NoteThe Crockett Johnson Homepage is an archived site.  The links below almost certainly do not work.  If you want to see where they once led, try copying the links and entering them into The Wayback Machine.

Likewise, the text below is neither current nor being updated.

— Philip Nel, 1 Feb. 2022

Critics Respond to Crockett Johnson’s Work

Critical and creative commentary on Johnson and his characters — at present, the page focuses primarily on Barnaby and Harold. The entries are arranged in chronological order. For secondary sources on Johnson and his work, see the “About” section of the Bibliography.

Dear Editor:      

Please tell Crockett Johnson to thank Mr. O’Malley on my behalf for coming out as an Ellington fan. That makes the admiration mutual.

       I hope my music isn’t responsible for getting Barnaby into more trouble — which, judging from today’s (Nov. 25) strip, seems dangerously likely. Anyway, if it will help, you can tell Barnaby that I believe in Mr. O’Malley — solidly.

— Duke Ellington, letter to PM, 1 December 1942

I think, and I’m trying to talk calmly, that Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American arts and letters in Lord knows how many years.

— Dorothy Parker, letter to PM, 3 October 1943. Reprinted as the introduction to Barnaby #4 (Del Rey, 1986) and in Barnaby, Vol. 1: 1942-1943 (Fantagraphics, 2013). Often quoted, including in the New York Times, 13 July 1975.

Compared to the grisly realism of most modern cartoon strips, Crockett Johnson’s “Barnaby” comes across as a breath of sweet, cool air.

— Life, 4 Oct. 1943

Barnaby and his attendant sprites are the funniest high comedy since Aristophanes and Thurber. I was tempted to say that Crockett Johnson had created a metropolitan Midsummer Night’s Dream except that Johnson’s elves, ghosts, leprechauns, and gnomes are much more plausible than Shakespeare‘s. The book is one of the most completely seductive books of humor I have ever enjoyed.

— Louis Untermeyer, dust jacket to Barnaby (1943); first and last sentences qtd. on dust jacket to Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley (1944); first sentence qtd. in Newsweek, 4 Oct. 1943

A series of comic strips which, laid end to end, reach from here to wherever you want to go just once before you die.

— Isabelle Mallet, New York Times, qtd. on dust jacket to Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley (1944)

Barnaby is a whiz.

— W. C. Fields, dust jacket to Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley (1944)

One of the most quietly fey and edgy comic strips in the U.S.

— Time, 18 Sept. 1944

Dear Dave:

       The dummy of Harold and the Purple Crayon came this morning, and I’ve just read it. I don’t know what to say about it. It doesn’t seem to be a good children’s book to me but I’m often wrong — and this post-Children’s Book Week Monday finds me dead in the head. I’d probably pass up Tom Sawyer today. Let me keep the dummy a few days, will you?

— Ursula Nordstrom, letter to Crockett Johnson, 22 November 1954. From Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, p. 83. Later, Ms. Nordstrom changed her mind.

Ellen’s temperament, though not her appearance, may have something of Christopher Robin about it, but her lion is no Pooh. A tougher-minded, more unsentimental stuffed beast it would be hard to find. Crockett Johnson has pictured a wonderful brown floppy lion and an Ellen belonging to the Harold Purple-Crayon family to illustrate his subtle and masterly little tales which will entertain imaginative little children, with their swift changes of points of views and their looking-glass logic that is so devastatingly true but sounds like nonsense.

— review of Ellen’s Lion, New York Herald Tribune, 1959

Barnaby was an artistic masterpiece. It contained some of the cleverest and most literate writing in comics and was extremely engaging. In the best tradition of comics since Opper, Johnson created a clever situation — a device, a basic conflict — and worked variations upon it. His characters were real, his humor very much in the tradition of his idols Benchley and Capra: zany but never out of hand, broad but always sophisticated. This experimental presentation was so unique and appropriate that it has never been employed since by any other artist.

— Richard Marschall, in The World Encyclopedia of Comics, edited by Maurice Horn (1976)

Barnaby is a wonderfully gentle and imaginative story. Crockett Johnson’s simple line rendering and classic story sense make Barnaby an entertaining feature, not just from a historic point of view but for today as well.

— Jim Davis, blurb inlcuded on Barnaby #s 1-4, 6 (1985-86)

Given my choice I would much prefer J.J. O’Malley as my cigar-smoking godfather over Don Corleone. Barnaby and his legendary crew are truly classic American whimsy.

