Prolific children’s book illustrator and painter Leonard Kessler, known for his wide range of early readers, picture books, and concept books, died on February 16 at his home in Sarasota, Fla. He was 101.
Kessler was born October 28, 1920 in Akron, Oh., and grew up in Pittsburgh, in the neighborhood where he met his future wife, Ethel Gerson. He attributed his love of art to his grandmother, an artist and storyteller who encouraged him in that pursuit from an early age. In a 2006 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Kessler recalled her saying, “Lenny, take this crayon; you can make your own world.”
Kessler’s parents sent him to art lessons at a local neighborhood center, and he had a job painting signs for a supermarket while attending high school. From 1942 to 1945 Kessler served in the U.S. Army stationed in Europe, where his talent for drawing came in handy in his role as an infantry scout. After his return from the war, he married Gerson in 1946 and used the G.I. Bill to begin studies at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) with dreams of being a painter. Among the art students with whom he shared studio space were future painter Philip Pearlstein and a young Andy Warhol (then known as Andy Warhola, who remained a friend).
Upon receiving his B.F.A. in 1949, Kessler and his wife Ethel moved to New York City, along with Pearlstein. Kessler was doing freelance writing and illustrating when Pearlstein began developing a TV show for kids about drawing and asked Kessler to contribute a script. He came up with What’s in a Line? A First Book of Graphic Expression, which was an intro to graphic design for young people. Though the TV program fell though, Kessler was encouraged to turn his idea into a children’s book and a friend connected him with Young Scott Books. The company published What’s in a Line? in 1951, which launched Kessler’s children’s book career.
As the Kesslers’ family expanded—they eventually welcomed a daughter and a son—they moved to New City, in Rockland County, N.Y., in 1953, and sublet their Manhattan apartment to Warhol and his mother—and her 25 cats, all named Sam. In the 1990s, Kessler and his wife retired to Sarasota; Ethel died in 2002.
In all, Kessler created more than 200 books for young readers, a mix of those he wrote and illustrated himself, some he illustrated for other authors, and more than 45 titles he co-wrote with Ethel, who had been a kindergarten teacher and social worker. Three of Kessler’s books were selected as New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year: Fast Is Not a Ladybug by Miriam Schlein (W.R. Scott, 1954); Heavy Is a Hippopotamus by Schlein (W.R. Scott, 1955); and The Big Red Bus (Doubleday, 1957), a collaboration with Ethel.
Among Kessler’s best-known titles is Mr. Pine’s Purple House (Wonder Books, 1965), about a man who wanted to make his white house stand out from all the other white houses on his street. The book went out of print in the 1970s, but got a second shot at success when Jill Morgan, who had loved the book as a child, tried to find a copy for her own kids in the mid-1990s. Morgan’s search turned up an eBay listing priced at $300, which spurred her to track down Kessler and see about reissuing the book for a new generation. The result was the launch of Morgan’s company Purple House Press in 2000, named in honor of Kessler’s book, which she featured on her debut list. She has since rescued numerous out-of-print favorites.
The revival of Mr. Pine’s Purple House was also a second chance for Kessler. “Certain angels come into our lives at the right moment,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2005. “[Jill] gave me back my life again.” He viewed working on the computer and using Photoshop throughout the reissue process with Morgan as “a whole new wonderful life.”