Steven Kroll, 69, children’s and Y.A. book author


By Lincoln Anderson

Steven Kroll, a prolific author of books for children and young adults, died Tues., March 8, in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan of complications from surgery. He was 69. He lived in Greenwich Village and in Bucks County, Pa.

Kroll grew up on the Upper West Side, the son of Julius Kroll, a prominent diamond merchant, and Anita Berger, who for a while taught Speedwriting, a form of shorthand that was affordable to learn.

Steven Kroll attended Hunter Elementary School and the McBurney School, where he was valedictorian. His experiences at McBurney — where he strove for acceptance among his tough classmates — inspired his first young-adult novel, “Take It Easy.”

Although his father had always pushed him to be a lawyer, as a young man, Kroll found he loved writing and literature. After graduating from Harvard in 1962, he went to work at Chatto and Windus, the prestigious London publishing house. Returning to the U.S., he worked in editing at Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

In 1971, he moved to Maine to try to concentrate on writing novels. But finding it too isolated from the New York publishing world, he moved back to the city a few years later. Settling in Greenwich Village., he turned his focus to children’s book writing.

His first effort, “Is Milton Missing?” tells the story of how an enormous Great Dane could inconceivably get lost in a small Manhattan apartment. (Kroll said the book was based on his nephew, Lincoln, and his large, exuberant Dalmatian, Sparky.) From “Is Milton Missing?” Kroll would go on to author 95 more children’s or young-adult books.

His top-selling one, “The Biggest Pumpkin Ever,” ends in a stirring finale with dozens of mice on motorcycles roaring over a hill with a giant pumpkin in tow to save Halloween; the book went on to become a New York Times best-selling series for Scholastic, and Kroll reportedly recently had just finished the sixth book in the series.

Another memorable picture book of Kroll’s, “One Tough Turkey,” tells of how the native fowl fought off the Pilgrims’ efforts to make them into the first Thanksgiving dinner. In the 1980’s, First Lady Barbara Bush invited Kroll to the White House when she read “One Tough Turkey” on national radio one Thanksgiving.

Kroll’s children’s books were known for their whimsical humor. “The Pigrates Clean Up” tells, in rhyming text, of pig pirates having to shape up and scrub down in anticipation of their captain’s wedding to his dazzling pigrate bride:

Pigrates working, pigrates sweating,

Getting ready for the wedding.

Everyone was getting thinner,

They were ready for their dinner.

Mouths hung open, tongues hung out,

When the cook began to shout,

“Wash your hands before you eat

Or you may not have a seat!”

Pigrates trooped out one by one

And they got the washing done.

Their old cook knew what was best,

Even if he was a pest.

Who could blame him in this band

For confusing hoof with hand?

Eventually, Kroll also moved into writing young-adult novels and picture books. Well researched, the picture books provided accurate accounts of historical events, including such titles as “Lewis and Clark: Explorers of the American West” and “By the Dawn’s Early Light: The Story of the Star Spangled Banner.” Kroll’s “Doctor on an Elephant” (illustrated by Michael Chesworth) tells the true story of Dr. John Symington, who in the early 20th century treated patients on plantations in Bengal province at the foot of the Himalayas.

His most recent young-adult picture book, “Barbarians!” published in 2009 (illustrated by Robert Byrd), is an informative look at the conquests and the cultures of the Goths, Huns, Vikings and Mongols.

During his career, Kroll worked with many top illustrators, such as Anita Lobel, who collaborated with him on his book “Looking for Daniela,” a romantic adventure set in Italy.

Under the Avon Camelot imprint, Kroll also wrote “The Hit and Run Gang” young-adult paperback series about the Rockets baseball team, with titles like “You’re Out!” “Playing Favorites” and “Pitching Trouble.”

Kroll was on the board of trustees of the PEN American Center from 1990 to 1996 and served as chairperson of its Young Adult/Children’s Committee. During that time, he brought many new children’s book authors into the organization, and held numerous panels and public forums on censorship. He was also a member of the Authors Guild, Books for Kids and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. In Bucks County, he organized the Authors Table for the Tinicum Arts Festival every year.

He traveled around the world visiting schools and talking to children in countries such as India, China, Brazil, Kenya and Fiji, among others. He especially relished his involvement with St. Joseph’s School in the Bronx, where he was the commencement speaker two years ago.

Kroll always loved Greenwich Village. As a teenager, he enjoyed hanging out amid its literary scene in the bohemian cafes and restaurants, with El Faro on Greenwich St. a favorite. So his move to the Village when he was around age 30 came naturally; Greenwich Village remained his home for nearly four decades. A bit of a Village character himself, in the 1970’s, Kroll used to take his cat, Alexander, out on a leash for walks around the block.

He is survived by his wife, Kathleen Beckett, a journalist, of Greenwich Village and Bucks County; his sister, June Anderson, a former international fabric designer, of Rutland, Vt.; one niece, Odile Anderson Oddo, a nurse anesthetist, of Manhattan; one nephew, Lincoln Anderson, associate editor of The Villager and East Villager; one grand-niece, Ashley Victoria Oddo; and cousins, including Jay Kaufman of Scarsdale, N.Y., and his children, Nina Kaufman and Laurance Kaufman of Manhattan and John Kaufman of San Francisco.

A private funeral service was held last Saturday in Upper Black Eddy, Pa., where he was buried in the Upper Tinicum Church yard. A public memorial service will be held sometime in the spring in New York City.

Donations can be made in his honor to St. Joseph’s School, 1946 Bathgate Ave., Bronx, N.Y. 10457; Attention, Janine Hughes.