June 02, 1997 12:00 PM

THE LITTLE CAR THAT COULD

When Shelley Day and Ron Gilbert started a children’s software company in 1992, they faced a daunting challenge: to invent a character that could leap from the computer screen into the hearts of preschoolers. Luckily, Day had real-world experience. Every night for three years, starting when her son Travis was 3, she had regaled him with ad-libbed tales about a car named Putt-Putt.

“It was just something I made up so I could get my son to bed a little quicker,” says Day, 36. But for fledgling Humongous Entertainment, the talking purple roadster was a revelation to rival Mickey or Barney. Its first CD-ROM, Putt-Putt Joins the Parade, was an instant hit, selling, along with two sequels, a combined million-plus copies and winning over 40 industry awards—not to mention the devotion of the littlest gamers. Kids regard Putt-Putt, as well as such newer Humongous creations as Freddi Fish and Pajama Sam, “like stuffed animals that they want to get out of the closet again and again,” says Home PC education editor Carol Ellison, who calls them “the most treasured characters of all time” among her kid-testers.

Expect to see more of Putt-Putt, whose latest adventure, Putt-Putt Travels Through Time, comes out in June. The Woodinville, Wash., producers are working to move their creations to TV, video and even lunch boxes. Gilbert, 33, says the games appeal because they’re designed for fun, not education. “These characters,” he says, “really have to come from the heart, not the head.”

AFTER THE BOMB

Every morning before leaving her rented Denver apartment for the Timothy McVeigh trial, Marsha Kight, whose daughter Frankie Ann Merrell died in the Oklahoma City bombing, logs onto the Web page of Families and Survivors United. Onscreen the home-maker reads dozens of messages of support from around the world. “It warms the soul when you are feeling pretty empty inside,” says Kight, 48. In fact the site (www.familiessurvivorsunite.com), erected in January, serves dual purposes, says Kight, who founded the group. In part it provides the 275 members, who were injured or lost relatives in the blast, with trial updates and links to support groups—and as such is a grim window to their ongoing anguish. But it is also a public face. “We are trying to give people a sense of our loss,” says Kight. A list of victims links visitors to individual memorial pages. Lyle Cousins, a truck driver who maintains the site, created a page for his wife. “For most of you,” it begins, “reading this is as close as you’ll ever get to Kim this side [of] heaven.”

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