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Sources: Philip Nel, 785-532-2165, philnel@k-state.edu;
and Tosha Sampson-Choma, 785-532-2161, tchoma@k-state.edu
Note to editor: This is the sixth in a series of news releases about the color purple in honor of Kansas State University's founding on Feb. 16, 1863.
News release prepared by: Jennifer Torline, 785-532-0847, jtorline@k-state.edu

Monday, Feb. 14, 2011

The power of purple:
FROM CRAYONS TO CREATION, PURPLE REMAINS SYMBOLIC COLOR IN LITERATURE

MANHATTAN -- Purple is the color of adventure. At least, that's how author Crockett Johnson once described his choice of the color in his famous children's picture book "Harold and the Purple Crayon."

No one knows whether Johnson was being serious about his color choice, but Johnson's book speaks to the sense of the adventure and imagination inside each reader, said Philip Nel, professor of English at Kansas State University. Nel is the author of a biography on Johnson to be published in 2012.

"Harold and the Purple Crayon" was published in 1955 and follows 4-year-old Harold as he creates his own world with a purple crayon. He draws objects such as the moon, a forest, a picnic lunch and finally, his own bed.

"One message from the book is that all you need is your imagination," Nel said. "The crayon is the extension of that in your imagination. It's quite an empowering message. It tells you to dream. It tells you to create. It tells you to invent."

But the book also illustrates the importance of resourcefulness, Nel said. Harold draws a boat when he falls into water, and when he falls off a mountain he quickly draws a balloon to help him float off. No matter what Harold encounters and invents, he is resourceful enough to solve the situation.

"That can be a take-away message of the book: to keep your wits and your purple crayon with you and all will be well," Nel said.

The book is deceptively simple, yet very clever because Harold uses everything he draws, Nel said. The whole book is a continuous drawing that unfolds line by line.

"There are no mistakes," Nel said. "There can't be, because the crayon does not erase."

Purple is featured in other children's literary works, Nel said.

"Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse" by Kevin Henkes is a popular children's book that focuses on the lessons that Lily learns when she brings a noisy plastic purse to school.

Gelett Burgess, a nonsense poet from the late 19th century, invoked the color purple in his four-line poem, "The Purple Cow." The comic poem has since inspired many parodies.

"I think more than anything a purple cow is funny," Nel said. "A blue cow and a red cow are unusual, but a purple cow? That's just funny."

Purple also has a place in adult literature.

"The Color Purple," Alice Walker's 1982 acclaimed novel, focuses on the oppression of a young, poor black woman in 1930s rural Georgia. In the novel, protagonist Celie writes letters to God that describe how she is abused by her stepfather and husband, but becomes an independent woman over time.

The novel connects purple with royalty, creation and the connotation of heritage or lineage, said Tosha Sampson-Choma, instructor of English at K-State, who is including the novel in her doctoral dissertation.

The book's character Shug Avery says that purple is a reflection of the splendor of God and the creation of God. She also feels that God has given people the color purple as a way to celebrate life and to embrace the good things in life, Sampson-Choma said.

"The color purple shows that beauty can be found in everything around you," Sampson-Choma said. "Despite the fact that things aren't perfect or that there are these difficulties, people can still overcome them."

In one of Walker's later essays, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose," Walker writes that "Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." Walker created the term womanist, which is a person who appreciates women's culture and strength and honors ‘entire’ people -- male and female.

"Walker sees feminism as exulting and celebrating one gender at the expense of another, while womanism is embracing ‘whole’ people," Sampson-Choma said. "She looks at womanism and compares it to purple because it is a richer, fuller definition of feminism."