Henkes, Kevin 1960-
Kevin Henkes 1960-INTRODUCTION
American illustrator and author of picture books, board books, and young adult novels.
The following entry presents an overview of Henkes's career through 2004. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 23.
A published children's author since the age of nineteen, Henkes has quickly earned a reputation as a respected writer and illustrator, one of the few living authors to have won both the Caldecott and the Newbery Prizes for children's literature. Perhaps best known for his series of picture books featuring mouse protagonists—including the stubbornly appealing Lilly—Henkes is often praised for his understanding of children and their world and for his sensitivity toward their thoughts and feelings. Henkes's picture books address such varied subjects as sibling rivalry, friendship, relationships with relatives, bathtime, a child's first waking moments, and the joys of being alone, among other topics. He often focuses on situations where bossy youngsters, frequently older siblings, get their comeuppance and learn their limitations, and is well known for creating spunky heroines and likeable characters with whom young readers can easily identify. In addition to his picture books, Henkes is also the author of several young adult novels, which have been acknowledged for their presentation of caring families and empathetic treatment of emotional issues.
The fourth of five children, Henkes was born on November 27, 1960, in Racine, Wisconsin, to Bernard and Beatrice Henkes. An active reader and a talented artist, he was given strong encouragement from both his parents and teachers who saw his drive and early promise. Inspired by such children book legends as Garth Williams, Crockett Johnson, Maurice Sendak, and William Steig, Henkes began researching the world of children's publishing at a young age. Nancy Elsmo, a librarian at the Racine Public Library, informed him of the well-regarded Cooperative Children's Book Center located at the University of Wisconsin. Upon his graduation, Henkes moved to Madison and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, taking full advantage of the Center's resources. In addition to his regular coursework, Henkes spent his first year of college charting storylines and sketching storyboards for potential books, all of which were part of his master plan to become a published children's writer. The summer after his freshman year at Wisconsin, Henkes gathered the addresses of several publishing firms and traveled to New York City. With his portfolio in hand, he began visiting the offices of the publishers on his list. On the second day of his rounds, he approached the offices of Greenwillow Books, a smaller firm that was also his first choice of publishers. There he met with children's editor Susan Hirschman, who was astonished to meet such a focused young writer and illustrator. Leafing through his prospectus, she recognized Henkes's potential and took a risk on the nineteen-year-old author, signing him to a contract. The initial result of their collaboration was the picture book All Alone (1981). With A Weekend with Wendell (1986), Henkes began a series of eminently popular picture books that chronicle the lives of a variety of surprisingly well-defined mice characters, including Lilly, Sheila-Rae, Chester, Chrysanthemum, Julius, Owen, and the always anxious Wendell. Expanding his literary repertoire to reach intermediate readers, Henkes has written over a half-dozen young adult novels, tackling such intense emotional issues as the difficulties in gaining a new stepfather in Two under Par (1987), reconciling the death of a mother in Words of Stone (1992), and mourning a lost grandmother in Sun and Spoon (1997). In the past decade, Henkes has seen his efforts for both his picture books and young adult novels garner a wealth of awards—1993's Owen was named a Caldecott Honor Book and 2003's Olive's Ocean was named a Newbery Honor Book. His critical appreciation recently culminated with his reception of the 2005 Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon (2004), the highest honor an American picture book can receive. Henkes lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife, illustrator Laura Dronzek, and their two children.
As an author, Henkes is credited with not providing overly easy answers for his young protagonists, whose experiences in their families, such as learning to accept change and to become more compassionate, aid in their maturation. As an illustrator, Henkes frequently uses soft watercolors and delicate pen and pencil lines in pictures that are occasionally framed or bordered. He has been noted for the expressive qualities of his characters, especially his cartoon-like animals, which have been compared to the early work of Maurice Sendak. Never sermonizing, the characters in his varied picture books instead present a standard of action that an impressionable young child can use to respond to potentially confusing life situations. His first publication, All Alone, is a forty-page picture book for new readers in which a boy explains his reasons for believing why it is sometimes better to be alone. Different in style and form than Henkes's later releases, it features a more gauzy style of portraiture that his current fans might not recognize. Initially using very realistic-looking people in his first four books, Henkes began to move towards a softer, more comic presentation of his protagonists; his progression as a writer eventually led him towards the utilization of animals as a more effective means of reaching his core audience of beginning readers. 1985's Bailey Goes Camping marked the genesis of a new format of picture books for Henkes featuring non-human protagonists, which reached its apex with A Weekend with Wendell and Henkes's mouse series.
Throughout his picture books, Henkes has demonstrated an uncanny knack for telling tales that not only speak from a child's point of view, but also relate to events important to their limited world perspective. One example is his sensitive presentation of the difficulty Owen the mouse has in releasing his beloved blanket, Fuzzy, as part of growing up in Owen. Further, Henkes utilizes the language of his readers, seemingly expressing their feelings in manner they can understand. This method is seen in Chester's Way (1988), the story of best friends faced with the unwelcome intrusion of a new girl who wants to join their group. In this manner, Chester summarizes his relationship with his best friend Wilson as "Chester and Wilson. Wilson and Chester. That's the way it was." But as the two boys realize that they like the new girl, that simple piece of dialogue evolves into "Chester and Wilson and Lilly, Lilly and Wilson and Chester. That's the way it was." Additionally, in Henkes's picture books, secondary characters reappear frequently—for example, Lilly from Chester's Way later goes on to star as the lead character in Julius, the Baby of the World (1990) and Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (1996). By so doing, Henkes is able to add a layer of depth to these characters over the course of several books that otherwise might not exist given the physical limitations of the short picture book format.
