Len Kessler, the author of “Mr. Pine’s Purple House”,


Leonard Kessler

Leonard Kessler

Mr. Pine’s Purple House is currently being republished in a new edition by Purple House Press.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your writing career? And what books of yours have been published?

A: I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, went into the Army in 1942, and was assigned to the 28 th Infantry Division as a scout and observer—meaning, since I was an artist I was trained to go behind enemy lines, make sketches of enemy positions, and return with the information for our intelligence troops. Suffice it to say that it was not the best kind of job for a young artist. I returned to Pittsburgh in 1946 and was a student at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), studying painting and design. In 1949 my wife and I, along with fellow students Philip Pearlstein and Andy Warhol, left for the Big Apple…New York. I wanted to become a painter, Pearlstein wanted to be a graphic artist, and Andy just wanted to be Andy. Well, Philip became a realist painter, Andy first was a commercial illustrator…then one of the giants of pop art (and was still Andy), and I became a writer and illustrator of books for kids. Life is a series of detours.

That first year I painted, Pearlstein had made contact with a producer at one of the networks. They wanted to produce a show for young kids that would focus on art…Phil and I would devote each episode to one aspect of drawing and painting and there would be a guitar player strumming background music with just our hands on screen, drawing and painting. I wrote a TV script for the first three episodes. After six months, the network did not have the funding to produce our educational program, and an art director friend suggested I turn the script into a kid’s book. The first publisher I gave it to sent me a contract. The book was “What’s In A Line?”, published in 1951 by Young Scott Books, Wm. R. Scott Publishers.

2001…I have been making books for fifty years, and I have enjoyed every day looking for that skinny six year old kid I used to be.

I’ve written and/or illustrated more than 200 books for eighteen different publishers, including the Mr. Pine series, the Old Turtle series, “Is There An (Elephant, Horse, Hippo, etc.) series, and have illustrated books for other authors, also. Mr. Pine’s Purple House was originally published by Wonder Books, and now in 2000, a new edition for Purple House Press.mrpinepruplepruplechatkay12

Q: Were you initially excited about or resistant to Jill’s idea of republishing your book?

A: One day last April I had two letters forwarded to me. One was from the Author’s Guild and one from Harper Collins Publishers. They were from Jill, telling me about her work as a seller of out of print books, and how much she loved Mr. Pine as a little three year old sitting on her Dad’s lap. She wanted to start a publishing company, and told me that Mr. Pine’s Purple House was the one of the first she wanted to publish, since she had loved it so much as a child. My first reaction was to try to sell the idea to one of my two publishers, but then I decided to call Jill. I was so impressed with her sincerity and her absolute desire to be a publisher (and most important, her love for the book) and I have always made decisions quickly and decide from my gut feelings, so “Jill”, I said, “you can have the book”. Then she asked “One more favor…could I name my publishing house Purple House Press?”. “Of course”, I said, “and I will be happy to design your logo.” Thus the purple turtle reading a book was born.

Q: And how do you feel about the idea now, after seeing your book(s) in print again?

A: It has been a rebirth for me…for my career…although I have never really retired. How can one retire if one never had a regular nine to five job? I have always been a free lancer. When we lived in Rockland County, New York, one day little Greg (four years old) walked into the studio (always open to neighborhood kids), saw me at the drawing board and asked “Mr. Kessler, could I ask you a question…why don’t you get a job or come out and play with us?” “Greg” I said, “this is my job, I am making books.” “Oh” he says, “that is a job…but can’t you still come out and play?”

And now I am back again at the drawing board, the word processor, the Mongol #2 pencil…such a joy…I can’t wait to work each day. Thank you, Jill Morgan!

Q: Without giving away any company secrets, has seeing your work in print again gotten the creative juices flowing and gotten you writing more stories (assuming that you haven’t been writing all along)?

A: I guess I have never stopped writing. I am always thinking about stories in my head. I have kept an idea box. Today there are still about 200 good ideas, even after my wife, Ethel, and I sift through and discard some. I figure if I do two books a year that would take me to August, 2100. Right now I have three new manuscripts in progress.

Q: What originally got you into writing children’s stories in particular?

A: That TV script…the educational program that never was to be.

Q: Do you illustrate your own stories? If not, did you get a choice about who did the illustrating? Did you take them to a publisher pre-illustrated originally?

A: I was an art major…painter. I guess I wear two hats…author and illustrator, and I love to wear both of them.

Q: Was it easy for you to get that first story published, when you started out?

A: I mentioned above that I gave the book to Young Scott Books. Here is the real story. When I took the dummy to my friend, George Hornby, he told me that the two publishers who might be interested in a concept book were Scott and Knopf. I had no knowledge of how to submit my dummy, so one warm day in May, 1950, I walked into the offices of Wm. R. Scott Publisher with my little dummy under my arm. I had a pencil attached to the jacket. I asked the receptionist if I could see the editor. “Do you have an appointment? Do you have an agent?” My answer was “What’s an agent?” I can recall the look of exasperation on the receptionist’s face. At that moment, May Garelick, the editor, came out of an editorial meeting; she looked at the dummy and was fascinated with the pencil. I told her it was my book “What’s In A Line.” She looked at the dummy, looking through the pages quickly, and said “Leave it.” “I can’t”, I said, “I have to go up to Knopf to see the editor.” May slowly took off her thick glasses, looked me in the eyes and said slowly “Young man, if you walk into Knopf without an appointment and ask to see the editor, they are on the 18 th floor and they will toss you and your dummy with the pencil out the window!!! Crash!!! Leave it here.”

That summer Ethel and I were working at a children’s summer camp and on August 11 th , Ethel gave me a thick letter from Scott. “My first rejection” I thought. It was a letter from May Garelick and a contract. I will never forget that moment…that glorious day. In the past fifty years I have received more than 200 contracts…one day I got two in the mail…but nothing was sweeter and more delicious than that first one. The next best day was when Jill sent me the first copy of the new edition of Purple House…there are second acts in life.

Q: Okay, now I’ll put you on the spot–how is Jill to work with (big smile here)?

A: Working with Jill is smooth and professional. It has been a real pleasure. She has kept me informed on each step in the production of the book. We have kept in contact by letters…proofs…email…telephone, and we enjoy working together. The result is the lovely new edition of the intrepid Mr. Pine and his Purple House. Four stars for Jill!

Q: Are you helping Jill in any way to get publicity for your stories and her publishing company?

A: Mostly with ideas, but also a great story in the Sarasota Tribune, sending out email to colleagues, alumni publications, and other periodicals. Also sending an autographed poster for the book.

Email and mail interview by Shirley Bryant

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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