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Leonard Kessler, author whose books for children endured, dies at 101

The writer and illustrator created more than 200 books for young readers

This book by Leonard Kessler first published in 1965 was about the beauty found in being oneself. (Purple House Press)
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Leonard Kessler, an author and illustrator who created more than 200 books for children, including an enduring classic, “Mr. Pine’s Purple House,” whose simple words and pictures encouraged readers to show their singular splashes of color in an often conformist world, died Feb. 16 at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 101.

His son, Paul Kessler, confirmed the death and said he did not yet know the cause.

Mr. Kessler credited his long and prolific career in part to his grandmother, a painter who gifted him a box of crayons when he was 6, declaring that with them, “you can paint your own world.”

As a college student in Pittsburgh, Mr. Kessler befriended future pop artist Andy Warhol. He later found his own calling in children’s literature, that magical genre offering young readers an introduction to the written word, an explanation of life around them and a glimpse of the universe beyond it.

Mr. Kessler collaborated on dozens of books with his wife, Ethel Kessler, a social worker and kindergarten teacher. Aside from his artistic flair, he brought to his work the ability, so rare among adults, to genuinely relate to children, their curiosities and their concerns. Such was his desire to understand their world that he sometimes crouched down to experience life from their height.

Several of his books were 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, created with his wife). He created a franchise of sorts with Mr. Pine, a character who like Mr. Kessler wore glasses, had a dog and a cat and favored hats.

In “Mr. Pine’s Purple House,” first published in 1965, the titular character laments the monotony of his neighborhood. “A white house is fine,” he says, “but there are fifty white houses all in a line on Vine Street. How can I tell which one is mine?”

In his first effort to set his house apart, Mr. Pine plants a pine tree in his yard. His act of individuality is undone when neighbors follow suit. But when Mr. Pine paints his house a shade of plum, their own creativity is unleashed, and the previously monochromatic Vine Street is transformed into a ribbon of colors.

“It’s all right to be different in this world,” Mr. Kessler told the Sarasota Herald Tribune years later. “You don’t have to be like everybody else.”

Tastes in children’s books change as quickly as the youngsters who read them, and “Mr. Pine’s Purple House” fell out of print by the 1970s.

Two decades later, a mother named Jill Morgan, who had loved the book as a girl, looked 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 some sleuthing, Morgan located Mr. Kessler in Florida, nearly 80 at the time, and asked if he might agree to a reprinting.

“Certain angels come into our lives at the right moment. She gave me back my life again,” 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 formerly out-of-print children’s books.

Among the original fans of “Mr. Pine’s Purple House” was Jeff Bezos, the future founder of the online retailer Amazon and owner of The Washington Post. According to an account published in the Atlantic, his mother discovered the reissued version after its release in 2000 and alerted Bezos, who promoted the book in a weekly email to Amazon customers, sending it to the bestseller list on the site.

Bezos again championed the book in 2014 with the rollout of the Amazon Fire Phone, a failed foray into the smartphone market. In advance of its release, technology journalists received a package from the company with a letter from Bezos that read, “Enclosed is my favorite childhood book: Mr. Pine’s Purple House. I think you’ll agree that the world is a better place when things are a little bit different.”

For anyone who wondered about the existence of a real-life 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 color that vibrates. I think it’s me.”

Leonard Cecil Kessler was born on Oct. 28, 1920, in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in Pittsburgh. His father worked as a plumber, his mother as a nursing aide.

To help make ends meet, his family took in boarders and managed to provide art lessons for their son. In a parallel with his future picture book protagonist, Mr. Kessler painted signs for a supermarket during high school. Installments in the Mr. Pine series included “Mr. Pine’s Mixed-Up Signs” (1961) and “Paint Me a Picture, Mr. Pine” (1972, with illustrations by John Kuzich).

Mr. Kessler served in the Army during World War II and was stationed in Europe, where he served as an infantry scout. Because of his talent for art, he was charged with drawing maps and sketching enemy positions. Years later, he recalled his habit of embellishing his military sketches with drawings of animals and flowers. “Kessler, I just want to know the positions!” he recalled a captain admonishing 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 their graduation in 1949, the trio moved to New York City.

“I came with my wife and worked at home as a freelance writer and illustrator of books for kids,” Mr. Kessler told the Sarasota publication Attitudes Magazine in 2006. “Phil wanted to be a graphic artist. I wanted to be a painter. And Andy didn’t know what he wanted to be. He had one white corduroy suit” and “the biggest portfolio of the most incredible drawings and paintings.”

Mr. Kessler was set on his course as a children’s author when he and Pearlstein were invited to host a children’s television program about drawing. The show fell through, 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, reviewer Ellen Lewis Buell wrote in the New York Times, “both an introduction to ideas and an invitation to set them down” on paper. Mr. Kessler said the acceptance of his first manuscript was the “best thing” that ever happened to him. “It redirected my life,” he said.

After beginning their family, Mr. Kessler and his wife subleased their New York apartment for a period 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, N.Y., in a house that he described as “kind of a 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 his son, of Princeton, N.J., survivors include a daughter, Kim Kessler, of Madison, Wis., a sister and four grandchildren.

Mr. Kessler’s children inspired many of his books, including “Here Comes the Strikeout,” first published in 1965 and reissued in 1992 by HarperCollins. As a Little Leaguer, his son was reduced to tears after striking out 22 times in a row, Mr. Kessler told an interviewer.

In the book, a boy named Bobby struggles similarly. He meets another player who offers a word of encouragement. “I will help you with your hitting,” Willie tells him. “But you must work hard every day. Lucky hats won’t do it. Lucky bats won’t do it. Only hard work will do it.”

Bobby was White. Willie, whom Mr. Kessler’s family speculated was inspired by the 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 through Purple House Press.

“I turn 59 years old this next month and I’d love for Leonard Kessler to know how important this book” was “to me as a kid and even still now,” he wrote. “I was really into baseball as a kid and I’m African American. This 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 had kept from his childhood.

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