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The Day the Crayons Quit

By Drew Daywalt


Duncan is assigned a coloring assignment in class, but when he looks inside of his crayon box, he sees a box of letters saying that the crayons quit! His crayons are through working as crayons, and they have sent Duncan a lot of letters expressing their various feelings about how they are being treated. In order to make his crayons happy again, Duncan must figure out some way to please each of them, for they all have different reasons for quitting.

The conflicts that are presented in the crayons’ letters to Duncan explore philosophical topics of obligation vs. self interest, social norms, and aesthetics. This book asks a series of important questions including: Which is more important: fulfilling your obligations or tending to your self-interest and well-being? Do social norms impede on one’s identity? Is there good or bad art? With the help of this book and its lessons, this book module will hopefully create meaningful discussion and debate about these topics.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Sally Donovan and Tristan Leigh

Obligation vs. Self Interest

Should we be able to ignore our duties/obligations just because we want to? Is it okay to quit something so vitally depended on by other people? This book raises many of these types of questions about obligation vs. self interest. From the beginning of the story and throughout the book, we see that all of the crayons in their owner Duncan’s box have problems with their current positions as crayons and send letters to Duncan explaining why they are quitting. The red, gray, and blue crayons feel they are overworked; the beige and white crayons have some identity issues; and the purple, black, yellow, and orange crayons all feel like they should be doing something different than the owner’s wishes. The first and probably most important question that comes to mind is: Do the crayons have an obligation to do what their owner wants them to do because it is their duty, or should they be able to satisfy their self-interest and do what they would like to do instead?

Obligation and duty can come from a variety of places. Cicero, an early philosopher who discusses duty in his work “On Duty", suggests that duties can come from four different sources: as result of being human, as a result of one's particular place in life, as a result of one's character, and as a result of one's own moral expectations for oneself. Admittedly, it is quite difficult to think about the crayons being able to “quit” duties because they are inanimate and it is in their nature to serve a purpose for their owner, but these crayons share many qualities that we humans have when faced with an obligation that infringes upon our liberty and well-being. The discussion leader can introduce questions about whether or not the crayons’ reasons for quitting are justified, and even more broadly: What sort of things justify “quitting” an obligation or duty?

The general consensus is that people should be able to quit an obligation or duty if it is affecting their personal well-being and creating a life without pleasure. This belief, however, is questioned when a certain scenario arises: Perhaps there is a family farm that will not survive if ‘John’ does not take it over from his parents. Is he obligated to take care of the farm? If you are the only one that can do something, do you have to take on that role? Or alternatively, imagine that you are walking by a pond and see a child drowning. Are you obliged to save the child in this moment, or should you be able to choose whether or not you want to save the child? If people depend on you, to what extent do you sacrifice?

Social Norms

Duncan’s crayons explore concepts of identity and its relationship to social norms. For example, in one letter, Pink Crayon is fed up with Duncan’s perception of pink as a “girls color”. He writes, “Could you PLEASE use me sometime to color the occasional pink dinosaur or monster or cowboy? Goodness knows they could use a splash of color”. Here, Pink Crayon is frustrated by the way that social norms associated with the color pink shape his/her identity. While Pink wishes to color dinosaurs and monsters, he/she instead is reserved for Duncan’s little sister because pink is a “girls color”. Why can’t Duncan color the dinosaurs pink? Why does Duncan think pink a girls color? In contrast, Red Crayon feels overworked from Duncan coloring too many things red. He/she writes, “All year long I wear myself out coloring fire engines, apples, strawberries, and everything else that’s red”. Why is it that Duncan uses the color red more than pink? How does this affect the crayons?

These concepts also relate to theories of social identity. How do the crayon’s connection to each other contribute to their perception of individual identity? How are the crayons different from one another? How are they similar? In the crayon’s letters, a critical feature of their identity is group identification. For example, Beige Crayon is fed up with Duncan’s confusion between his color and the light brown and dark tan crayons. He writes, “I am BEIGE and I am proud”. However, Beige Crayon continues that he is “tired of being second place to Mr. Brown Crayon.” While Brown Crayon colors all the bears, ponies, and puppies, beige crayon only colors turkey dinners and wheat. Here, Beige Crayon places value in his/her identity based on its relation to the other crayons. Through these questions, this book opens up space to discuss expectations of social norms as well as our own sense of identity in relation to social norms.

Art and Aesthetics

When Duncan reads the letters from the yellow and orange crayons, he sees that they both want to be the color of the sun because they believe there is only one way to color it. The yellow crayon believes that only yellow should be used to color the sun, while the orange crayon believes the sun should be orange. Is there only one way to color the sun? Can the green crayon be used to color the sun? How do we define what artwork should look like, and is there only one way that it can look?

These questions help us understand what we are doing when we paint, draw, color, etc. It can even help us understand what we are doing when we interpret/appreciate art and aesthetics. Some people admire art for its realistic qualities, while others may admire it for its unrealistic qualities. Many artists who were a part of the Fauvist movement like Henri Matisse, or other abstract colorful artists like Pablo Picasso, emphasized the usage of strong colors and abstract figures rather than the realistic representations created through Impressionist artists like Claude Monet. This book helps us comprehend how different artists can color in different ways, and that perhaps there may be more than one way to represent art. It also helps us realize the different ways we can interpret art as well (i.e., what defines a “bad” painting vs. a “good” painting?).

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Obligation vs. Personal Choice

“I HATE being used to draw the outline of things […]. How about a BLACK beachball sometime?”

  1. What are some of the reasons the crayons have for quitting?
  2. Do the crayons have an obligation to Duncan to let him color with them?
  3. Was it fair of the crayons to quit their obligations as crayons?
  4. The black crayon did not take on its duty of outlining things. Do you think it is okay that the black crayon did not do this? Why or why not?
  5. When can people stop doing things that other people want them to do (can you think of some examples of jobs that are Ok to quit and jobs that aren't not?)? Or count on them for doing? Is there a difference?
  6. If people depend on you, can you choose not to help them? Why or why not?

Social Norms

“You have not used me ONCE in the past year. It’s because you think I’m a girls color, isn’t it?”

  1. What makes each crayon unique?
  2. What similarities do they have? What differences?
  3. Why is the pink crayon upset?
  4. Can Duncan color a pink dinosaur? If so, why doesn’t he?
  5. What makes you who you are?
  6. How are you similar to other people? How are you different?
  7. Are you ever upset like the pink crayon?
  8. Has anyone ever thought that you shouldn’t be a certain way?
  9. Can you see yourself differently than other people see you?

Art and Aesthetics

“Yellow Crayon here. I need you to tell orange crayon that I am the color of the sun”

  1. Which color do you think the sun should be? Why?
  2. Would it be worse if we colored the sun blue?
  3. Is there a reason behind coloring the grass green?
  4. Do we need to color/draw/paint things the way they look in real life?
  5. Why might you want to paint things in a way that doesn’t actually look the way they are?
  6. Is there good or bad art? How do we decide which is good and which is bad?

This book module deals with obligation vs self interest, identity, and art and aesthetics.

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