Though his picture books specialize in light-hearted humor, Henkes's young adult novels dramatize many of the potentially difficult and traumatic emotional experiences that pre-adolescent children are often faced with. His frank, yet appealing directness in these works is complimented by the three-dimensional nature of his characters, whom have flaws and make mistakes in the course of dealing with their problems. Able to see aspects of themselves in Henkes's protagonists, children can imagine themselves similarly trying to relate to the everyday ordeals of getting older, such as first crushes, parental disappointments, and painful betrayals by perceived friends. But perhaps most powerfully, Henkes willingly broaches taboo topics by sometimes featuring the death of a person close to the narrator, such as with the death of Olive Barstow in Olive's Ocean. At the beginning of the novel, Martha Boyle, the narrator, is visited by the mother of Olive, Martha's classmate who was accidentally killed weeks earlier. Mrs. Barstow wants to give Martha a page from Olive's diary that simultaneously describes Martha as "the nicest girl in my class" while expressing a desire to get to know her better. For Martha, these revelations are at once both astonishing and devastating as she barely knew Olive, and to discover their similarities—such as their shared dreams of becoming writers—only after Olive's death forces Martha to reexamine her own priorities. Over the course of the novel, she is forced to confront several painful realities over a short period of time, such as meeting and losing her first crush and facing the death of yet another person, this time someone very close to her.
Despite debuting at such an early age, Henkes has continually been lauded by both audiences and critics alike for his skills as a children's author and illustrator. Exhibiting an uncannily perceptive ability to relate stories of character and interest to children regardless of age, gender, or ethnicity, his works have been hailed for their intuitive comprehension of their respective audiences. His young adult novels have been particularly acclaimed for avoiding the cloyingly sentimental contrivances that often plague the genre. In her review of Sun and Spoon, Mary M. Burns has commented that Henkes's "ability to create dramatic conflict from the daily struggles of ordinary lives is rare in novels for this audience. He understands the human condition, particularly the psychology of the pre-adolescent, and conveys both angst and joy in a cathartic resolution." Further, Henkes's presentation of difficult subjects, as demonstrated by Olive's Ocean, has prompted Michael Cart to call the Newbery award-winning book, "another lovely, character-driven novel that explores, with rare subtlety and sensitivity, the changes and perplexities that haunt every child's growing-up process." Similarly, critics have praised Henkes's picture books for their committed relevance to the psyche and day-today concerns of small children. Joanna Rudge Long has perhaps best summarized Henkes's strengths as a writer, commenting that, "From the picture books travails of Owen or Lilly to his novels about older children, Kevin Henkes's gift is depicting everyday events with disarming simplicity. His characters' experiences help them mature; meanwhile, gently but reliably, they offer vicarious insights for the reader."
Given the relative brevity of his career, Henkes has already won an exhaustive array of awards and accolades. Over twenty-five of his books have been named Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices Honor Books. Other examples of his many awards include his winning of the New York Times 1987 Children's Choices Award for A Weekend with Wendell, a Library of Congress 1988 Best Books of the Year citation for Once around the Block (1987), an ALA Notable Children's Book citation for Chester's Way, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 1989 citation and 1990 Horn Book Fanfare Award for Jessica (1989). He has also received an ALA Notable Children's Book citation, Booklist Editor's Choice citation, and Horn Book Fanfare Award for Julius, the Baby of the World. Caldecott Honor Book Owen additionally received an ALA Notable Children's Book citation, Booklist Editor's Choice citation, Boston Globe—Horn Book Award, Archer/Ekblad Children's Picture Book Award, Horn Book Fanfare Award, Notable Children's Trade Books for the Language Arts Award, and the Reading Rainbow Feature Book Award. Olive's Ocean was named a Newbery Honor Book and also won an ALA Notable Children's Book citation, ALA Best Book for Young Adults citation, Horn Book Fanfare Award, New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age citation, Booklist Editors' Choice citation, and Virginia Young Readers Award. Kitten's First Full Moon, which won the 2005 Caldecott Medal, also received a New York Times Best Illustrated Books citation.
