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25 Graphic Novelists Talk About Their Favorite Children’s Books

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This week is the 96th annual Children’s Book Week and, for the first time, they are making comics a focus. For the week's Children’s Choice Book Awards, six of the 35 finalists are graphic novels. This has already been a big year for kid’s comics, with graphic novels like This One Summer and El Deafo winning major children’s and Y.A. book awards like the Caldecott and Newbery, respectively.

I asked 25 authors of the most popular graphic novels for kids to tell us about the children’s book that has had the biggest effect on their life and work.

1. Raina Telgemeier on Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

"My favorite children’s book is Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. I saw the film it inspired (The Secret of NIMH) first, when I was five, and a year or two later my mom read me the chapter book. That was the first time I really grasped the concept of adaptation from one medium to another, and in this case, I thought the book was far superior! The characters had real emotional depth, and the story had a lot of morals to chew on. But first and foremost, the language in Mrs. Frisby is gorgeous and has really stuck with me. It’s a book I’ve read over and over again throughout the course of my life, and my love for it has only grown stronger with time.

- Raina Telgemeier
Raina is the author of the New York Times bestselling graphic novels SistersSmile, and the graphic novel adaptations of The Baby-Sitters Club series.

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2. Mariko Tamaki on Alligator Pie


"My favorite children's book is Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee.

I can't help but think your favorite has something to do with what was read to you when you were young. My mother and father read Alligator Pie to me when I was little. I think it grooved with their silly senses of humor, which is now my silly sense of humor. Also, there's something about Dennis Lee's writing, combined with Frank Newfeld's illustrations, that's strange and dreamy, which I love in poetry and children's lit."

- Mariko Tamaki
Mariko is the co-author of the Caldecott and Printz Honor-winning graphic novel This One Summer and the Ignatz Award-winning Skim.

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3. Mike Maihack on Where The Wild Things Are


"Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. The art. Even as a kid, the art really grabbed me. There was so much detail poured into these giant, amazing, yellow-eyed monsters partying with a small kid in a wolf suit. And he was their king! I loved how accepting the wild things were to Max (perhaps too much so, not wanting him to leave). If things got rough, this was a place both of us could go.

Now as an adult I still love the book. I read it to my three-year-old son. Part of me thinks, 'Man, why didn’t I think this was scary when I was his age?' An absurd notion since he’s just as into seeing the wild things roar their terrible roars and gnash their terrible teeth as I was."

- Mike Maihack
Mike is the author of the Cleopatra in Space series, book two of which is now available from the Scholastic Graphix line.

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4. Cece Bell on Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm


"My favorite children's book is a big, glorious picture book called Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen.

I got this book as a gift in 1975, very soon after a scary two-week stint in a hospital battling meningitis. I had just gotten my first hearing aids, and was visiting my grandmother in Fremont, NC. My uncle Wallace brought the book to Dot's house; he was dressed up that day for church and had taken his shoes off so that he could sit up on Dot's bed with me and read the book to me. Whether or not I understood what he was saying that day I don't remember—but those funny, sweet, and wonderful illustrations showing life on a farm took me away from all my recent troubles that day. The book showed me a completely different experience than my life in the city and it started a life-long fascination with simpler ways of living. I read and re-read that book over and over and over, always marveling in the inventory-like collection of farm animals and their unique quirks and individual stories. The full-spread illustration of Max the cat remains my favorite illustration in any book, ever.

I've revisited Our Animal Friends many times as an adult too. It's one of those rare picture books that reminds me of my kid self, while rewarding me with subtle nuances made clear only by life experience. I appreciate the book even more now than I did as a kid; the writing is perhaps some of the very best in its matter-of-fact but kind and sometimes silly tone, and the ending is so profoundly moving that I can barely think about it or type these words without tearing up."

- Cece Bell
Cece is the author of the Newbery Honor winning graphic novel El Deafo and the Geisel Honor winning children's book Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover.