— Bil Keane, blurb inlcuded on Barnaby #s 1-4, 6 (1985-86)

Barnaby was one of the great comic strips of all time.

— Charles M. Schulz, blurb included on Barnaby, #s 1-6 (1985-86).

In a little more than a year after its modest debut, the strip [Barnaby] was in syndication with a growing list of major newspapers. It had been reprinted in a handsome hardcover book and was being raved about by such mainstream periodicals as TimeNewsweek, and Life, which called it “a breath of cool, sweet air.”

       The strip that generated all this excited response was unlike anything that had ever popped up on comic pages. Johnson’s drawing style, inspired by the simple and effective work of men like Gluyas Williams, accomplished a great deal with just outline and flat backs. There was no noodling, feathering, or shading to be seen, and Johnson relied almost entirely on medium and long shots. Everything — people, animals, trees, buildings, automobiles — was drawn flat and dimensionless. He achieved a feeling of perspective the way a paper cutout diorama does.

— The Encyclopedia of American Comics, edited by Ron Goulart (1990)

Is there anyone who grew up in the late forties or fifties who doesn’t treasure the memory of the fresh, bubbling nonsense nonsense of [Ruth Krauss’] I Can Fly and the somber, ethereal shades and biblical rhythms of [Krauss’] Charlotte and the White Horse and the supreme inventiveness of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon (Harold and Charlotte were published the same year, 1955) and all the other Krauss and Johnson masterpieces?

— Maurice Sendak, The Horn Book Magazine, May-June 1994

My favorite book as a child was Is This You? by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. Interestingly enough, it is essentially a guide for making a book of your own. I was lucky enough to own that book and I still have it. It is as important to me now as it was to me when I was a child. Other favorite books of mine included The Carrot Seed, also by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson.

— Kevin Henkes, Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey (1995)

HomeArts: Do you remember some of the books that were important to you as a child? 

Van Allsburg: The book I remember most clearly is Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. It’s memorable to me for two reasons. First for its theme, which has to do with the power of imagination, the ability to create things with your imagination. And second, there was something mysterious about the book’s method that made it unforgettable to me. It contains — what shall I say? — a fairly elusive idea, but presents it so succinctly through these simple drawings that it registers very clearly.

— Chris Van AllsburgHomeArtsBooks I Remember (1995)

In the Salon magazine of December 1995, five children’s authors and illustrators were asked to name favorite children’s books. William Joyce produced a list that included Harold and the Purple Crayon at the top. Jon Scieszka mentioned The Carrot Seed in his list.

Question: Who is your favorite cartoon character? 

Michael Kamen: There were characters named Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley, created by a man named Crockett Johnson. I liked Mr. O’Malley (he was a fairy godfather with pink wings and a cigar).

— Michael Kamen: Interview at AppleMasters (1997)

The current vogue in children’s art books begs the cultural question: Do we look at art to learn things, or to feel things? I’d vote for feeling, and that’s why the art book I most recommend is Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson (HarperCollins, paper, $4.95; ages 2 and up), which came out in 1955. To be sure, it isn’t officially a children’s art book, at least not by current standards; it makes no reference to Monet or water lillies, and it doesn’t include a glossary where you can look up art terms like “gouache” or “chiaroscuro.”       No, nothing as fancy or as pedagogical as that. There’s just little Harold in his pajamas, heading out on an ordinary night to draw a line that runs on forever, a line that forms a moon to light his steps and a path to walk on and nine kinds of pie to eat — as if one well-worn, stubby crayon could allow you to dream up a whole universe. Which of course it can. There’s no better art history lesson than that.

— Deborah Solomon, “Beyond Finger Paint,” New York Times Book Review 17 May 1998
I could follow, step by step, the slow disclosure
of a pineapple Jell-O mold -- or take
the path of Harold's purple crayon through
the bedroom window and onto a lavender
spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle
and smell wisdom, put out a hand to touch
the rough curve of bound leather,
the harsh parchment of dreams.

-- Rita Dove, from "Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967," On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999).

All of Johnson’s text and artwork is © by the Ruth Krauss Foundation. Likewise, the quotations on this page are © by their authors or publishers. The rest of these pages are © 1998-2022 by Philip Nel.