All Alone (picture book) 1981
Clean Enough (picture book) 1982
Margaret and Taylor (picture book) 1983
Return to Sender (young adult novel) 1984
Bailey Goes Camping (picture book) 1985
Grandpa and Bo (picture book) 1986
A Weekend with Wendell (picture book) 1986
Once around the Block [illustrations by Victoria Chess] (picture book) 1987
Sheila Rae, the Brave (picture book) 1987
Two under Par (young adult novel) 1987
Chester's Way (picture book) 1988
The Zebra Wall (young adult novel) 1988
Jessica (picture book) 1989
Shhhh (picture book) 1989
Julius, the Baby of the World (picture book) 1990
Chrysanthemum (picture book) 1991
Words of Stone (young adult novel) 1992
Owen (picture book) 1993
The Biggest Boy [illustrations by Nancy Tafuri] (picture book) 1995
Good-bye, Curtis [illustrations by Marisabina Russo] (picture book) 1995
Protecting Marie (young adult novel) 1995
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (picture book) 1996
Sun and Spoon (young adult novel) 1997
Circle Dogs [illustrations by Dan Yaccarino] (picture book) 1998
The Birthday Room (young adult novel) 1999
Oh! [illustrations by Laura Dronzek] (picture book) 1999
Wemberly Worried (picture book) 2000
Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick (board book) 2001
Owen's Marshmallow Chick (board book) 2002
Julius's Candy Corn (board book) 2003
Olive's Ocean (young adult novel) 2003
Wemberly's Ice-Cream Star (board book) 2003
Kitten's First Full Moon (picture book) 2004
Lilly's Chocolate Heart (board book) 2004
So Happy! [illustrations by Anita Lobel] (picture book) 2005
Kevin Henkes, Anita Silvey, and Martha V. Parravano (interview date 22 July 1991)
SOURCE: Henkes, Kevin, Anita Silvey, and Martha V. Parravano. "The Artist at Work." Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 1 (January 1992): 48-57.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on July 22, 1991, Henkes discusses his career as a children's author and illustrator as well as his personal philosophy regarding picture books, believing them to be "a special art form."]
I've known for a long time that I wanted to be an artist. My mother still has many of my pictures, starting from when I was about two. I was always drawing; I was always painting. And I loved books. It wasn't until much later, of course, that I thought I might like to do them myself. I loved books because of their illustrations. My favorite one as a child was Is This You? (Scholastic) by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. Interestingly enough, in it you actually make a book; you draw a picture of your family and your house. Then, because of Crockett Johnson, I discovered the Harold books and The Carrot Seed (Harper). Rain Makes Applesauce (Holiday) was another important book for me—long after I outgrew picture books—because the artwork is so beautiful. I still have all my picture books. My name is written in each of them very large in fat crayon, and if I really liked a book, my name takes up a whole page. My Is This You? is tattered, but I still have it. When I got older, I admired Garth Williams. I was attracted by the image rather than the story in novels; now, it's always the story that comes first for me.
My oldest brother, Peter, was considered the artist in the family, although he abandoned his artistic pursuits in high school. I would try very hard to copy things that he had painted. I can remember being frustrated because, being older, he would get the thin brushes, and I would get the big fat brushes. When he was in eighth grade, my parents had one of his paintings framed and hung it in the living room, and I couldn't wait until they framed one of mine. I received a lot of encouragement from my family. My maternal grandmother gave me my first set of oil paints; she used to paint with oils on wood, mostly folk art. My grandfather, a photographer, would give me the paints he used to tint his photographs. I took art lessons every Saturday at a local art museum. All of us did, but I think I loved drawing more than anyone else, so I kept taking lessons. In school, for my electives, I always took art. In my junior year of high school, I had an English teacher who was very influential in my life. For the first time, I began to start thinking about writing and about a career. And because I was beginning to like writing, I thought creating picture books would be the perfect occupation for me: I could do the two things I liked to do more than anything—I could draw and I could write. The great thing about a successful picture book is you can't have great illustrations without a great text, and you can't have a great text without great illustrations. A picture book is a special art form. You can be the world's best painter, but you may not be able to create a picture book. Today so many picture books are just decorative. But the art form of the picture book is, in fact, all thirty-two pages—pictures and words—working together.
So, in high school, I started to think about becoming a creator of picture books. I read them. I took out books about how to write and illustrate picture books. I looked at Writer's Digest. I started making dummies, and at that point I had already started working on what ended up being my first book. I had the first draft of All Alone (Greenwillow) done by my senior year.
I decided to go to college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison because the Cooperative Children's Book Center was there, and I knew Nancy Ekholm Burkert and Ellen Raskin had gone to Madison. During my freshman year of college, I really began to polish my stories and my portfolio and to look seriously at publishers. Ginny Moore Kruse suggested that I examine books collectively, publisher by publisher. I would make a stack of Harper and a stack of Greenwillow and so on. I began to look at them in terms of who published the kind of books that I liked, trying to see if I thought my stories fit into their spectrum. I looked at paper quality; I looked at production materials. I began to see who published quality books in terms of story; who published children's books for children; who published children's books for adults. After I looked at books for a long time, I made a list of my ten favorite publishers in order of preference, and Greenwillow ended up as my first choice.
I was nineteen when I went to New York to show my portfolio. The earliest I could get an appointment with Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow was on Tuesday, and I filled up the rest of the week with appointments with other publishers I was interested in. I had Monday free, so I decided to visit two publishers that I didn't like very much. I thought it would make me less nervous for my appointment with Susan, just to see what it was like inside a publishing house. They didn't like what I had, anyway, but the experience calmed me a bit. I went to Greenwillow on Tuesday morning, and Susan read the dummy and quickly looked through my portfolio. She started asking questions, but none of the questions had anything to do with books or my work. She asked questions about Wisconsin and my family. She asked me, "Why did your mother let you go to New York alone? Do you want to call her? Do you have someplace to stay?" I think she thought it was strange that I would come from Wisconsin to New York at nineteen and know that I wanted to do books. She asked where I was going next, and I said Harper. And she said, "Well, we'll have to take you before they do!" So I had a publisher! I went back home to Wisconsin and began working; I took the next semester off. I remember Susan was worried about that; I think she felt she was leading me astray. She was happy when I went back to school.