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5. Chris Eliopoulos on The Giving Tree


"The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstien taught me about unconditional love. There’s something wonderfully simple in the tale and the execution. The simple line drawings and the tight dialogue really had an impact on me. I realize now that you can read into the story that the tree is a parent. As a child I didn’t get that, but after having my own kids, it’s crystal clear.

So, I loved the book for one reason as a child and a different one as an adult and that is the mark of genius. It has multiple meanings and new things can be discovered in its rereading."

- Chris Eliopoulos
Chris is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling Ordinary People Change the World series, the next book of which (I am Lucille Ball) will be in stores in July.

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6. Nilah Magruder on Snot Stew


“So this was really hard, but in the end I have to go with Snot Stew by Bill Wallace, the book I checked out multiple times from the school library and loved so much I never wanted to give it back (I did...I'm pretty sure I did). I was a kid growing up in the country with an older brother, and we were always playing outside and bringing home stray cats to tame. A story of two stray kittens who are adopted by a brother and sister? It was like it was written for me! It's kind of a quiet story, but I loved the focus on sibling relationships, the mischief both cats and kids get into, the origin of "snot stew," and the emotional arc. It's a cute, endearing book."

- Nilah Magruder
Nilah is the author of the Dwayne McDuffie Diversity Award-winning webcomic MFK and the upcoming picture book Fox Hunt.

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7. James Kochalka on Moominland Midwinter


"I read Moominland Midwinter as a child, but now I re-read it every winter to my own children. It’s vivd description of Moonintroll’s first experience with winter enhances our own experience with the bitter winters where we live, in Vermont. It has loneliness, fear, the joy of discovery, and even a great deal of humor and adventure. Also, Tove Jansson has a piercing ability to see into the truth of human nature and depict each character with extreme clarity and sensitivity. It’s a work of deep poetic genius and, although it may be written for children, I think it stands toe-to-toe against any adult novel."

- James Kochalka
James is the author of The Glorkian Warrior Delivers a Pizza, American Elf, Monkey Vs. Robot, and the SpongeFunnies in the SpongeBob Squarepants comics.

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8. Jorge Aguirre on I STINK!


"I wish my parents had read me a book like this when I was kid. I STINK! is so funny. It is so gross. It is so stinky. I absolutely love how the Garbage Truck takes such pride in his very smelly but very necessary work. Kate and Jim McMullan have a great message here, but it’s not a message book. The theme doesn’t hit you over the head. I suspect—I hope—that there is something on a subconscious level that my kids take from I STINK! about being proud of your work and defending your passion, no matter what others say. And besides, where would we be without trash trucks? We’d be, 'on Mount Trash-rama, baby!’"

- Jorge Aguirre
Jose is the co-author of Giants Beware! and its upcoming sequel Dragons Beware!

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9. Jeff Smith on Uncle Scrooge & Donald Duck

"I had many favorite books, but the ones that stayed with me, that I revisited year after year, were my comic books. Specifically Uncle Scrooge & Donald Duck when they were written and drawn by the incomparable Carl Barks. My other two favorites were newspaper strip collections of Peanuts by Charles Schulz, which I learned to read with, and Pogo by Walt Kelly.

Carl Barks, known among us kids as “the good duck artist,” had a distinctive style that set him apart from the other Donald Duck creators. In fact, he was probably the best artist and writer working in the entire field of comics. His stories were very different from the simple animated cartoons about a hot tempered duck, often taking Donald and his nephews around the world on fascinating adventures. The stories were longer, tightly plotted, and he had a way of moving the characters across the panels in a way that made them come to life in the readers' imagination. You always knew what one of his characters was thinking or worrying about. You cared what happened! Ingenious, clever, and funny, the Barks Duck Books are still available and published around the world. And they are as readable and immediate to me as an adult as they were when I first discovered them as a child."

