Wild Things

There's something about the smell of a fresh box of crayons. Coloring with your kids, by Joyce Millman

By Joyce Millman

Published August 7, 1997 8:22AM (EDT)

There's something about the smell of a fresh box of crayons. Really,
there is, if you accept the results of a poll cited on Crayola.com, the Web site of
venerable crayon makers Binney & Smith. According to this poll, adults
placed the waxy, warm scent of (Crayola) crayons 18th on the list of Top 20
most recognizable smells in the world (coffee was No. 1, of course).
But it isn't just the smell, it's the comforting orderliness of a brand new
pack of crayons that still, unfathomably, thrills me. I love to see them
lined up like crisp little soldiers, their points all pointy, their paper
jackets intact, the box still stiff enough to support all eight or 12 or 24
or 48 or 64 or, if you're really lucky, 96, in formation. And the colors,
the possibilities ...

When I was a kid, a new coloring book and a box of Crayolas -- I am
brand-loyal -- was one of the best presents in the world, so, naturally, I
wanted to pass this pleasure on to my son. As soon as he outgrew the
eat-your-toys stage, I started giving him coloring books and crayons --
needlessly, I soon found out, because crayons, so easy to buy, are the
favored gift of distant relatives and friends without kids. And then there
are those cheapo four-packs they hand out at child-friendly restaurants.
According to Crayola's research, the average North American kid will have
used 730 crayons by age 10. I think that number might be a little low.

We have so many crayons, we're always finding never-used boxes stashed
away in closets, desk drawers, everywhere. One present we did rush to open,
though, was the Crayola Big Box -- "96 Different Brilliant Colors Featuring
the Built-In Sharpener" -- and it still takes my breath away to open the
lid, one year later, and see colors that I hadn't even dreamed of back in
my youth when the 64 was the biggest box you could buy: granny smith apple,
wild watermelon, mauvelous, sunglow, purple mountain's majesty, pacific
blue, tickle me pink, atomic tangerine, mulberry, wisteria, wild
strawberry, unmellow yellow. My childhood favorite, magenta, is still
there, although, according to the expansive trivia list on Crayola.com,
pretty lemon yellow and the unfortunate maize and raw umber were retired in
1991 to make way for those awesome new shades.

As far as corporate Web sites go, Crayola.com is pretty cool. It's
advertising, yes, but you can learn stuff from it, too, like where crayons
come from and how the heck you're supposed to get glitter glue and
allegedly washable finger paint off your kid's clothes. The site also
offers interesting art projects for kids and their families. Crayola has
deemed August "Color with Your Kids Month" and is running brief
instructions each day on how to create life-sized family portraits and
family collages. Admirably, Crayola.com is actually sending you away
from the computer to spend time as a family.

And, believe me, you can get to know a lot about your kids when you work
on an art project with them. Every time I sit down with my son to color at
his little table and chairs, I come face to face with all the ways that he
is not me. I am a strict inside-the-lines colorer; he scribbles the page
impatiently, leaving large parts untouched, and then abandons the coloring
book to follow his own muse. I like to keep the crayons in their original
carton, lined up according to hue; he has a bulging cigar box and a sagging
Celestial Seasonings box filled with loose crayons and parts of crayons,
with Crayolas and lesser brands intermingling (the horror). I gravitate
toward the blue-greens and red-pinks; he seems to only ever use black (all
the black crayons are ragged-papered stubs), plain old red and plain old

I guess we're always going to color side by side, not on the same page,
so to speak. But that's OK; I get the whole coloring book to myself and
most of the Big Box, and he surprises me with his rapidly growing skill at
drawing family portraits and minutely detailed "Star Wars" figures on the
back of scrap paper. We quietly enjoy each other's company.

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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