It’s time to take out your crayons, folks, because March 31st is National Crayon Day. In fact, why not celebrate by reading The Crayon Man: The Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow. Before you head to your online library, though, stay right where you are, because Natascha is going to tell us about her favorite Crayola color, her most surprising discovery about the Crayon Man, her transatlantic research trip, and more.
Natascha has lived an extraordinarily international life. Born in Johannesburg, she grew up in Rio de Janeiro, went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and now lives in London. She wrote her first picture book, Eleonora, in 1995, but then her love of books took her into editing, coaching and helping others shape their stories. Last year she published The Crayon Man, after watching a Sesame Street video about the Crayola crayon factory and thinking, But who invented them?
Her curiosity took her on a 24 month research adventure, into libraries and museums, and the Crayola crayon factory itself—all, so she could bring us the true story of The Crayon Man.
THE CRAYON MAN
What child doesn’t love to hold a crayon in their hands? But children didn’t always have such magical boxes of crayons. Before Edwin Binney set out to change things, children couldn’t really even draw in color.
Here’s the true story of an inventor who so loved nature’s vibrant colors that he found a way to bring the outside world to children – in a bright green box for only a nickel! With experimentation, and a special knack for listening, Edwin Binney and his dynamic team at Crayola created one of the world’s most enduring, best-loved childhood toys – empowering children to dream in COLOR!
Natascha is currently working on her next book. She stocks her ideas and notes in lots of notebooks. For inspiration, she takes long walks, often with her Jack Russell terrier, Luna. However, when it comes to perfecting her stories, Natascha does most of it in her mind.
But enough of me talking. It’s National Crayon Day! Here is Natascha, joining us from London, to tell us What Was on her . .
List of Favorite Crayon Colors: My favorite color is periwinkle blue, which is a kind of lavender tone. But now there is a new color, Bluetiful, which came as a result of the invention of a new blue pigment YInMn Blue that was discovered accidentally in 2009. In fact, I love taking all the blue Crayola crayons out of the box and looking at all the shades of BLUE.
Special Book-Signing Stamp: It’s a special experience for children to meet a real, live author. As a child, I wrote to some of my favorite authors, but I never actually met one. So, I wanted to make it even more memorable and asked a friend to help me to create the design for a blue crayon stamp.
Most Surprising Discoveries about the Crayon Man: When I started researching Edwin Binney’s life, I was intrigued by how he and his wife bought a beautiful house on the coast in Old Greenwhich, CT, and commuted to NYC. No one did that back then! And why did he do it? Because he loved nature. He wanted to be able to have a garden and be outdoors. He used to walk every day across fields filled with birdsong to catch the train, and often brought in flowers for colleagues.
I was also surprised at how forward-thinking Crayola’s branding was. Binney & Smith won a gold medal for their dustless chalk at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, and put the medal on all their products, including the Crayola crayon boxes. They also created the signature green and yellow color scheme that is still used today. Since the book was published, I have met some of the Binney family and they shared with me a precious photograph of Alice Binney with her daughters, Dolly and Helen, standing by the 1904 display. It’s a rarity, given how few photos were taken then. No smart phones!
Research Travel Schedule: Looking back, I’m amazed at how long it took to get the story together.
I started researching and writing The Crayon Man in Spring 2015, accessing mainly online resources and reaching out to librarians and historical societies linked to places where Edwin Binney had lived and worked. I reached out to Binney’s relatives, but wasn’t having much luck. I still had so many questions! Mainly, I had hoped to uncover some facts about the Binney children and their experience of coloring with the first Crayola crayons in 1903 or a diary entry by his wife Alice, who was a schoolteacher and coined the name Crayola. But sadly, these aren’t available.
In summer 2016, I visited the Crayola Experience museum in Easton, PA, where I met up with my contact at Crayola. I also traveled to Washington, DC, where I spoke to the curators and examined the Binney & Smith company archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. My goal was to fact-check as much as possible and dig up any new information. I revised some more. By now, I had been able to interview Edwin Binney’s great-granddaughter Sally Putnam Chapman. In December 2016, the book sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and my editor Ann Rider and I began considering illustrators and editing the book. Ann suggested that all the backmatter should be re-focused into the fact boxes and instead appear in a multi-layered text.