For me, the process of creating a picture book, from story idea on, differs a bit with each project. More often than not it's a character or a name or a title that comes first. From that point, it may take me a couple of years to write the book. The ideas tend to overlap and slip away and resurface. But when I'm finishing up the illustrations on a book—with about two weeks left to go—I start to panic, thinking I'll never have another idea. But so far, during that tense time, something always comes to me. I don't know how that works. It's usually an idea I've had for a while. I may even have written down a title. Often, toward the end of a book, I'll try to stretch out those last few illustrations, just to give myself a little more time to get an idea.
After I send out my finished illustrations, I begin to write the new book. The words always come first. I'll write the story, and that can take anywhere from a week to two months. When I write a picture book, I don't like to force anything. I write three lines, and that may take three hours. But I'll sit there and just doodle if I have to. Usually, I'll have the opening, and I'll know where I want to end up; working on the middle takes the most time. I always read aloud when I write. I read it back to myself over and over—because a good picture book is read over and over. It's got to have a certain rhythm. When I think the text is as good as it can be, I mail it to Susan. The next step is to pick a typeface, which Ava Weiss and I do together. Then I begin to make a dummy, and it's at this point that the text begins to change, because more often than not, something I wanted to express is now in the illustration, and I find I don't need the words. It's a fine balance. I've been reading the text aloud for such a long time that if I take a word out, it breaks the rhythm. So I have to work on the rhythm all over again, and then on the pacing.
I do pencil sketches for the entire book and send them to Susan so she knows roughly what I want in the pictures. Then she and Ava will look at them and send them back. I'll take them to my light-up drawing table; I'll tape my good paper over them, and then I'll trace them through again in pencil. I'll go back with India ink. I ink the whole book; then I go back and paint the whole book. I use transparent watercolors, just ordinary ones; I still have some of the watercolors that I had in high school. A lot of people think that the painting part would be the most fun, but usually by that time the excitement is gone.
I used to work on whatever part of the book pleased me at the time, but now I do the whole book in order. In the very beginning, for the first couple of books, I would do a pencil sketch for a page, and then do that final piece of artwork. But I've learned that it's best for me to sketch out the entire book from beginning to end. Because I learn so many things about the story and the characters throughout the course of a book, it's best for me to develop the story in progression. The character grows and changes, and I want to do something in the art to symbolize the change.
I almost always have the character first. I think to be exciting, to have tension, there has to be a problem of some sort in the story, and it has to be resolved. But the only way a book can be real, for me, is to have the character first and then take the story from there. Any time that I've tried to write a book about a "problem," Susan has never accepted it. Occasionally, I've tried to do a holiday book, but I don't even try anymore, because it doesn't work. I can't do it. It creates a framework that is too constricting for me. Even though, for instance, Chester is a mouse, I think of him as a real person. There are specific things about him that make him Chester. I didn't think of Chester's Way (Greenwillow) as a book about friendship; I just had Chester in my head. I had him in my head long before I even knew there would be a Lilly.
In my first four books—All Alone, Clean Enough, Margaret and Taylor, and Return to Sender (all Greenwillow)—I used human protagonists, rendered quite realistically. But my texts started to become more and more humorous after that, and I found that animals were a great way to tap the potential of the humor. I was also getting tired of having to find a child to stand before me whom I could sketch. It's very freeing for me to be alone in my studio without having a model there; I love being able to sketch freely from my imagination. When I wrote my fifth book, Bailey Goes Camping (Greenwillow), I thought at first that the characters in it would be human, but I decided to try animals. I sketched every kind I could imagine, and ended up using rabbits—I thought I could show a lot of emotion in the way I drew the ears. In the next book, A Weekend with Wendell (Greenwillow), I wanted to use a different animal, and I chose mice. I was a Mickey Mouse fan when I was a child, and I also had a cup shaped like a mouse head with little eyes that would move if you shifted the cup. I really loved the mice characters, and I've used them ever since. There is a lot I can do with their tails and ears, and there are so many levels on which I can visually tap the humor. If you have a mouse, jumping for joy, three feet up in the air—in a kind of contorted posture—it looks joyful, but if you try to draw realistically a human child doing the same thing, it looks all wrong. I think the mice fit the text of A Weekend with Wendell and the other books in which they've appeared, and that's important to me. But I always ask myself: What is the best way to illustrate this text? In a book like Grandpa and Bo (Greenwillow), I wouldn't use mice; it wouldn't work. With Jessica (Greenwillow), I went back to humans. I had a hard time thinking about mice for Jessica because of the opening lines, "Ruthie Simms didn't have a dog. She didn't have a cat." That's why I ended up drawing people. But I didn't want realistic-looking people; I wanted people who looked more like my mice. So I cut off the heads of the characters on the proofs for some of the earlier mouse books and drew human heads on top of the mouse bodies. It was good practice. Doing this loosened up the way I drew humans.