- Jeff Smith
Jeff is the author of the multiple Eisner and Harvey Award-winning graphic novel series Bone.

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10. Andy Runton on How Spider Saved Halloween


"One of my favorite Children's books is How Spider Saved Halloween by Robert Kraus.
This book was huge for me! I had forgotten about it for a long, long time and found it recently at my mom's house. My little copy here from 1973 says it was 95 cents. It's a small (6.5" x 6.75"), unassuming softcover book that's very thin (32 pages), and I carried it around all over. There were lots of other books, but the drawing style for this one is simple and pure and it was easily accessible to me. My mom probably loved it because it was short and I loved the simple colors and the straightforward storytelling. Reading it again, I can really see how much it influenced me...and it's still as delightful and charming as I remember."
- Andy Runton
Andy is the author of the Eisner, Harevey, and Ignatz Award-winning Owly series.

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11. Noelle Stevenson on Andrew Henry's Meadow


"I remember being particularly enamored of Andrew Henry's Meadow by Doris Burn.

It's a story about a kid, a middle child of five (I'm also a middle child of five), who doesn't quite fit in with his family or they don't really understand him or appreciate his constant construction projects and inventions, so he runs away and builds himself his own perfect house in the meadow. All these other kids run away from THEIR families too and he builds all of them houses specially suited to their interests in the meadow with him. So it's this little commune of misfits living together in their own awesome houses away from their parents. I was obsessed with it. I had a lot of fantasies like that as a kid, of running away and building a place specially designed just for me, especially since, like Andrew Henry, I didn't really feel like I fit in with my family or that they quite understood me. And, like Andrew Henry, I liked being on my own, which is hard to come by in a family of seven, so this book was pretty much a tailor-made fantasy for me. I read it over and over. It's such a pleasant book. And at the end, all the families decide that they miss their children, and they're all reunited and Andrew Henry and his inventions are much more appreciated after that, OF COURSE.

I definitely had a bit of a martyr complex as a kid."

- Noelle Stevenson
Noelle is the author of the Cartoonist Studio Prize-winning webcomic Nimona and the co-author of Lumberjanes.

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12. Sholly Fisch on A Very Special House


"My favorite children’s book is A Very Special House, written by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

In a world filled with the likes of Dr. Seuss, mad tea parties, Encyclopedia Brown, and Harold’s purple crayon, picking just one favorite children’s book is kind of like choosing one color of a rainbow or deciding which end of a chocolate bar tastes best.  But, if I had to pick just one, this would be it. I’m a huge, lifelong fan of both Ruth Krauss (A Hole Is to Dig) and Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), and this book celebrates one of my favorite things: the joy and silliness of a child’s boundless imagination, all wrapped up in a monkey, giant, and lion-filled house that’s 'right in the middle, oh it’s ret in the meedle, oh it’s root in the moodle of my head head head.'  If I could write something that captures just a fraction of the whimsy and free spirit of A Very Special House, I’d be a very happy camper. My mother loved reading it to my sister and me when we were young, I loved reading it to my own kids years later, and when we came across our copy not too long ago, my now-teenage kids asked me to read it to them again. (Yes, of course I did.)"

- Sholly Fisch
Sholly is the writer of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Scooby-Doo Team-Up.

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13. Lucy Bellwood on The Eleventh Hour


"I came from a family of bookish writers and read voraciously as a kid, so choosing just one favorite feels impossible, but I've recently been thinking a lot about The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base (and, in a similar category, Puzzle Island by Paul Adshead). Both books were beautifully illustrated and contained cunning animal-based visual scavenger hunts and cryptographic mysteries that kept me engrossed for hours on end.

The Eleventh Hour was absolutely bursting with lavish detail that inspired me to start drawing my own animals in costumes and begin pursuing a healthy interest in codebreaking. The story centers around a group of creatures attending Horace the Elephant's 11th birthday party in his opulent mansion. When the centerpiece feast is prematurely devoured, the reader must decipher clues throughout the book to discover the culprit. There were word jumbles and easter eggs and mirror writing and one hundred and eleven hidden mice to pinpoint amongst the endless architectural details and costume components.

