Classic revival

Published Sept. 30, 2005|Updated Oct. 24, 2005

Children should smear a little jelly on the pages of their favorite book. They should take it to their treehouse. They should definitely sleep with it once in a while.

At least that's what Jill Morgan, 43, believes. When she saw her favorite childhood book, Mr. Pine's Purple House, selling online for $300 she knew something had to be done. The thought of keeping kid-geared masterpieces in plastic sleeves, guarded from grubby little fingers, horrified her. So five years ago the former software engineer started Purple House Press, a small publishing company dedicated to bringing back out-of-print children's books from the 1950s and '60s.

Morgan's mission is to rescue them from oblivion. She revives not just books, but nearly forgotten, once successful authors.

Mr. Pine's new life

"Certain angels come into our lives at the right moment. She gave me back my life again," said Leonard Kessler, 84. As author and illustrator of Mr. Pine's Purple House, he was excited about helping Morgan publish a new version. "I had to work on a computer, in printing and in Photoshop. It's a whole wonderful new life."

Kessler and his wife, Ethel, moved to Sarasota from Rockland County, N.Y., 10 years ago to enjoy retirement. But she was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer's and died in 2002. During the course of their marriage, Kessler and his wife collaborated on 40 books. Mr. Pine's Purple House started out selling for 29 cents a copy in 1965. Kessler got a penny a book.

In 2000, Mr. Pine's Purple House was the first book published by Purple House Press, named, of course, for Kessler's book. Copies were offered on her Web site ( and at bookstores for $16.

The book tells the story of Mr. Pine's repeated attempts to keep his house from blending in with the crowd. "There are FIFTY white houses all in a line on Vine Street. How can I tell which one is mine?" Mr. Pine says.

Mr. Pine's Purple House has had two printings, 5,000 copies each, and both have sold out. Morgan is printing an additional 5,000 copies of a 40th anniversary book due in October.

Mr. Bear, where are you?

Many Purple House Press customers are parents and grandparents who remember the books a generation ago.

Janet Gosney, 79, of Clearwater thinks she may have read Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson to her four children more than 1,000 times when they were growing up in the 1950s. She had bought it at a grocery store checkout line for 59 cents. But when they moved to South America to work as missionaries she gave a barrel full of books to the neighbors across the street.

"And that was the end of Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat. When we had grandchildren I mourned the fact that I couldn't find a copy of Mr. Bear," she said. "Over the years my children would mention it different times. It was a really big part of their growing-up years."

Then about 10 years ago she heard a radio interview with the mother of Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side cartoon, and learned it had been his favorite book growing up as well. So Gosney wrote letters to Larson's company, Golden Books and a few other publishers but never got any leads on how to find a copy of the book. Then earlier this year she heard about Purple House Publishing from a friend's daughter and soon had a copy of Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat.

"It was better than if I'd won the lottery with a million dollars," Gosney, 79, recalls. "It was like finding an old friend that you thought you'd lost contact with forever." She bought more copies to give to all of her children. Her grandchildren are grown but she has a great-grandson who is young enough to hear it over and over.

Doing famously

Morgan hears similar stories from readers of all the Purple House Press books that she has breathed new life into.

"It's like getting a piece of your childhood back. To see the pictures again and hear the story it takes them back to when they were children," Morgan said.

Apparently Larson feels the same way. "Nothing is more exciting than when Mr. Bear comes "loppety-lop' down some moonlit path. Like all bears, he may seem comical at times, but we know he is also a force to reckon with, in the end, a force that beckons us," he writes in the afterword of the rerelease of Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat.

Turns out Mr. Pine's Purple House was a childhood favorite of Jeff Bezos, founder of Bezos' mother came across it and told her son. When Amazon recommended the book, an homage to nonconformists, on its Web site, mentioning it as one of Bezos' childhood favorites, the book had a stint among the 20 bestselling books on the site.

"We were in our second printing and we upped the number from 3,000 to 5,000 copies," Morgan said.

Another slice of "Pie'

Roger Bradfield, 81, author of Pickle-Chiffon Pie, was thrilled when Morgan contacted him about republishing his book.

"I felt really good about it. It's been almost 40 years (since it was in print) and I'm as old as dirt now," he said. A company in Hollywood has expressed interest in getting film rights. The book includes a lion that can juggle six cans of root beer at once and mice that paint in the same style of Picasso, Matisse and Grant Wood. It sure has a Hollywood title.

"When I wrote this I worked at home with my five kids. I told them this was a book about a pie and I wanted a funny name and they started yelling things out about watermelon pie and somebody shouted out pickle-chiffon pie and that was it," Bradfield said. "I get letters from people saying my mom read this as a child or I read it as a child or even my grandmother read it as a child. I just got a letter yesterday, somebody said this was a big part of their childhood. That is very flattering."

A growing library

Purple House Press has published 25 other picture and chapter books and sold more than 150,000. The small company, based on Morgan's Kentucky farm, tries to bring out four new books a year.

The business is growing steadily. Sales from the first six months of this year equaled the whole of 2004 and the holidays aren't here yet.

In most cases, Purple House Press authors get a typical royalty of 10 percent from the sale of their books. If the publishing rights are still with the initial publisher, Morgan helps the author contact the publisher to seek a release of book rights.

Most publishers do relinquish rights, with no costs involved, but it can take months.

In a few cases the authors couldn't get the rights back so they split their royalty with the initial publisher. If the author is dead, Morgan works with the estate to get publishing rights back. She hears from readers regularly with names of books they'd love to see back on the shelves as well as authors who think their books could be reincarnated. She also hears from authors of new children's books.

"We are only doing the old books," she tells them. "There are a lot more old books out there that are out of print that should be back in print."

Though he's happy to have three of his older books back in circulation, Kessler is still working on new ideas. He's still writing and spends a lot of time sketching out on Siesta Key. But the one question adults and children have been asking him for years still lingers. Is he the real Mr. Pine?

"I'll tell you this. I have a purple door. I have a purple studio," he said. "I think purple is a color that vibrates. I think it's me. I also have a whole series of purple shirts.

Katherine Snow Smith writes frequently about children's issues.


Who hasn't been charmed by the life-affirming Fern and her pig, Wilbur, in the E.B. White classic Charlotte's Web? Or chuckled at the persistence of Sam-I-Am and his skeptical eater of Green Eggs and Ham in Dr. Seuss' silly rhymes?

Tell us in 50 words or less what childhood book you hold dear and why, for possible inclusion in a story about childhood favorites.

Send your entries with a subject line of "Children's Tales" to Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail to; or write to her c/o the St. Petersburg Times, Floridian, "Children's Tales," P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. All entries must be received by Oct. 14.

Roger Bradfield's Pickle-Chiffon Pie tells of selflessness, love, caring _ and silliness.

Jill Morgan started Purple House Press, a small publishing company dedicated to bringing back out-of-print children's books from the 1950s and '60s, after she saw her favorite childhood book, Mr. Pine's Purple House, selling for $300 online.

Janet Gosney of Clearwater searched for years for a copy of this Morrell Gipson book, which she estimates she read to her four children hundreds of times in the 1950s.