I've been told that the figures in Jessica are somewhat reminiscent of Maurice Sendak's characters in A Hole Is to Dig (Harper). I remember Sendak's work clearly from my childhood, and I never outgrew it. In middle school I ordered Where the Wild Things Are (Harper) from the school book club; I remember thinking I was too old for it, but I bought it anyway, because I loved it. Now, as an adult, in addition to Sendak, I love William Steig's work, and that of James Marshall, Rosemary Wells, and Arnold Lobel. I love Margot Zemach's illustrations—her depiction of the wonderful clutter of life. Those people really know what makes a good book. Some of Arnold Lobel's books seem absolutely perfect; the pictures say exactly what they should say. You can learn a lot from his books, yet he's not pounding you over the head with a message. I can always tell when I pick up a book where the author has said, "I want to write a book about friendship." It doesn't have the same quality to it, the same richness.
I enjoy the writing more than I do the illustrating now, even though I started out being an illustrator. I know that I can draw for six hours and not be tired, but writing is difficult despite the pleasure it brings me. With a picture book, I usually know if it's going to work within a week or so. With a novel, I could work for months and still not be sure and have to put it away.
There was a time when I was doing two books a year. I was going too fast, and I would get writer's block. Now that I've slowed down a bit, that doesn't seem to happen as much. But there are always things I write that don't work. Susan calls it a great compost heap: nothing's really ever rejected; you just have to put it back for a while. My first reaction when she says something doesn't work is, "Yes it does !" My second is, "I can't write." But so far, I've always seen that she's right. She's very perceptive. Most of the things that she's rejected are either so awful that they don't work and probably never will, or else they have turned into something else. For example, I once did a picture book that Susan thought was too much for the art form—too much emotion and too complex for a thirty-two-page picture book. It ended up being a chapter in my novel Two under Par (Greenwillow). I think at that time I was aching to do something longer. The problem was simply to realize that what I was writing was a novel, not a picture book.
The emotional content of my work more often than not comes from things that I remember from my childhood. Julius, the Baby of the World (Greenwillow) is the exception—it's based directly on my two nieces, even though, as one of five children, I knew all about sibling rivalry. I don't always remember specific events from my childhood, but I remember the feelings, and I remember certain tiny, tiny details very clearly—what I wore the first day of kindergarten, for instance. And I was very introspective, which I think helped intensify my memories.
Even when something awful would happen to me as a child, I always had this comforting feeling that my parents would make things turn out all right. To be honest to the child I was, even if something traumatic happens to a character in one of my picture books, I like to have it end on that hopeful note. I remember that I had that sense of well-being. Chrysanthemum (Greenwillow) is about a little girl who has an awful time at school. I can still remember coming home after something awful had happened: I stepped inside the back door and the weight was lifted. I was home, and it smelled good and felt good. And I put on my play clothes and things were okay. Which didn't mean that when I walked out the door the next day, something else wouldn't happen. I know that sense of comfort might not exist for every child, but I write about what I know.
Chrysanthemum began about two years ago, when I was out running. I got close to home and started walking, and in front of me were two little girls, first or second graders, walking to school. Two bigger girls behind them were taunting one of them, and she looked heartbroken and on the verge of tears. And I remembered how terrible something like that can feel. I started thinking about something that happened to me in kindergarten. It was right at the beginning of the school year, and in my grandfather's beautiful garden the last roses of the summer were blooming. He suggested that I take some to my teacher. But an older girl stole my flowers on the playground. I was miserable. I remember coming home that day and telling my parents. The next day my dad came to pick me up after school. We were watching the children come out, and he asked me to point out the girl to him. I was excited at first that my father was going to talk to her; but when she walked out, I had this feeling that it would only make things worse. I remember seeing her walk by and, through the lump in my throat, saying that I didn't know where the girl was. And then we left. Chrysanthemum is the first book of mine that doesn't end on a completely hopeful note; in the epilogue you realize that Victoria and Chrysanthemum aren't friends and probably never will be. Chrysanthemum will probably spend all her elementary-school years with this kid, and I'm sure she'll have more problems. But I think in childhood you can feel awful, and something terrible will happen—and then everything will suddenly turn around.
I try to put a sense of joy into my books. The creative process is hard, but on the days when I think that something works, there's nothing like it. There are certain illustrations that I'm really happy with, for one reason or another; they might not be the best artistically, but for me they work. All Alone will always be special to me because it was my first book. And I love Lilly, more than anything; she's my favorite character.
Lilly's red boots came from a childhood experience. Every fall, all five of us would get new school shoes, and when I was in first grade, we went to J. C. Penney. I was supposed to get brown wingtips, but I saw a pair of cowboy boots—they were black and had red trim—and I really wanted them. I guess that I whined so much that my mother bought them for me. I put them on and put my old shoes in the box, and by the time I got home I hated them. They were much too showy for me. I never wore them out of the house again. I'll never forget that feeling, being in my room thinking, Why did I ever want these? And knowing that I'd never wear them. I had to create Lilly to do the things I couldn't do. It's one of the reasons I like her so much. Also, unlike Victoria, there's a pureness of heart underneath that tough exterior.