I loved this book because there was always something more to discover and I didn't feel like I was being talked down to. Getting the right degree of difficulty in a mystery is a delicate art, and I felt like I was genuinely accomplishing things when I sussed another clue from the visual content. It's something I think about a lot in the work I'm doing on Cartozia Tales right now—it's an all-ages title, and I want there to be something that will challenge readers at every level, whether it's a new vocabulary term or a mind-bending puzzle. Hard work, but worth it."

- Lucy Bellwood
Lucy is one of the contributors to Cartozia Tales and self-publishes the educational comic Baggywrinkles.

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14. Eleanor Davis on Finn Family Moomintroll


"There are too many to have a favorite, but I love and have read and re-read Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson more times than I can count.

It is goofy and joyful and uncompromising. It's modern and old-fashioned. It's rambling and illogical with a lot of—but not too much—magic. It's the funniest and happiest book in an odd, heartbreaking series that lets you into the author's heart in a way a lot of kids' books do not. And the illustrations, by Jansson herself, are perfect—dense black-and-white line-work worlds to lose yourself in, populated with the lively, bouncing, scuttling characters you're having the pleasure of reading about."

- Eleanor Davis
Eleanor is the author of the Geisel Award-winning children's graphic novel Stinky and the New York Times bestselling graphic novel How To Be Happy.

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15. Rafael Rosado on Ten Minutes till Bedtime


"A favorite at my house when my girls were little was Ten Minutes till Bedtime, by Peggy Rathmann (her Goodnight Gorilla was a favorite, too).

I have really sweet memories of my wife and I reading this book to my kids, we made a huge production out of it, probably stretched it out to longer than ten minutes! We'd get lost in the illustrations, each spread was so incredibly detailed, so much going on. We found new things every time. I love a book that brings surprises every time you read it!"

- Rafael Rosado
Rafael is the co-author of Giants Beware! and its upcoming sequel Dragons Beware!

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16. Faith Erin Hicks on Vesper Holly


“My favorite book (actually a series) as a kid was the Vesper Holly series by Lloyd Alexander. There are six books total, but I recommend stopping at the fifth book, The Philadelphia Adventure, as the sixth book is a bit weaksauce.

I was super into the Vesper Holly series when I was eleven years old. I was a very dorky eleven year old. I was home-schooled, my family didn't have a TV, and my career aspirations were things like pro baseball player (even though I didn't play baseball), wild horse tamer (I was super into horses), and joining the X-men (still waiting for that acceptance letter, Prof. X). Vesper was someone I wanted to be when I was 17. She went on adventures, saved the world, did battle with her own personal arch-nemesis, and everyone she met (except for her arch-nemesis) thought she was amazing. She was everything I wanted from a heroine when I was a socially awkward, out-of-the-pop-culture-loop eleven year old. She wasn't a particularly complex character, and neither were her adventures, but at that one moment in time, she was everything to me. I resolved myself to become exactly like her when I turned 17.

Instead, I became a cartoonist, and my adventures mostly revolve around meeting deadlines. My arch-nemesis is my cat, who always wants to be in my lap when I'm working. I don't get to save the world, but I get to make stories myself, like Vesper's creator, Lloyd Alexander. So that's a pretty good trade off. (I'd still like to join the X-men, though.)"

- Faith Erin Hicks
Faith is the author of Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong and the Eisner Award-winning The Adventures of Superhero Girl.

