Publishing Children’s Classics

Featured Article, History, Odd Collections, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on January 11, 2009
Tim Webb Jill Morgan revives popular out-of-print books through her Purple House Press.

Jill Morgan pulls a copy of Mr. Pine's Purple House from a box of books at Purple House Press in Cynthiana, Ky. (pop. 6,258), and recalls a memory from her childhood that inspired her to become a book publisher.

"I remember sitting on my dad's lap when I was 3 and seeing the picture of all the white houses," says Morgan, 46, looking at the book with Mr. Pine standing in his paint-splattered overalls on the stoop of his purple house amid 50 white houses. "I've always liked the message–be yourself."

In 2000, Morgan founded Purple House Press to revive Mr. Pine's Purple House and other children's books from the 1940s to 1960s that had gone out of print and become scarce enough to fetch exorbitant prices. "I kept watching the price of Mr. Pine go up and up and up," Morgan says. "When it got to $300, I thought, 'That's just ridiculous.'" The mother of three realized at that price few children would be curling up with hard-to-find children's classics such as Ann Likes Red and The Blueberry Pie Elf.

Determined to make the books of her childhood affordable to another generation, the former software engineer launched her publishing company and offered her first book contract to Leonard Kessler, author and illustrator of the Mr. Pine book series.

"She changed my life, and I think those little books changed her life," says Kessler, 87, of Sarasota, Fla. (pop. 52,715). At the time, Kessler was caring for his ailing wife and hadn't written or painted for 10 years. He bought a computer and wrote a foreword for the reissue of his original 1965 Mr. Pine book and once again is brainstorming plots in his purple studio in a house with a purple front door. "I feel like the comeback kid."

From the start, the reissued children's books have proven popular with members of the baby boom generation, their children and grandchildren. "Jill is really fulfilling a need," says Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio (pop. 29,405). "I have a standing order to buy any new titles. Before, if you had one copy of Miss Twiggley's Tree, you could make one person, who had $100, mildly happy. Now, you can make hundreds of people happy."

Purple House Press has reissued 34 titles and sold more than 250,000 books. Morgan's husband, Ray Sanders, 52, handles the company's accounting, shipping and other business-related duties. Their daughter Hayley, 16, helps type the stories.

Morgan spends her workdays in front of a computer reviving the old storybook characters. Working with the best-condition copy of the original book she can find, she scans each page onto her computer and uses a software program to brighten the illustrations, clean smudges from pages, and re-create missing and damaged portions of the artwork. "I sometimes spend days cloning little bits and pieces of a page," she says.

She typesets and formats each page, saves the entire book on a CD, and sends it to a printer in New York or Korea. Once the proof copy is corrected, the book is printed and shipped to the company's warehouse in Cynthiana. Purple House Books are sold directly to bookstores, through a national book distributor and on the company's website

Among the most popular reissued titles, which sell for $15 to $20, are The Mad Scientist's Club by Bertrand Brinley; Miss Suzy, written by Miriam Young and illustrated by Arnold Lobel; and The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Kahl. Cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, wrote the afterword for the reissue of the 1950 storybook Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat. Another famous fan of Mr. Pine, founder Jeff Bezos promoted the book in an e-mail to customers–and sales soared.

"It's nice to know that people remember these stories," Morgan says. "There's something special about these books. They're very wholesome, with good values."