I thought going around talking to children in classrooms might change my work, but it didn't. Really funny things happen when I'm doing appearances at schools, but they never end up in a book. I might meet a kid who has a name I love that I'll use. The only thing about talking with children—which is not a small thing at all—is that I get to see them react to the books. I work alone, in a kind of vacuum, so I don't have any idea how children will react. That's always interesting.
I think my books have changed a lot. I think you can tell that All Alone is by an idealistic nineteen-year-old who wanted to do picture books. Back then, I never thought that I would write a funny book, and that's what I'm most drawn to now. I think a lot of my development is because of Susan; she gave me room. She's also a great inspiration. She knows the right things to say and do. She's exactly the way I always thought an editor should be. And she encouraged me to write longer things. I don't know how she knew that I wanted to, or why she thought that I might be able to, but she did.
The most ecstatic moment of all—and this has never changed—is when Susan says yes to a book proposal. I'm still as excited as I was the first time. The next best part is when I'm working, when I get to the point where I think all the elements are going to come together and the book is going to work.
Early in my career, after All Alone was published, I started doing limited edition books where I made the paper, set the type, printed each page, and bound the books. I was the editor, the writer, the artist, the art director, the production manager. There was a time when I thought that was the direction I wanted to go in my life. But I always came back to creating children's books. I believe it was what I was meant to do, and I love it more than anything else.
Kevin Henkes and Jennifer M. Brown (interview date 22 November 1999)
SOURCE: Henkes, Kevin, and Jennifer M. Brown. "New Books by Old Pros." Publishers Weekly 246, no. 47 (22 November 1999): 21-2.
[In the following interview, Henkes discusses his career and the inspirations behind his young adult novel The Birthday Room.]
A visual artist first and foremost, Kevin Henkes creates a world that appeals to the five senses even when he is using words as his paintbrush. For fans of his work, specific images from his novels spring to mind: the matching M-shaped imprints on the hands of a boy and his grandmother in Sun and Spoon, the opening crescent-shaped gravesite in Words of Stone. This fall's The Birthday Room (Greenwillow) is no exception.
The novel centers on Ben, a budding artist whose parents give him an attic room for his 12th birthday to use as a studio, and whose uncle gives him an airline ticket to visit him in Oregon. That readers can almost taste Ben's birthday breakfast of blueberry pancakes and smell the apple orchard near Ben's uncle's house, as well as empathize with the feeling of sanctity Ben senses when he steps into his uncle's woodworking shop, is no accident. Henkes researched the times that the sun rose and set in Oregon in August; he has friends with an apple orchard and other friends who do woodworking; he was even undergoing construction on his own attic while writing the book. He grounds each novel in the particulars of his firsthand experience.
The main impetus for The Birthday Room was the birth of Henkes's son. "He was so little and fragile, and as a first child, he seemed more so to us. We were so careful with him," Henkes recalls. "And then I got to thinking: What would happen if an accident happened that wounded a child in some way? What would that be like from a child's perspective?"
Much of the tension in the novel stems from the blame Ben's mother places on her brother for an injury Ben had incurred at age 2 1/2 in his uncle's workshop, which resulted in the loss of the little finger on Ben's left hand. Ben has no fear of his uncle, yet his mother still doesn't trust him with Ben. "I didn't want the child to be scared, but someone else might be," Henkes says.
Like Ben and his uncle, many of the characters in Henkes's fiction are artists: the father in Words of Stone is a painter; the mother in Sun and Spoon is an elementary school art teacher. "I often have artists as characters in books because I love writing about painting," Henkes says. "I think of scenes as paintings. I need to have that frame, then the characters can move around in that space." He mentions the importance of light and shadow in Sun and Spoon and the significance of various rooms—even the thresholds—in The Birthday Room.
If Henkes gets stuck while writing a novel, he often takes a break to pen a picture book. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and Circle Dogs, for instance, were texts he wrote on hiatus from 1995's Protecting Marie. He explains why he is so drawn to writing novels: "I love to go into depth, to describe the psyche in a way that you can't and shouldn't in picture books. With novels, I can explore a character in a different way. Novels take longer to do, and you live with a character for two years. It's a different way of working."
A WEEKEND WITH WENDELL (1986)
Ethel R. Twichell (review date November-December 1986)
SOURCE: Twichell, Ethel R. Review of A Weekend with Wendell, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 62, no. 6 (November-December 1986): 734.
No one in his right mind would consider asking Wendell over, even for just a peanut butter sandwich. But [in A Weekend with Wendell, ] Sophie's parents injudiciously take Wendell on for a whole weekend while his parents are off visiting relatives. Appealing water-colors depict the small mouse up to his naughty best—or worst. Wendell bosses Sophie in their games, refuses to eat any green vegetables at dinner, and writes his name on the bathroom mirror in toothpaste. The scampering paws and twitching tails of the two little mice lend mischief rather than mayhem to the antics and may possibly remind young readers of a misdemeanor or two of their own. Wendell's eventual comeuppance is nicely handled as timid little Sophie takes matters into her own small paws. That a friendship blossoms out of their confrontation is just one more bonus in a pleasant, un-pretentious story.
ONCE AROUND THE BLOCK (1987)
Tina L. Burke (review date February 1988)
SOURCE: Burke, Tina L. Review of Once around the Block, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Victoria Chess. Childhood Education 64, no. 3 (February 1988): 173.