In Summer 2017, with the book now being illustrated by Steven Salerno, I arranged a trip inside the Crayola crayon factory in Easton, PA. So exciting! Though the process is largely unchanged since Edwin Binney invented the Crayola crayons in 1903, I was amazed at how some of the new machines efficiently make 8,333 crayons a minute. The factory floor is abuzz with activity, and the smell of crayon wax conjured up memories of coloring with my 64-pack as a child. I was now able to finalize the back matter step-by-step ‘How Crayola Crayons Are Made Today’ spread and secure the photos needed. Time to begin researching and writing the next books while waiting for publication in March 2019.
Idea Notebook: I collect facts and ideas in various notebooks, usually one for each project, but my story notes are often very sketchy. I like to mull in my mind and let the story cook for a while before even writing anything down. Then come the questions to dig down for the story. Lots of why’s, what if’s and maybe’s. Sometimes I create character or plot maps, but generally, I just end up with a huge folder of research articles and some sketchy notes.
Doodle Notebook: In my doodle notebook, I plan out things like my marketing ideas and school visit workshop and assembly presentations with words and doodles done in Crayola crayons. Using colored crayons helps me to see my notes on a big-picture level.
Writing Craft Bookshelf: I keep a shelf-full of non-fiction picture books for inspiration and to use as mentor texts. Here are some I used when working on The Crayon Man:
AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE by Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick
MERMAID QUEEN by Shana Corey and Edwin Fotheringham
SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian
THE IRIDESCENCE OF BIRDS by Patricia MacLaughlan and Hadley Hooper
ON A BEAM OF LIGHT by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunksy
Each of these has something I admired as I sought to find the right lens and voice to tell the story of Edwin Binney, the man who loved color, who had a knack for listening and making what people needed – the Crayola crayons.
I also occasionally refer to Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (which has useful sections on the breakout premise, characters and plotting that apply to any genre).
Inspirational Walks: In this competitive marketplace, it’s all about finding the hook, the lens that will really grab, the kid-appeal. Staring at the blank screen often doesn’t solve that puzzle. For me, there’s nothing like reading compulsively around a topic and then going for an inspirational walk to create those connections and find that a-ha solution.
Mind: True stories are everywhere! I challenge myself to learn at least one new fact or concept a day and store these away for future inspiration. Here are some I’ve collected recently:
- Smelly fruits called durians that look like pineapples conduct electric currents that could be used to charge electric cars.
- In Turkey, the story of King Hartapu, up till now lost, was discovered on a stone with markings in the ancient language of Luwian. He invaded King Midas’s kingdom.
- ‘Cradle to cradle,’ an innovative idea integrating science and design, could be a way to re-thinking our whole production process, eliminating waste so it is used to make new stuff and power production.
- Science has shown that skin color differences are reflections of how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, depending on the climate where they lived.
- ‘Reaper of death,’ the oldest known large tyrannosaur in North America that lived around 80 million years ago, has been uncovered in Canada.
- The first woman to summit Mt. Denali was Barbara Washburn, who also helped to map several US mountain ranges.
- A new ‘smart’ paint has been invented that can harness energy from light and break up harmful pollutants into safer substances.
Thank you, Natascha, for helping us celebrate National Crayon Day! My favorite Crayola color? Red, pure and simple.
Natascha Biebow helps others craft their stories as a freelance editor through Blue Elephant Storyshaping. Her twenty-year dedication to helping new authors through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth. Last year, Natascha was honored with the title of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (for our American readers, this is a VERY BIG deal).
If you would like to order The Crayon Man: The Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, simply click on the image below.
You can also hear Natascha read The Crayon Man on Kidlit TV by clicking here:
If you would like to know more about me and my upcoming books, visit me at sandranickel.com.