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The Words Come First

An Interview with Kevin Henkes

by Geri Ceci Cupery

A Wisconsin native, Kevin Henkes is well-known to the Friends of the CCBC, and of course in the broader world of children’s literature where he has received frequent accolades for his work. He has been in the spotlight time and again since his first book was published by Greenwillow in 1981. His book Kitten's First Full Moon won both the Caldecott Award for children’s book illustration and the Charlotte Zolotow Award for outstanding writing for young children in 2005. He shared the following insights into his work during a telephone interview on April 20, 2005.

GCC: Kitten’s First Full Moon has garnered so much attention -- and rightly so -- for its luminous illustrations, winning the 2005 Caldecott Award. But in my mind, you hit two home runs with this single book by also winning the 2005 Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. So congratulations twice over!

KH: Thank you.

GCC: What was your reaction to winning the Zolotow Award?

KH: I was surprised. It came out of the blue, I hadn’t been thinking about it, and I just felt very, very happy. I think with a picture book, most people tend to focus on the pictures, and the words are very important to me. So it was gratifying to be honored for the words. I think often people take words in picture books for granted; where they kind of disappear for most people when they look at a picture book. But they’re terribly important, so this is very nice for me.

GCC: A number of years ago, The Horn Book devoted an entire issue to The Picture Book. Charlotte Zolotow wrote an article about “The Words” where she made this distinction: “The writers writing about children are looking back. The writers writing for children are feeling back into childhood.” Does that sound like a good description of what you do with your writing?

KH: I’ve chosen my art form, and it is an art form that is for children. Yes, I think she (Charlotte) probably nailed that in a particular way. I think there do exist picture books that are about kids and probably aren’t for them. They’re out there -- I don’t think they’re very good. A good picture book really is for a kid. It really is an art form that is for them.

GCC: As we talk about picture book writing, I’d like to go back to your first book, All Alone. Was that written in high school?

KH: I began writing it in high school.

GCC: And it got published when you were 20.

KH: Yes.

GCC: It’s a beautiful book -- I was glad to see it come out again in 2003.

KH: Yes, I was very happy that they decided to reissue it.

GCC: It’s very contemplative and quiet, celebrating solitude and the opportunity to use one’s imagination. I think it reads like a poem. Did you write the entire text first before tackling the pictures?

KH: I did write the full text first -- I always do. And when I first write the text, I don’t break it up into pages; I write it straight. So I guess if I would go back and look at the first drafts for that, it would probably look and read like a poem.

GCC: Would you call it an autobiographical picture book?

KH: Because I wrote it when I was 18 and 19, I think it’s young. I was trying to figure out who I was as a writer; it was a first. When I look back at it, it seems very much like a first book to me. Interestingly enough, my first two picture books were written in the first person. I haven’t done that since. I think it’s really hard to do. Because I was 19, I thought it was easier to do, but it’s hard to write in the first person and do it convincingly. Back then I thought it was what I would be best at doing.

GCC: I think they both work wonderfully well. Clean Enough is one of my favorites among your books. It’s quiet too, but it has this sly bit of humor -- like the title is the punch line, but the reader doesn’t find that out until the end.

KH: Yes, when I look back at Clean Enough, I already see the beginnings of humor which became much more dominant as I continued to write.

GCC: Do you recall any experiences sharing this book with children? Did they think it was funny -- or that you were just telling it like it was?

KH: Oh, they laughed. I haven’t used it with kids for quite awhile, but when I used to do school visits, I would often read Clean Enough. They’d think it was very funny. They thought that the cat was funny, and the ice cubes in the tub would often cause laughter to erupt. Also, when the boy ices the soap with his father’s shaving cream, that would make them laugh.

GCC: By the time you introduced your mouse characters to the world, humor had become a much bigger element of your stories, as you say. You even won an award expressly for that -- the Jo Osborne Award for Humor in Children’s Literature, in 2002. How does humor help you tell a story?

KH: I was just drawn to humor the way people are drawn to whatever it is they’re drawn to, and a lot of the books that I liked had an element of humor about them. So it was what I began to do without really thinking about it. It just happened. There are lots of different ways of telling stories. Using humor just evolved; it was what I started to do and continue to do. Although, I don’t think of myself as a funny person. I remember when I was told that I won the Jo Osborne Award, I thought they’d made a mistake. Although the books, obviously --

GCC: They’re funny!

