American author, artist, and toy designer (1880-1938). Full name: John Barton Gruelle. He was born on Christmas Eve in Arcola, Illinois. His father was a self-taught portrait and landscape painter, as well as a musician and writer. Johnny won a cartooning contest in 1911 against 1,500 entrants -- his prize: a spot in the comics section of the New York Herald. His comic, "Mr. Twee Deedle," ran from 1911 to 1914. He also illustrated an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1914.

Gruelle gave his daughter Marcella a faceless rag doll that he found in the attic -- he drew a face on the doll to make her a bit less disturbing -- black eyes, a red triangle for a nose, and a happy smile. Legend has it that, trying to figure out a name for the doll, he was inspired by two of James Whitcomb Riley's poems, "The Raggedy Man" and "Little Orphant Annie," to call her Raggedy Ann.

Marcella loved Raggedy Ann, and Gruelle decided to make more of them. He patented the design in 1915, and the Gruelles started making Raggedy Ann dolls by hand to sell; sadly, Marcella died from an infected smallpox vaccination when she was just 13 years old -- about the time that Raggedy Ann was making her public debut. Years later, Gruelle memorialized his daughter in a book called "Marcella: A Raggedy Ann Story" in 1929. The P.F. Volland Company began selling the dolls and publishing the Raggedy Ann stories that Gruelle wrote in 1918. In 1920, Gruelle created Raggedy Andy, who also began appearing in stories of his own. To this day, Gruelle stands as one of the great success stories -- not only were his books, his art, and his dolls beloved for generations, but they were business triumphs as well -- his forethought in getting the dolls patented and trademarked meant that he and his family were able to live comfortably off his work for decades.

Gruelle's art evolved as the decades passed -- his early work was more formal and romantic, with a bit of a surreal, dreamlike quality. But as he continued painting, his artwork became brighter, funnier, and more cartoonish -- not a bad thing, when you're making books for children. His characters became more expressive and charismatic, and he developed more flair for caricature and action.

I have read only one of Gruelle's books all the way through -- a fantasy from 1922 called "The Magical Land of Noom," in which two children build a pretend flying machine that somehow manages to fly them to a magical kingdom on the moon. Their grandparents make their own flying machine to follow them, and they all have a variety of adventures among the strange inhabitants in Noom. The artwork remains completely charming and hilarious all these decades after it was created, but Gruelle's story doesn't fare so well. The big problem is that Gruelle's writing is badly dated -- it reads like an amateurish pastiche of the Oz books, what with the rural protagonists from Earth (named, fer cryin' out loud, Johnny, Janey, Gran'ma, and Gran'pa), the evil magician named Jingles, and characters like Mr. Tiptoe, the Faun Boys, and the Soft-Voiced Cow. Even as a child, I could be thrown into fits of frustration that anyone would actually name a character "The Soft-Voiced Cow." Still, a lot of people feel a lot of nostalgia for that kind of retro fantasy.


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