by Maurice Sendak
There is no doubt in my mind that The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson was a remarkable breakthrough book. The terrible war ended in 1945 and this harmless-looking book was published at the same time—harmless-looking perhaps, but revolutionary in content. Here we have a real boy standing up for what he believes against a mother and father and an older brother. A new boy: daring and stubborn, but respectful. (We’d already met him in Johnson’s extraordinary comic books—he was called Barnaby.) A product, no doubt, of a renewed fascination with child psychology and an endless interest in Freud. The Carrot Seed is a small, modest story that puts a delicious, imperturbable, and quietly unshakable confidence into a nutshell or, rather, a carrot seed. (And if I must see matters in their wholeness, including their sexual implications, then the last picture in The Carrot Seed speaks volumes, or just sheer volume, about the aching confidence of a normal little boy. A matter about which children’s books, before Krauss and Johnson, seemed nearly oblivious.)
In that same spring of 1945 when this important book was published, I turned seventeen, and how could I ever imagine then that five years later I would actively begin my creative life under the mentorship of three grand giants: Ursula Nordstrom, Ruth Krauss, and Crockett (known to friends as Dave) Johnson. I approved of and adopted them on the spot. I needed more up-to-date parents, and my darling Brooklyn pair would never have to know. And this new pair, Ruth and Dave, was hilarious and crazy, and they even lived in Connecticut! How fine! I already knew and was inspired by The Carrot Seed. The hilarious deadpan solemnity of that masterpiece gave birth to a new era in children’s publishing. The war was over, the world was new, and Ruth and Dave invented the brave, new child.
When Ruth and I began on our series of books, beginning with A Hole Is to Dig, published in 1952, I considered myself a full-fledged member of the Krauss-Johnson household. An untutored, untrained, mostly uneducated kid schlepping from Brooklyn to glorious Connecticut expecting to be fed, mentored, trained, and maybe even loved. Actually, they turned into regular parents— they loved me with one hand and whacked me with the other. I exasperated Ruth with my dull, unformed opinions. She vigorously educated me, and in the process hollered a lot. Dave was the referee, instructing us in patience and unobtrusively repairing a number of our flawed compositions. Dave was very big, and very quiet. We sat up nights, while Ruth slept, and he drew up reading lists for me. He was patient and brilliant and I adored him. As for Ruth, I was simply in love with her amazing genius. I think I felt a little like that delayed and fragile carrot seed with only Ruth and Dave and the great god Ursula Nordstrom believing in me— watering me and watching me slowly grow. I grew and was even triumphant, but who could have failed with such loving parents?
From the March/April 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.