Bored with waiting for Papa, Annie sets out on a walk once around the block [in Once around the Block ]. Offered companionship, diversion, a rose and a chocolate cookie, she returns to find Papa waiting for her on the front step. Henkes' text is clean and rhythmic and holds a satisfying refrain. However, Chess's squat, smiling, bug-eyed characters and detailed scenes win the show. Will be pored over again and again. Ages 4-7.
TWO UNDER PAR (1987)
Ann A. Flowers (review date July-August 1987)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of Two under Par, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 63, no. 4 (July-August 1987): 461-62.
[In Two under Par, ] Wedge, so called because of his physical shape, is convinced that nothing ever makes sense. He has every right to be confused because his whole life has changed. His mother—to call her flighty would be charitable—suddenly married Arthur "King" Simpson, the owner of a miniature golf course called Camelot embellished with a castle, a dragon, and knights. Not only that, Wedge has a new five-year-old stepbrother, Andrew. Wedge hates the new house, King, Andrew, castle, and all. The last straw is to hear from a friend that his mother got married because she is pregnant, and on a whim she goes for a little trip with Andrew so Wedge and King can get better acquainted. Wedge disappears for a day; he pretends to be sick; he attacks the castle with a golf club. But there is more to the unimposing King than meets the eye. He deals with Wedge affectionately and kindly, teaching him to play golf and buying him a puppy who feels "like a small sack of warm muffins." Wedge finds he can even share his bed with a scared Andrew in a thunderstorm. In the end Wedge plans to give to King the presents Wedge has been collecting for years to give to his father, when he finds him. A gentle, hopeful book, perhaps showing too simple a transition from a miserable situation to a happy family—but a very comforting story.
CHESTER'S WAY (1988)
Tina L. Burke (review date summer 1989)
SOURCE: Burke, Tina L. Review of Chester's Way, by Kevin Henkes. Childhood Education 65, no. 4 (summer 1989): 243.
[Chester's Way is a]n appealing story of friendship between two young, polite and considerate mice. True friends, they share everything including Christmas lists. Just at the point of boredom, Lilly moves into the neighborhood and shakes everything up. Henkes' illustrations complement his deadpan text and extend its meaning, particularly the expressions of the mice. Also appreciated is the focus on "good" behavior in an evenhanded and lighthearted way. Ages 5-8.
Kathleen Odean (review date July 1999)
SOURCE: Odean, Kathleen. Review of Chester's Way, by Kevin Henkes. Book Links 8, no. 6 (July 1999): 39.
Preschool-Gr. 3—Chester and Wilson, who share a careful approach to life, are cool toward the exuberant Lilly, who is new to their neighborhood [in Chester's Way ]. But after Lilly rescues them from bullies, the three become great friends. Skillful watercolor-and-pen pictures add to the personalities of the mice protagonists in this outstanding book.
Daniel L. Darigan, Michael O. Tunnell, and James S. Jacobs (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Darigan, Daniel L., Michael O. Tunnell, and James S. Jacobs. "A Closer Look at the Style of Two Consummate Author-Illustrators." In Children's Literature: Engaging Teachers and Children in Good Books, pp. 101-02. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2002.
[In the following excerpt, Darigan, Tunnell, and Jacobs note how Henkes uses the literary tool of "parallel construction" to advance the story in Chester's Way in a predictable but clear way.]
… Kevin Henkes, in similar fashion, uses a parallel style in his book Chester's Way. He begins, "Chester had his own way of doing things …" In a dialogue bubble, Chester states, "Hello, my name is Chester. I like croquet and peanut butter and making my bed." The obvious inference we, as readers, make is that this kid is different (although maybe a little concrete sequential around the edges?). For example, he always cuts his sandwiches diagonally, double-knots his shoes, and carries "a miniature first-aid kit in his back pocket. Just in case."
Chester's friend Wilson is the same way. In fact, they do everything together. They play baseball (but they never swing on the first pitch), ride bikes (and always use their hand signals), and eat at the same time (but rarely between meals). As they both sit in a comfortable stuffed chair reading "Advanced Croquet Tips," Wilson's parents remark that they can hardly "tell those two apart." The following refrain appears and is repeated periodically throughout the rest of the text, "Chester and Wilson. Wilson and Chester. That's the way it was."
Then, "Lilly moved into the neighborhood. LILLY had her own way of doing things …" In a dialogue bubble, Lilly states, "I'm Lilly! I am the Queen! I like EVERYTHING!" Lilly, unlike Chester and Wilson, wears band-aids all over her arms and legs, never leaves the house without one of her nifty disguises, and carries "a loaded squirt gun in her back pocket. Just in case."
"She definitely has a mind of her own," observes Chester to Wilson. The two proceed to ignore and rebuff Lilly. But that cannot last for long. Lilly works her way into the two boys' lives and then it becomes, "Chester and Wilson and Lilly, Lilly and Wilson and Chester. That's the way it was."
Juxtapose this with [Robert] McCloskey's "Little Bear and Little Sal's mother and Little Sal and Little Bear's mother were all mixed up with each other among the blueberries on Blueberry Hill," [from Blueberries for Sal] and you can see how these two books are similar. Like Robert McCloskey, Kevin Henkes has used this structure of parallel construction to build a story that is predictable, is highly entertaining, and furthers the story line in a delightful way.
