born and raised in Racine
by Susan Stan
This article was originally published in The Five Owls (November/December 1991). It is reprinted with the permission of the author.
In a field that so many people seem to enter almost accidentally, Kevin Henkes (pronounced HENK-us) is a rare example of someone who actually set out to be a children's book author and illustrator.
"I grew up wanting to be an artist," explains Henkes, who was raised in Racine, Wisconsin. "I loved books, and at the library I often picked books because of the illustrations. I loved Garth Williams;s illustrations, so when I got to the point where I was reading chapter books, I chose ones with his illustrations."
Until he reached high school, Henkes assumed he would be a painter. In his junior year, however, one of his teachers encouraged his writing efforts, and it was then that he hit on children's books as an art form that combined his artistic and literary interests.
"It seemed logical," he says, looking back, but anyone else would say it was inspired. That such an occupation would have even occurred to a high school student -- and especially to one whose school had never been visited by an author or illustrator -- is itself amazing. Henkes's response: "My mother always read us the title page -- maybe that was it."
With his goal firmly in mind, Henkes became a regular patron in the children's room at the Racine Public Library. The librarian [Nancy Elsmo] quickly got to know him and made sure to point out any new arrivals that he might like. She also directed him to the Cooperative Children's Book Center in Madison, situated on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, about an hour and a half away from his hometown. As a result, when he graduated from high school, he headed for college in Madison.
Henkes's first book was written during his freshman year in college. Equipped with a list of publishers culled from extensive hours of browsing at the CCBC, he took his portfolio to New York. Within days he had his first book contract, a sign of both his talent and the vision of Greenwillow's editor-in-chief, Susan Hirschman, who has published all of his books to date.
The initial contract resulted in All Alone (1981), a picture book in which a young child describes the pleasures of occasional solitude. While All Alone looks and sounds different from Henkes's later books featuring mice such as Chrysanthemum and Lily, what it has in common with them is a genuine sense of children's feelings, whether if is the need to be alone sometimes or the need to be accepted by one's peers.
When Henkes's body of work is viewed as a whole, the evolvement of his literary and artistic style becomes apparent. "I came to a point where my writing was becoming more humorous," notes Henkes, "and that's where the illustrations started to change." His early stories were told straightforwardly, sometimes by a child narrator, and illustrated with realistically rendered children. As his stories became more humorous, Henkes found that using animal characters increased the possibilities for humor in the pictures.
There are certain things I can do with animals that I can't do with children and get away with it," he explains. One example he gives occurs in Julius, The Baby of the World (1990), where jealous big sister Lilly pinches baby Julius's tail. Also, he points out, a mouse can show its exuberance by jumping three feet off the ground, whereas a realistically drawn human is considerably more earthbound.
Henkes grew up in a neighborhood full of children, five of which were in his family. "Growing up with four siblings," he says, "teaches you a lot about interpersonal relationships." He has many memories of his childhood, and much of what he writes about stems directly from those memories. "I don't know that I remember details any better than anyone else -- I think I remember the feelings."
Chrysanthemum, for example, was inspired by a remembered feeling, although the incident in the book is not the same one that originally provoked the feeling.
"The book is about family, and how starting something new and going out into the world can be very hard. I remember going to kindergarten -- my grandfather had a beautiful rose garden, and he gave me the last roses of the season to bring to the kindergarten teacher the next day. I don't even remember how it happened, but an older kid took these flowers from me on the playground and a remember coming home, feeling awful. My father picked me up from school the next day; kids were streaming out of the school and my father wanted me to point out the kid. I remember seeing the kid and deciding not to tell that he was the one who did it. It was my first step into the world, making those hard decisions. But I also remember the feeling of coming home from school each day and feeling elated to be home. No matter what happened in school, you could walk through the back door and feel good."
Henkes sees his position as the fourth child in the family as having been good for his art because he was the youngest for a long time and then became an older sibling. "Although I know what it feels like to be Bailey (from Bailey Goes Camping, 1985), being the youngest and left out, I also know what it feels like to be Lilly."
Henkes's published work includes several chapter books, and at one time he toyed with the idea of restricting himself to writing only. During that period, he submitted a picture book, Once Around the Block, to his editor but then decided not to illustrate it. Hirschman liked the manuscript and wanted to publish it anyway; Henkes was delighted when she contacted Victoria Chess to do the illustrations.
Kevin Henkes has since come to terms with his two gifts and enjoys being able to go back and forth between writing and illustrating. Although he never works on illustrating and writing projects at the same time, his mind is rarely still. By the time he has finished a novel, he can count on having several new ideas for picture books.
©1991 Susan Stan
Contact Kevin Henkes in care of: Greenwillow Books, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019