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17. Britt Wilson on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


“I guess if I had to choose from so many favorites, it would have to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl illustrated by Joseph Schindelman. My Dad read this book to me and my little brother a chapter or two a night, over and over and over. He must have been so sick of it, but there was something about those tight, squirrelly little black and white illustrations. Plus, I think you really can't go wrong with my sweet tooth and a story set in a candy factory. I'm expecting my own child this spring, and despite multiple readings, my copy is still almost pristine. I can't wait to curl up in a chair and read it to my own son or daughter. I don't mind at all if I have to read it over and over and over."

- Britt Wilson
Britt is the author of Cat Dad, King of the Goblins.

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18. Ben Hatke on Rotten Island


"It's hard to pick favorites, but one of the picture books I loved most growing up was Rotten Island by William Steig. It's about an island that is the worst place you can imagine. It has volcanoes that spout lava AND poisoned arrows AND double-headed toads. The island is also full of an endless variety of creatures (some had wheels for legs!) that delight in being bad. The island is thrown into chaos one day when a flower grows there.

I loved it for many reasons, but one reason it was so special to me was that I didn't have a copy of my own. It was at a friend’s house and every time I went over there I would try to sneak away with the book for a few minutes.

The story was also, in my mind, a heartbreaking tragedy. The book explicitly says that the creatures 'loved their rotten life,' but in the end the creatures are driven mad by the flowers and they all kill each other and the island becomes a beautiful paradise. But all those wonderful monsters, who had been so happy being rotten, are gone."

- Ben Hatke
Ben is the author of the New York Times bestselling Zita the Spacegirl and the upcoming Little Robot.

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19. Aron Nels Steinke on The Snowy Day


"The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats immediately burrowed its way to my heart the first time it was read to me as a young child. I have memories of red-suited Peter, with his pointy red hat and mittens, smacking the snow covered tree along with my own early memories of playing in the snow intertwined. They're inseparable. The book captures the magic and transformative power of snow on a child's landscape like no other book I've ever read. The illustrations are at the same time bold, expressive, and deceptively simple. The Snowy Day is a masterpiece and will always be closest to my heart."

- Aron Nels Steinke
Aron is the co-author of The Zoo Box.

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20. Kazu Kibuishi on The Caboose Who Got Loose

"This is an incredibly difficult question to answer! Thankfully, there is one book that I read as a kid that I not only loved, but it also inspired me to draw, so I think I have to choose it. That one book is The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet.

When I was just beginning to learn how to draw and write stories, The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet, Garfield by Jim Davis, and the cartoons of Mort Drucker in MAD Magazine were my biggest influences, and it’s amazing to see how much of those influences appear in the work I do today. As a kid, I was obsessed with finding ways to draw things that looked like they could jump off the page, and it was mostly Bill Peet and Mort Drucker's work that really showed me how immersive cartoons can be. I still see images of Katy Caboose in my head when I draw trains and vehicles. These days I read Bill Peet books to my son, who absolutely loves them!"

- Kazu Kibuishi
Kazu is the author of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel series Amulet.

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21. David Gallaher on Bridge to Terabithia


"For my tenth birthday, my parents gave me a copy of Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. I don't quite remember what prompted me to devour the book so quickly, I guess I thought I'd level up as a reader or something when I completed it. I finished the whole thing in three days; so in retrospect, I think I did. Beyond having a childhood crush on Leslie Burke and trying to 'behave more like a king' in my own backyard makeshift version of Terabithia, I was taken in by how much I was similar to the main character Jesse. I had hoped for very different things in the book. I was 'shipping' Leslie and Jesse Terabithia fanfiction before that was even a thing. At ten, Leslie Burke was the kinda girl that I thought I'd want to marry (seriously, I wasn't kidding about the crush)—but I discovered a different sort of crush when I got to the end. I was heart-broken for days. What stuck with me about the story, and the reason why it stays with me, is...that...despite its tragic ending, there was still wonder, hope, and imagination that continued to shine even after the book ended.

No matter what happens, we can't let those things die."

- David Gallaher
David is the co-author of The Only Living Boy.

