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The Purple Crayon and the Red Scare: More Than a Children’s Story

Evening Program

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 - 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. ET
Code: 1W0067
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)
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(Book cover by Chris Ware)

Crockett Johnson (born David Johnson Leisk, 1906­–1975) and Ruth Krauss (1901–1993) were a husband-and-wife team that created such popular children's books as The Carrot Seed and How to Make an Earthquake. Johnson’s best-known solo works are the enduring children's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon, published in 1955, and the groundbreaking comic strip Barnaby (1942­–1952). Krauss wrote more than a dozen children's books illustrated by others, collaborating eight times with Maurice Sendak to produce titles that include A Hole Is to Dig and A Very Special House.

Together, Johnson and Krauss's style—whimsical writing, clear and minimalist drawing, and a child's point of view—is among the most revered and influential in children's literature and cartooning. Acclaimed by critics and loved by readers, the couple’s work also drew attention from another quarter in the 1950s: the FBI. Defiantly leftist in an era of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, Krauss and Johnson became the targets of surveillance and investigations during this rabidly anti-Communist era.

Drawing on his dual biography Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (University Press of Mississippi), Philip Nel tells a true story of art, publishing, politics, and the power of the imagination.

Nel is a scholar of children’s literature and a University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University. He is co-editor of the first complete collection of Barnaby comic strips, an extended, multi-volume project of Fantagraphics Books.

The program is underwritten by the Irving M. Gorbach Charitable Foundation.

Smithsonian Connections

From 1965 until his death in 1975, Crockett Johnson painted more than 100 works relating to mathematics and mathematical physics. Of these paintings, 80 are in the collections of the American History Museum. Take a look at a digital gallery, presented along with related diagrams from the artist’s library and papers.