KH: Yes, but it’s hard to be funny. When I’m writing a book, it’s hard to make the humor natural. Every now and then, I’ll write something and I’ll think it’s really funny, and then I’ll let it sit. Later I’ll reread it, and I’ll think it’s forced and it’s not funny, or it’s too much. It’s hard to strike that perfect balance. You don’t want to hit your reader over the head, you don’t want to go overboard. I try hard to make it work.

GCC: I read somewhere that successful picture book writers work and work and work with the words, until they read and flow together so naturally it sounds like there was no work involved at all.

KH: Right -- actually, in my Zolotow Lecture I quote M. B. Goffstein, I think the line is “You work and work until it looks like you didn’t work at all.” And I think that’s true. When you pick up a picture book, if it really works, it seems impossible for it to be any other way; it seems as if the author and artist knew from the very beginning how everything should be -- which of course is never the case. But that’s the goal, that it looks like there was only one way to do it, that this thing just kind of sprang from the earth, a complete object.

GCC: Pacing and rhythm, and making every word count -- you’ve noted the importance of these things in previous interviews. At this stage in your career, is you own inner ear the best guide? Or do you “test-read’ your work to trusted listeners?

KH: I do trust myself, although if I’m working on something for a very very long time, it’s nice to get that clear eye, to have my editor read it. Because she’s looking at it fresh, and sometimes when one is totally wrapped up in something and has been working on it for quite a long time, one can lose objectivity. But I do a lot of self-editing while writing.

The older that I get the more patient I am. When I was younger, I would want it to work instantly, and I would perhaps hurry things. Now I’m very willing to let something sit while I think about it. I can remember when I was younger, Susan Hirschman would often say if something didn’t work, to put it away for awhile. And when I was young, putting it away for “awhile” meant putting it away for an hour! Then of course I thought it was still the best thing that had ever been written. But now I can put something away for six weeks, or two months....and not looking at something for two months can be a good thing. When I will bring it out again, I can see the flaws, or the places that might be weaker than others. I’m much more patient and willing to do that now.

GCC: Looking at your books for toddlers, especially your earlier ones such as Shhh (1989), Circle Dogs (1998) and Oh! (1999)... making every word count seems even more crucial in those very short texts. Are they more challenging to write?

KH: I don’t think they’re more challenging, but they’re different. With a book like that I might agonize over a single word for weeks and weeks and weeks. With a longer picture book text -- a Lilly book, for example -- I may agonize over a phrase or a sentence. So it’s different, but also very similar. I think probably the fewer words one has, if the word isn’t right, it might show up more than it does in a longer picture book text. So in that instance, I suppose, maybe each word is a bit more important. But it seems to me the same thing, I want to try to get every word to be exactly right, get the rhythm of the words to be exactly right. Sometimes when there are fewer words, it’s the number of syllables that really matters. Sometimes I’ll find that, without knowing, it I’ll have used alliteration and I don’t want it. Because the words, when there are few, carry weight. Each one has to be exactly right.

GCC: I feel compelled to ask you this -- as the writer but not the illustrator of a picture book, do you ever feel a little anxious about how the art will fit your words?

KH: I never have been, which is interesting because I would think that I would be. But every one of the picture books of mine that has been illustrated by someone else was written when I was in the middle of a novel. Sometimes I’ve been stuck, and I’ve needed to try to write something to get unstuck. Sometimes I just had an idea for a book and I wrote it, but my heart and soul was still with the novel, and I didn’t want to abandon the novel. So in each case I’ve given up doing the pictures at a time when I was more interested in something else; and I’ve been happy with each one, which has been nice. With each one I’ve also had input as to who would illustrate the words, so that’s been nice as well.

GCC: Were you in the middle of a novel when you wrote your most recent picture book, So Happy! (illustrated by Anita Lobel)?

KH: I was still working on Olive’s Ocean when I wrote that. I have started a new longer book since then. And I’ve just finished a new Lilly picture book.

GCC: That’s great news for your readers. My next question just happens to be about your exuberant mouse characters.... They’ve appeared in over a dozen books so far, including five board books. And they have such distinctive personalities, I tend to see them as having become part of today’s child popular culture, like Rey’s Curious George or Schultz’s “Peanuts” gang. I’m especially thinking of Lilly and her purple plastic purse. At this point, do the characters themselves suggest new stories?

KH: Well, I just finished a new Lilly book, and she is a character that I think about. I’m not exactly sure how creativity works, but I know that I like her, and she lends herself to story. She’s often in the back of my mind.

GCC: Is there any bit of you in Lilly?

KH: (laughs) Not very much! Maybe the me I wish I were... I’m probably her opposite. She’s much more out there. I was a very shy kid. I wish I could be as open and bold as she is, but that’s not me.

