, studying art, and then undertook a series of jobs eventually ending up as art editor for a series of magazines.
The first chapter of his career became established in the early 1930’s. From 1934 to 1940 he wrote political cartoons for a magazine, New Masses (yes, it was a left leaning magazine). From 1940 to 1943 he moved on from editorial cartoons to a daily comic strip, The Little Man with the Eyes. In April 1942 appeared one of his two master creations. Barnaby was a daily comic strip produced for the magazine PM and ran under Johnson’s authorship through 1946. The strip continued under the authorship of others until 1952 but under Johnson’s storyline supervision with Johnson returning to author the final strip in early 1952.
For those of us primarily familiar with Johnson as a children’s author, it is a little difficult to appreciate just how significant this first part of his career as a cartoonist was. These editorial and strip cartoons were not minor dabblings. His comic strips were syndicated in several dozen papers with an aggregate circulation of 5.6 million readers. Over the course of the next twenty years there were numerous spin-offs from the Barnaby comic strip including book collections of the strips, two different plays, a film, and some TV shows.
Looking at these strips though, it is easy to see them as progenitors of the Harold series. Both the little man with the eyes as well as Barnaby bare a close resemblance to Harold as do all three to Johnson himself (bald and claiming that he drew people without hair because “it’s so much easier! Besides, to me, people with hair look funny”).
In 1940 Johnson married the children’s authoress, Ruth Krauss. Having grown up on the Long Island Sound, Johnson was a keen sailor and they lived most of their life in Connecticut on the north shore of the Sound.
Johnson’s first foray into children’s literature was as the illustrator of his wife’s classic, The Carrot Seed. His first book as author illustrator was Who’s Upside Down? in 1952. In all he produced twenty-one children’s book for which he was the author and illustrator, one book that he co-wrote with Ruth Krauss and seven other children’s books which he illustrated (including one, very interestingly, by Margaret Wise Brown).
Johnson is, however, primarily known for the Harold series of which there were seven published in his lifetime and an eighth that was published posthumously in 2005 based on an original draft version he had prepared. Please see the TTMD review of Harold and the Purple Crayon for a detailed review of the first in the series. It is perhaps best summarized by observing that while the drawings are very simple and stylized, they are enormously effective, particularly when wedded to the text which playfully interweaves the words of the story with what is happening in the pictures. They are very gentle but highly creative stories and are commonly loved by young children (3-6).
In addition to the Harold series, I would also point out Ellen’s Lion which is drawn in a similar simple style but which is pitched at a slightly older child and has, I think, a wonderful balance of a child’s view of things with a dry and gently ascerbic perspective from her toy lion.
Be aware that there are a series of spin-off versions of Harold that are neither written nor drawn by Johnson. These include; Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Birthday Present, Harold and the Purple Crayon: The Giant Garden, Harold and the Purple Crayon: Animals, Animals, Animals, Harold and the Purple Crayon: Harold Finds a Friend, Harold and the Purple Crayon: Dinosaur Days, Harold and the Purple Crayon: Under the Sea. I have an overwhelming preference for the original stories by the original artist but if your child just has to have more Harold than is available in the original seven, then these can serve as literary hamburger helper.
In the mid 1960’s Johnson transitioned to his third career, writing no further children’s books after 1965. For a number of years, Johnson had pursued painting as a hobby. In the last ten years of his life he pursued painting as his primary activity with a number of exhibitions in galleries and museums. His painting was characterized by size and dramatic coloring of geometric shapes.
Johnson passed in 1975 of lung cancer. While I believe his artwork will become merely an interesting footnote, and even Barnaby will fade, I suspect Crockett Johnson has a long run of authorial mortality yet, with both Harold and Ellen as his progeny.
Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley (1944)
The Carrot Seed (1945) by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Crockett Johnson
Who's Upside Down? (1952)
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) by Crockett Johnson
Is This You? (1955), co-written with Ruth Krauss
Barkis: Some precise and some speculative interpretations of the meaning of a dog's bark at certain times and in certain (illustrated) circumstances (1956)
Harold's Fairy Tale (Further Adventures of with the Purple Crayon) (1956) by Crockett Johnson
The Little Fish That Got Away (1956) by Bernadine Cook and illustrated by Crockett Johnson
Harold's Trip to the Sky (1957) by Crockett Johnson
Terrible, Terrifying Toby (1957)
Time for Spring (1957)
Harold at the North Pole (1957) by Crockett Johnson (1958)
The Blue Ribbon Puppies (1958)
Ellen's Lion: Twelve Stories (1959) by Crockett Johnson
The Frowning Prince (1959)
Harold's Circus (1959) by Crockett Johnson
Will Spring Be Early? or Will Spring Be Late? (1959)
A Picture for Harold's Room (1960) by Crockett Johnson
Harold's ABC (1963) by Crockett Johnson
The Lion's Own Story: Eight New Stories about Ellen's Lion (1963)
We Wonder What Will Walter Be? When He Grows Up (1964)
Castles in the Sand (1965), illus. by Betty Fraser
The Emperor's Gifts (1965)
Gordy and the Pirate and the Circus Ringmaster and the Knight and the Major League Manager and the Western Marshal and the Astronaut; and a Remarkable Achievement. (1965)
The Happy Egg by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Crockett Johnson
Barnaby #1: Wanted, A Fairy Godfather (1985)
Barnaby #2: Mr. O'Malley and the Haunted House (1985)
Barnaby #3: Jackeen J. O'Malley for Congress (1986)
Barnaby #4: Mr. O'Malley Goes for the Gold (1986)
Barnaby #5: Mr. O'Malley, Wizard of Wall Street (1986)
Barnaby #6: J.J. O'Malley Goes Hollywood (1986)
Magic Beach by Crockett Johnson