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22. Chris Schweizer on True Grit


"My favorite children’s book is True Grit by Charles Portis. It’s the first-person account of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s journey into the Oklahoma territory to capture her father’s killer. It may not be widely considered a kids’ book, but I give copies to kids (late elementary and up) whenever I have the opportunity.  It’s great for girls and for boys, very funny, strongly rooted in a sense of history, exciting, and, best of all, masterfully written.

If you’ve never read it, forget your expectations and give it a try; it’s a genuine classic up there with Anne of Green GablesHuck Finn, and Sounder, and is downright fun to read. It’s a book that deserves a wider audience among youngsters (especially in educational settings), and, more importantly, those youngsters deserve a book as good as this one."

- Chris Schweizer
Chris is the author of The Crogan Adventures and the upcoming The Creeps.

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23. Nathan Jurevicius on SprĪdĪtis


"SprĪdĪtis, written by Anna Brigadere and illustrated by Evalds Dajevskis, was given to me by my Latvian and Lithuanian grandparents and the edition I have was printed in 1973 (the year I was born).

The writing focuses on the underdog hero, SprĪdĪtis, a young boy and his battle with mythological Baltic nature spirits and gods. There's an aspect of this theme in much of my story telling, in particular the lone, seemingly insignificant character changing the world.

Illustrator Evalds Dajevskis' use of color and environmental design has also shaped the way I approach composition and light."

- Nathan Jurevicius 
Nathan is the author of the upcoming graphic novel Junction.

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24. John Martz on Alligator Pie


"Alligator Pie, a book of poems by Dennis Lee with pictures by Frank Newfeld, published in 1974. It's a book I have the earliest memories of reading and trying to decipher. Most of the poems are short and nonsensical like nursery rhymes or playground songs. Like a lot of nursery rhymes, logic comes second to rhythm, repetition, and evocative imagery, so the poems are playful and musical and strange. Dennis Lee would go on to write most of the songs for Fraggle Rock, including the catchy theme. 

It's a book, too, that is unabashedly Canadian. I live in Toronto, but I didn't grow up here. As a kid I was fascinated by Toronto, and I think Alligator Pie helped mythologize the city—the poems casually reference Canadian places and imagery without being poems about those things ("Someday I'll go to Winnipeg to win a peg-leg pig"), including many Toronto street names and landmarks like the CN Tower and Casa Loma. And of course I was drawn to the illustrations by Frank Newfeld, which are somewhat psychedelic—graphic line drawings with vibrant, unnatural colours. The images are pieces of graphic design as much as they are drawings, and some of the full-page illustrations are almost like comics the way they are divided into different panels and tableaus.

Alligator Pie is in my blood. I've read it countless times, and I'll read it countless more. It taught me how to play with the rhythm and the structure of words, and it instilled in me a sense of the bizarre—nursery rhymes don't have to make any sense for them to make perfect sense."

- John Martz
John is the author of A Cat Named Tim And Other Stories, Machine Gum, and Destination X.

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25. Ariel Cohn on Harold and the Purple Crayon


"Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson, was my favorite book as a young child. As an adult, an author, and the mother of a young child who loves story time, the book's simplicity and sparse illustrations still manage to capture my attention and lead me through Harold's imaginative wanderings. There is not a wasted line or word in the entire book, and even though it is obviously very imaginative, it takes itself quite seriously, which I think is important; children need to feel that their fantasy lives are valid and serious affairs. I know I felt that way as a child. The book portrays the characteristics of a young child: sometimes simple, sometimes serious, sometimes extravagant (who needs nine kinds of pie at a picnic?), often silly, and occasionally lonely and ready for bed. Harold and the Purple Crayon captures all of this in just a few simple sentences and basic line drawings. I don't know of another book that accomplishes this task so well."

-Ariel Cohn
Ariel is the co-author of The Zoo Box.

Special thanks to Gina Gagliano of First Second for her help in facilitating this article. 

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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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