GCC: Your longtime editor Susan Hirschman once suggested that you try switching gender perspective in order to free yourself up -- is that at work with Lilly’s character?

KH: I don’t think that’s so much at work here. When Susan suggested that, I was writing a novel, and it was about a boy who was very much me at a particular age. I felt very constricted by the facts of my life, and it wasn’t working -- it wasn’t becoming a novel. And I remember she said, “Try writing about a girl.” That was helpful in that instance, because it did totally free me from thinking “he’s got to be this way” -- because I was remembering back, and that’s the way it was. Which doesn’t work when you’re writing a novel.

Lilly makes her first appearance in Chester’s Way. I had a story about two boys, and I wanted to shake up their friendship somehow. It just seemed right that the new person would be a girl. So that is why Lilly happened the way she happened. And one could make the case that Lilly is a female Wendell (from the book A Weekend with Wendell).

GCC: Coming back to Kitten’s First Full Moon... In a Booklist starred review, your writing, with its “eternal words, rhythms, and appealing sounds” was compared to Margaret Wise Brown’s work. What’s your reaction to being compared to Margaret Wise Brown?

KH: Oh, I really admire her work, so I take it as a great compliment. I think she’s someone who really cared about this art form -- cared passionately-- and didn’t condescend, and respected the sensibilities of a real child. I think she understood that words do more than simply tell a story. What is also important is the rhythm, is the repetition, is the way in which you tell that story. I think she was a master at that.

GCC: There’s your wonderful refrain in Kitten about “the little bowl of milk, still waiting.” It’s so appealing to young children; I think they really like that. I really like that! It works so well as a read-aloud. We’ve already mentioned your newest picture book, So Happy!, and how your words and another artist’s pictures fit together. And you’re pretty happy with how that turned out?

KH: Yes. So Happy! is a very, very simple story, told with simple, unadorned sentences. Anita added an understory, a subtext. I love what she did, and I would never have imagined that’s what she would have done; but now I can’t picture it any other way. To me, it’s a real picture book, because her visual “words” are at least half, if not more, of what the child listener or the reader experiences. But it was absolutely unexpected, what she did. I absolutely love it.

GCC: Despite its spare text, the story’s structure is a little more complex -- not simply a beginning, middle, end. It goes beyond a single linear plot. I read the phrase “splitting, braided narratives” in one description of So Happy!

KH: Oh, that’s nice; I guess that’s what it is.... You know, I’m working on another text right now, which again is very, very simple. I think it’s a natural progression from So Happy!, because again it’s several different stories going on, but they’re all united in a particular way. I don’t know if it will work or not, but I hope it will.

GCC: Well, we’re “so happy” that you graciously took the time to be interviewed for the Friends’ newsletter, Kevin. So thank you very, very much.

KH: You’re very welcome.

More Information about Kevin Henkes

Cooper, Ilene. “The Booklist Interview: Kevin Henkes.” Booklist, January 1, 2004, p. 853.

Engberg, Gillian. Starred review of Kitten’s First Full Moon in Booklist, February 15, 2004, p. 1056.

Henkes, Kevin. “My Story” in Talking with Artists, Volume Two, compiled and edited by Pat Cummings. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, c1995.

Henkes, Kevin. “The Story Behind the Book.”

Horning, Kathleen T. “The Complete Package.” School Library Journal, October 1, 2004, pp. 50-53.

Kuskin, Karla. “Cat and Mouse Games.” The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 2004, p. 18.

Mattson, Jennifer. Review of So Happy! in Booklist, February 1, 2005, p. 960.

Snelson, Kari. “Wemberly Worried: A Round with Kevin Henkes.”

Selected picture books for young children by Kevin Henkes:

All Alone. Greenwillow, 1981.
Clean Enough. Greenwillow, 1982.
A Weekend with Wendell. Greenwillow, 1987.
Chester’s Way. Greenwillow, 1988.
Shhh. Greenwillow, 1989.
Owen. Greenwillow, 1993.
Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. Greenwillow, 1996.
Circle Dogs. Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Greenwillow, 1998.
Oh! Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow, 1999.
Owen’s Marshmallow Chick. Greenwillow, 2002.
Lilly’s Chocolate Heart. Greenwillow, 2004.
Kitten’s First Full Moon. Greenwillow, 2004.
So Happy!. Illustrated by Anita Lobel. Greenwillow, 2005.

Also see the CCBC's Kevin Henkes web page

Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2005, Number 2 with permission of Geri Ceci Cupery and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2000 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.


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