When Chester Raccoon is hesitant to leave his mother on the first day of school, she shares with him a family secret called The Kissing Hand—involving planting a kiss on her hand and transferring it to her little one’s hand—to reassure him of her love while they are apart. For a quarter century, the premise of Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand has eased separation anxiety of children; the picture book has sold more than six million copies in North America alone, has spawned a handful of sequels, and is now available in a 25th-anniversary edition which, like the original version, contains heart-shaped stickers that represent the transfer of kisses. Released this month by Tanglewood Publishing, the new edition features the original art by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak.

Audrey Penn found her inspiration for The Kissing Hand quite unexpectedly. The Maryland resident was enjoying a train ride through a local park with her four-year-old son when the train came to a sudden stop. It soon became apparent that there was an animal on the tracks, and the engineer left to fetch a park ranger to remove it, instructing passengers to remain seated. Sensing that a deer was likely the interloper—and that it just might provide her with a story idea—Penn defied the order, told her son to stay put, and climbed off the train.

She discovered a story, but it wasn’t the one she expected. “I tiptoed to the front of the train to catch a glimpse of the deer when I suddenly realized I was face-to-face with an enormous raccoon,” she recalled. “I slowly backed away, keeping my eyes lowered, when I suddenly spotted the tiniest raccoon I’d ever seen. While I stood there, open-mouthed and in awe, the mother got down on all fours and faced her cub. She lifted his front left hand and spread open his fingers into a fan. She then bent down and placed her face in the baby’s palm. The baby then put his hand on his cheek. That moment in time showed a loving connection between a mother and child that I hope is conveyed in The Kissing Hand. It is this connection that offers comfort and trust to a child when separated from their parent or caregiver.”

Penn wrote her story and submitted the manuscript to a host of trade publishers but received no offers. She then found a home for her book with the publication division of the Child Welfare League, which made The Kissing Hand available to its members. Stoked by Penn’s presentations at social worker conferences, word of the book’s effective message spread through teacher and parent networks like wildfire.

Following a Soaring Trajectory

The Kissing Hand met with immediate success: it landed on the top of bestseller lists, Scholastic licensed book fair rights to the title, and chains and wholesalers began clamoring for the book. In 1999, Peggy Tierney joined the CWL as an editor and became the director of book publishing in 2000.

“The book’s popularity and sales had grown to a new level by the time I came on the scene, and I knew it was likely to live on—as did Audrey,” said Tierney. “I suggested she write a sequel, and she wrote several other Chester Raccoon stories. But the League was going through some turmoil at the time, and had financial issues, and decided to shut down its book publishing program in 2005. I had moved to the Indianapolis area, and Audrey urged me to start a company to publish a children’s novel she had written, Mystery at Blackbeard’s Cove.” And so, in 2003 Tierney founded Tanglewood Publishing, and in fall 2004 the company published the mystery as its first release. In 2006, Penn transferred the rights to The Kissing Hand to Tanglewood, and the picture book had a new home.

In addition to the anniversary edition, Tanglewood is commemorating The Kissing Hand’s milestone with Letters to Chester: 25 Years of The Kissing Hand, a collection (compiled by Tierney) of letters, drawings, and tributes that children, educators, teachers, and parents have sent to Penn and to Tanglewood. “As I’ve read these letters over the years, and we receive boxes and boxes annually, I am constantly flabbergasted at the different ways people have used the book—including helping children deal with death and loss,” said Tierney. “We have spent time weeping in the halls over these notes, realizing how Chester’s simple gesture has had such a profound effect on the lives of so many. I wanted to collect these messages in a book as a thank you to booksellers, librarians, and teachers for carrying and handselling The Kissing Hand.”

Tanglewood mailed copies of Letters to Chester to members of the Association of Booksellers for Children, and gave away hundreds of copies at ALA. “We still have some 300 copies left, and if a bookseller or librarian wants a copy, we’d be happy to send one,” Tierney reported. “We have a special promotion right now for people who purchase the anniversary edition, providing a code to use on the anniversary website page to access a digital copy, and at some point in the fall, we will post it on the website for anyone interested.”

“I have been honored and humbled by the number of individuals and families who have invited me into their private lives by sharing how The Kissing Hand has affected them,” Penn said. “Their letters have bridged the years with first days at school, the birth of babies, first day of college, the death of children, connections made at hospice, a class of kindergarten and first graders gunned down, and the loss of all things personal in storms. The book has been to Afghanistan and Iraq with soldiers who have sent videos of themselves reading it to their children. When a child receives a kissing hand before separating from a loved one, he or she has something tangible to have and hold making this all-important connection a reality.”

Having The Kissing Hand as the cornerstone of Tanglewood’s list, Tierney observed, “makes me feel like I’m the luckiest publisher alive. And not just because of the sales, but about what the story does for children. This is the power of children’s books—they can have a life-changing impact. To be the publisher of this book is an enormous honor, and I am proud to be releasing this anniversary edition.”

To Penn, the new edition “means more than I could ever hope to explain. There was something so honest, so pure and so loving about that mother raccoon and her cub all those years ago, it is not hard to understand why their story still resonates from one generation to the next. This book is a reminder to all of us to stop and take a tiny moment out of our hurried schedules to take our child’s hand in our own, place a kiss in their palm and say, ‘You are loved. You are cherished. I will miss you until I see you next.’ I am forever indebted to Peggy Tierney and Tanglewood for their steadfast belief in The Kissing Hand.”

The Kissing Hand 25th Anniversary Edition by Audrey Penn, illus. by Ruth E. Harper and Nancy M. Leak. Tanglewood, $19.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-9391-0018-4