Leonard Kessler dies; the children’s author was 101 years old
His son, Paul Kessler, confirmed the death and said he did not yet know the cause.
Mr Kessler attributed his long and prolific career in part to his grandmother, a painter who gave him a box of crayons when he was 6 years old, stating that “with these… you can paint your own world”.
As a student in Pittsburgh, Mr. Kessler befriended future pop artist Andy Warhol. Later, he found his own calling in children’s literature – that magical genre offering young readers an introduction to the written word, an explanation of the life around them, and a glimpse of the universe beyond.
Mr. Kessler has collaborated on dozens of books with his wife, Ethel Kessler, a social worker and kindergarten teacher. Along with his artistic flair, he brought to his work the ability, so rare in adults, to truly relate to children, their curiosities and concerns. His desire to understand their world was such that he sometimes crouched down to experience life from their height.
Several of his books have been ranked by the New York Times among the best releases of the year for young readers. They included “Heavy Is a Hippopotamus” (1954, written by Miriam Schlein) and “Big Red Bus” (1957, premiered with his wife). He created something of a franchise with Mr. Pine, a character who, like Mr. Kessler, wore glasses, had a dog and a cat, and preferred hats. (Unlike Mr. Kessler, Mr. Pine also had a mustache.)
In “Mr. Pine’s Purple House”, first published in 1965, the main character laments the monotony of his neighborhood. “A white house is fine”, he says, “but there are FIFTY white houses all lined up on Vine Street. How do I know which one is mine? »
In his first effort to set his house apart, Mr. Pine plants a tree – a pine, of course – in his yard. His act of individuality is undone when the neighbors follow suit. But when Mr. Pine paints his house a plum hue, their own creativity is unleashed and the once monochromatic Vine Street turns into a ribbon of color.
Tastes in children’s books change as fast as the young people who read them, and “Mr. Pine’s Purple House” fell out of print in the 1970s.
Two decades later, a mother named Jill Morgan, who had adored the book as a child, searched in vain for an affordable copy for her children. Used copies were available online, but with price tags reaching into the hundreds of dollars.
Through research, Morgan located Mr. Kessler in Florida – he was nearly 80 at the time – and asked if he could agree to a reprint.
“Some angels come into our lives at the right time. She gave me my life back,” Mr. Kessler told the Tampa Bay Times in 2005.
With its reissue in 2000, “Mr. Pine’s Purple House” became the first book published by Morgan’s Purple House Press, which specializes in out-of-print children’s books.
Among the original fans of “Mr. Pine’s Purple House” was Jeff Bezos, the future founder of online retailer Amazon and owner of The Washington Post. According to an account in The Atlantic, Bezos’ mother discovered the reissued version after its release in 2000 and alerted his son, who promoted the book in a weekly email to Amazon customers, by sending it to the site’s bestseller list.
Bezos championed the book again in 2014 with the rollout of the Amazon Fire Phone, a failed foray into the smartphone market. Prior to the product’s release, tech journalists received a package from the company with a letter from Bezos that read, “Enclosed you will find my favorite childhood book – Mr. Pine’s Crimson House. I think you’ll agree that the world is a better place when things are a little different.
For anyone wondering if there was a real Mr. Pine, the author told the Tampa Bay Times, “I’ll tell you this. I have a purple door. I have a purple studio. …I think purple is a vibrant color. I think it’s me. His license plate read “MR PINE”.
Leonard Cecil Kessler was born October 28, 1920 in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in Pittsburgh. Her father worked as a plumber, her mother as a nurse’s aide.
To help me make ends meet, his family took in boarders and managed to teach their son art lessons. Alongside his future picture book protagonist, Mr. Kessler painted signs for a supermarket in high school. The Mr. Pine series installments included “Mr. Pine’s Mixed-Up Signs” (1961) and “Paint Me a Picture, Mr. Pine” (1972, with art by John Kuzich).
Mr. Kessler served in the military during World War II and was stationed in Europe, where he served as an infantry scout. Because of his talent for art, he was tasked with drawing maps and sketching enemy positions. Years later, he remembers his habit of embellishing his military sketches with designs of animals and flowers.
“Kessler, I just want to know the positions!” he remembered a captain who admonished him. “I don’t need the decoration!”
After the war, Mr. Kessler studied painting and design at what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he met Warhol and the future painter Philip Pearlstein. After graduating in 1949, the trio moved to New York.
“I came with my wife and worked from home as a freelance writer and illustrator of children’s books,” Mr. Kessler told Sarasota Attitudes Magazine in 2006. “Phil wanted to be a graphic designer. I wanted to be a painter. And Andy didn’t know what he wanted to be. He had on a white corduroy suit [and] the largest portfolio of the most incredible drawings and paintings.
Mr. Kessler was set on his path as a children’s author when he and Pearlstein were asked to host a children’s television show about drawing. The show flopped, but the concept inspired Mr. Kessler to create his first picture book: “What’s In a Line: A First Book of Graphic Expression.” It was, wrote reviewer Ellen Lewis Buell in The New York Times, “both an introduction to ideas and an invitation to put them down” on paper.
Mr. Kessler described accepting his first manuscript as the “best thing” that ever happened to him. “It redirected my life,” he said.
After starting their family, Mr. Kessler and his wife temporarily sublet their New York apartment to Warhol and his mother. Mr. Kessler kept a studio in the apartment, where he worked alongside his friend and Warhol’s two dozen cats, all named Sam.
Mr Kessler later lived in Rockland County, New York, in a house he described as “kind of lavender purple”. He and his wife moved to Florida in the 1990s.
His wife, the former Ethel Gerson, died in 2002 after 56 years of marriage. Besides her son, of Princeton, NJ, survivors include a daughter, Kim Kessler, of Madison, Wis.; a sister; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Kessler’s children inspired several of his books, including “Here Comes the Strikeout”, first published in 1965 and republished in 1992 by HarperCollins. As a little leaguer, his son was reduced to tears after striking out 22 straight, Mr. Kessler told an interviewer.
In the book, a boy named Bobby struggles similarly. He meets another player who offers him a word of encouragement.
“I’ll help you knock,” Willie told him. “But you have to work hard every day. Lucky hats won’t. Lucky bats won’t. Only hard work will.
Bobby was white. Willie, who Mr. Kessler’s family speculated was inspired by African-American Hall of Famer Willie Mays, was black. At the time, few mainstream children’s books featured African Americans in such roles.
More than 50 years after “Here Comes the Strikeout” was first released, a reader, Michael Hammond, contacted Mr. Kessler via Purple House Press.
“I will be 59 next month and I would like Leonard Kessler to know how important this book … was to me when I was a child and even now,” he wrote. “I was really into baseball as a kid and I’m African American. It was the first book I ever owned and it showed an African American…in a good light.
“This book gave me hope,” he continued. “I can still recite every word just by looking at the pictures.”
Reached by phone, Hammond, now 61 and living in Chicago, said “Here Comes the Strikeout” was the only book he kept from his childhood.