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Monday, July 9, 2012

Harold and the Purple Crayon: Deciphering Reality

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
Harper, 1955
Our edition: HarperCollins, 2005
This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Jayme Johnson and Claire Bartholome, and translated by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

The story
Harold thinks it over for some time before deciding to go for a walk in the moonlight. 

This may seem unremarkable, but it is not. There is no moon. There is nothing to walk on. There is nowhere to go. The only things that are real are Harold and the purple crayon. So he decides to get drawing.  

The Philosophy in the Story
The overarching theme of Harold and the Purple Crayon is deciphering reality. As an oddly ambiguous and usually assumed idea, the discussion of “reality” will throw the children into a fun and active topsy-turvy discussion of what it means to be real, and how one gives objects the power of reality. In a world represented by a blank page, Harold is free to draw his surroundings with his big purple crayon. Is Harold making-believe? Is that different from what is real? The questions in this set revolve around the children’s perception of reality.  Harold interacts with his drawings in a very “real” way.

What makes something real real? 

The first question in this set addresses a secondary character that follows Harold throughout the story: the moon. The idea of the moon as a constant in the night sky is one children tend to agree with. What complicates this situation however is the fact that when the moon is absent in Harold’s world, he draws it with his purple crayon above him in the “sky”. This is left the children to question the validity or reality of Harold’s world. If Harold can draw a moon in the sky, it seems that he could not possibly be existing in the “real” world. And furthermore, he must simply be pretending because, as the children may point out, no one could draw a “real” moon in the sky. Or could they? What makes the moon we observe any more “real” than Harold’s moon? 
Question set 1. When Harold notices the moon is missing from his walk, he uses his purple crayon to draw a moon in the sky.
  • Is the moon that Harold draws the same as the moon we can see in the sky at night?
  • Which moon is the "real" moon?
  • What makes it "real"?

Does fear of something make that something real? 

The second and third question sets revolve around Harold’s experience. As the questions in the second set indicate, Harold seems to be in danger during part of the story, he may even be afraid of the objects he draws. For some of the children this may indicate a level of reality that is not at first apparent. To have feelings either sensory or emotional about an object indicates that the object holds some form of power over its observer. This power is translated to designate a level of “reality” as compared to the surrounding world. 

Then the task is outlining the differences or definitions that make something real. These qualities in Harold’s drawings further blur the line between what is presumably the “real” world outside of the story. When Harold falls from the hill that he climbs, and when he stumbles into the ocean he has drawn, it seems as though his life is seriously in danger. This fear is a form of power Harold has passively given to his drawings. 

On the other hand, one may ask if that gives the ocean or the rock the physical reality to harm Harold. Physical reality and the scientific properties therein sometimes indicate a kind of absolute reality that is independent of Harold. The children can then begin to question the idea that if an observer were not around, objects would still exist. Physical properties seem to give objects a sense of absolute reality. However, most people will never see a tree at a purely molecular level, they will see a tree as brown and green, using subjective measurements within each individual. The kids will then be able to draw their own connections about whether believing in something, or fearing it, gives it reality for the observer and thus an absolute reality independent of the observer. 
Question set 2. When Harold falls into the "ocean" that he draws, do you think his life is in danger, do you think he could drown?
  • Do you think Harold is afraid of the ocean?
  • Does his fear make the drawing more "real"?
  • Do emotions and beliefs make things real?
Are dreams real? 
In the third question set, the conclusions from the second set can again be reevaluated. Although the emotions or physical danger Harold may feel could be classified as “real”, where do they exist?  In this stage, the children can begin to question the idea that Harold could be dreaming this entire world that he depicts.  If Harold is dreaming all of this, it seems easier to swallow, we as an audience can attribute these “fantasies” to something we know and also experience.  However, the next step in the debate is a discussion of the reality of dreams. Are dreams “real” in the way we have previously defined the term (see question set 1)? The children may choose then to reevaluate their definition of “real”. 
The boat seems to save Harold from drowning.  Do you think that what is happening to Harold is real?
  • Are the things happening to Harold in his mind or somewhere else?
  • Could it be that everything happening to Harold is a dream?
  • Are dreams real?
Can you make an accident happen?

In the fourth question set, we begin to discuss the idea of Harold as a character in these drawings. If these are Harold’s drawings and they belong to him, could accidents happen within them? In this way the students will continue to discuss and stretch the reality of Harold’s world. The role of ownership in the story is undefined in the story and in the lives of the children themselves. Do people have control over the events that occur in their lives, are they purely accidental, or can they be attributed to another force?  The students can describe Harold’s accidents and relate them to their own in a connection that will help them to understand the concept universally. 
When Harold steps over the edge of the mountain, he begins to fall through the air.  Do you think that it was an accident?
  • Did Harold know that was going to happen to him?
  • Can there be accidents in Harold's world even if he's drawing them?
  • Can you make an accident happen?
As seen in the fifth question set, Harold also is subject to being lost in his own drawing, lost in the world he created. He travels for a long and perilous journey to find his bedroom window and when he finally does, it is questionable whether he even needed to walk through the cities of windows to find his own at all. If this crayon gives Harold the power to create his bedroom anywhere then it is curious why he is so intent on searching for his “real” window. Being so submerged in one’s own creations gives them the ultimate sense of power and reality because at this point of the story as Harold frantically searches for his window, there is the sense that Harold cannot escape the world he has created even if he would want to. The idea of transcending reality seems like it would generally be too “heavy” for children to understand, but through Harold’s story, it becomes possible that we are all existing in a world we have created and cannot escape from. This leads the children to question the world “outside” of Harold’s world. They can compare themselves with Harold and thus apply his story to their own existence.

 If Harold is drawing his own world, why does it take him so long to find his window?
  • Do you think Harold could get lost in the world he is drawing? 
  • Could he be imagining that he is lost? 
  • What does it mean to be lost? 

In a kind of climax of the question sets, the children are forced to address an event common to their own lives and understand the role of reality in it. All the children are likely to relate to Harold’s nine-pie picnic.  However, in the illustration and description of the book, it is glaringly obvious that Harold is drawing the pies in one moment and then has supposedly eaten them in another. This picnic is reminiscent of a make-believe tea party that you throw for you and your stuff animals to enjoy. In this case it is a hungry moose and a deserving porcupine that interact with Harold. For the children who may have previously defined Harold as un-realistic, this is an example intended to make them define their positions. What is going on in this story?  Is it make-believe, a dream, reality, or something else? Encouraging the students to back up their beliefs with reasons and evidence will help them to formulate and understand this verbal debate oriented dialogue.
Harold draws himself a picnic with nine different pies. 
  • Have you ever had an imaginary tea party or an imaginary picnic?
  • Is that what Harold is doing in the story?  Is he making-believe? 
  • Or could the events "really" be happening to him?
  • What's the difference between "make-believe" and "real"?
This text is an adapted reproduction of a module written by Jayme Johnson and Claire Bartholome, and translated by myself for Teaching Children Philosophy, a project Story Philosophy contributes to through translations and original contributions of picture book based philosophical discussion modules.  

(c) of all the illustrations in this post, Crocket Johnson, 1955. Copyright renewed 1983 by Ruth Krauss. 


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