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The Day the Crayons Quit

by Drew Daywalt


The Day the Crayons Quit introduces the conflict between obligation and self-interest and asks questions about social norms and aesthetics.

Duncan is assigned a coloring assignment in class, but when he looks inside of his crayon box, he finds a parcel of letters from his crayons, each detailing why they’ve decided to quit. 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.

Read aloud video with origami illustration by Jenny Chan

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Obligation vs. Self Interest

Should we be able to ignore our duties/obligations just because we want to? Is it okay to quit something when other people depend on you? This book raises many questions about obligation versus self-interest. All of the crayons in 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. The crayons in Duncan’s box provide an animated metaphor for how we feel when an obligation infringes on our liberty and well-being. The discussion leader can introduce questions about whether or not the crayons’ reasons for quitting are justified, and 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 affects their personal well-being and creates a life without pleasure. This belief, however, is questioned when certain scenarios arise. Perhaps there is a family farm that will not survive if the son 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, but you’re late to an important meeting. Are you obliged to save the child in this moment, or should you choose whether 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 identity’s relationship to social norms. For example, in one letter, Pink Crayon is fed up with Duncan’s perception of pink as a “girls color.” Pink writes, “Could you PLEASE use me some time 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 how social norms associated with the color pink shape identity. While Pink wishes to color dinosaurs and monsters, Pink is instead reserved for Duncan’s little sister because pink is a “girl’s color.” Why can’t Duncan color the dinosaurs pink? Why does Duncan think pink a girl’s color? In contrast, Red Crayon feels overworked from Duncan, coloring too many things red. Red 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 crayons’ connections to each other contribute to their perceptions of individual identity? How are the crayons different from one another? How are they similar? In the crayons’ 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 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. Modern artists like Henri Matisse or Pablo Picasso emphasized the usage of strong colors and abstract figures. 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 okay to quit and jobs that are 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 girl’s 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 for 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 that don’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?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Sally Donovan and Tristan Leigh. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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