Red: A Crayon’s Story

I rarely consider what a book will be about until fairly late in the process. More often, I begin by fiddling with a group of shapes or words that seem interesting and try to discover what sort of subject they would most naturally express. But as much as I try to objectively convey the stories these elements want to tell, the story always winds up being very personal to me. It just gurgles up.

I began writing Red: A Crayon’s Story, thinking about funny events that might result when a crayon’s label does not match the crayon’s color. But as I collected crayon puns — He’s not sharp enough; He’s not bright enough; He needs to press harder — I began to hear voices from my past. I knew that, at some level, this was my story.

I am dyslexic. As a child, I didn’t think of myself as mislabeled; I thought I wasn’t very bright. (In fact, I wasn’t very bright. But I was like everyone else: bright about some things and not bright about other things.) Red, a blue crayon with a red label, judged himself only by how well he could draw red. He accepted the label he was given and suffered profoundly. He tried in vain to draw himself as a red crayon, he was humiliated in front of his classmates, and he finally stormed off in a fit of frustration.

Both Red and I were blessed with a supportive community. Everyone tried their best to help. But almost no one could see beyond the label, and their actions only made things worse. I believe that most of the damage we do to each other is the result of ignorance rather than cruelty.

This notion was tested recently when I read an article about a high school teacher in Tennessee who was unhappy with a question one of his students asked. He responded by writing the word stupid on the student’s forehead — in front of the class, with a permanent marker, backwards so it could be read in a mirror. Thankfully, that sort of literal labeling is rare these days, but more subtle forms of labeling persist.

I hope Red will be among the many resources that help young children learn about colors. I hope readers of all ages enjoy the antics of Red’s well-meaning friends and family, who simply cannot see beyond his official label. I hope the book will provoke classroom discussions about issues like judging people based on outside appearances, how all of us have both strengths and weaknesses, and the importance of being true to oneself. And I hope Red will inspire reflection about the subtle ways children become mislabeled, judging children based on their successes rather than their failures, and the unmitigated joy of finding one’s place in the world.