Janet Hickman (review date December 1989)
SOURCE: Hickman, Janet. Review of Jessica, by Kevin Henkes. Language Arts 66, no. 8 (December 1989): 884-85.
In [Jessica, ] this clever, joyful book, Ruthie's pretend friend Jessica goes everywhere and does everything with her, in spite of her parents' insistence that "There is no Jessica." Even on the first day of kindergarten, Jessica is there, sharing her nap and her paintbrush. When the children line up two by two, a real live girl asks to be Ruthie's partner. And her name is—Jessica! A border of illustrations surrounding the last page of text shows what fine friends the two girls become. This understated story with its simple, expressive pictures encompasses complex feelings common to young children. More than usual, the book's design helps carry its meaning. Ample white space emphasizes the buffer zone that Jessica provides between Ruthie and others; it also makes room for the reader to "fill in the blank" with personal details. Enlarged type on tinted pages emphasizes Ruthie's parents' repeated denials of her imaginary friend; the print waves merrily across the page when Ruthie is in a glad mood. Try this one with children old enough to look back on and discuss their own Ruthie-like experiences.
Erica Bauermeister and Holly Smith (review date 1997)
SOURCE: Bauermeister, Erica, and Holly Smith. Review of Jessica, by Kevin Henkes. In Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, p. 39. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1997.
Ruthie Simms has no siblings or pets, but she has her best friend Jessica. Wherever Ruthie goes, Jessica goes—to the park, to the moon, to play in the snow. Ruthie always watches out for Jessica; she tells her when the soup is hot, they share books, and are happy and sad together. Ruthie is fine with this arrangement, but her parents, who can't see Jessica, tell Ruthie, "There is no Jessica." Ruthie knows there is. Jessica is a delightful tale about an imaginary friend and what happens on the first day of kindergarten.
JULIUS, THE BABY OF THE WORLD (1990)
Diane Roback and Richard Donahue (review date 27 July 1990)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Richard Donahue. Review of Julius, the Baby of the World, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 237, no. 30 (27 July 1990): 233.
[In Julius, the Baby of the World, ] Lilly, the spunky white mouse who first appeared in the memorable Chester's Way, now stars in a book of her own. Before baby Julius is born, Lilly is an exemplary sister, setting aside toys for the baby and talking to him through her mother's belly. But once Julius arrives, Lilly has a hard time controlling her jealousy. The fact that her parents dote on the new infant, "kissing his wet pink nose, admiring his small black eyes and stroking his sweet white fur," doesn't help matters. "Julius is the baby of the world," croon Lilly's parents. "Disgusting," comments Lilly. Lilly tries to sabotage her parents' early efforts at the baby's education by teaching him her own letter and number sequences: "3, 8, 1, 5, 9, 6, A, J, KK, Z, B." However, big sister's protective feelings are aroused when a snooty cousin displays the same disdain that Lilly has felt for the baby. Henkes displays a deep understanding of sibling rivalry and a child's fragile self-esteem. With her gold paper crown and red cowboy boots, Lilly is a superb and timely heroine. Ages 4-up.
Hanna B. Zeiger (review date January-February 1991)
SOURCE: Zeiger, Hanna B. Review of Julius, the Baby of the World, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 67, no. 1 (January-February 1991): 55-6.
There are many stories about siblings who resent the arrival of a new baby, but [in Julius, the Baby of the World, ] Kevin Henkes has created a notably eccentric, unrelenting, and riotously funny character in Julius's big sister, Lilly, last seen in Chester's Way (Greenwillow). Marching around in her red cowboy boots, cape, and queen's crown, Lilly takes every opportunity to announce what she thinks of her brother: "'Disgusting'"; "'If he was a number, he would be zero.'" Her attempts to frighten him with scary disguises and to make him disappear with magic earn her frequent trips to "the uncooperative chair." Lilly's pitched battle to abolish Julius is depicted in humorous detail in Henkes's illustrations and is further elaborated by her snide comments on each situation. But when Cousin Garland dares to criticize Julius, Lilly is equally unrelenting in bullying her into loudly admiring Julius as "'the baby of the world.'" Children will enjoy Lilly's all-out negativism as well as her change of heart.
Daniel L. Darigan, Michael O. Tunnell, and James S. Jacobs (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Darigan, Daniel L., Michael O. Tunnell, and James S. Jacobs. "The Good Books Themselves: Character." In Children's Literature: Engaging Teachers and Children in Good Books, pp. 102-03. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill Prentice Hall, 2002.
[In the following excerpt, Darigan, Tunnell, and Jacobs highlight how the character of Lilly evolves in a manner understandable to children in Julius, the Baby of the World.]
Another element we think necessary in studying and evaluating picture storybooks is character. Central to any story are characters who seem real, who develop as the story progresses, and who, ultimately, change in some way from beginning to end.
Susan Guevara, illustrator of Gary Soto's Chato's Kitchen and the sequel Chato and the Party Animals, has created a strong sense of character with her stylized scratchboard paintings of this inner-city Latino cat and his friends.
Well-rounded characters seem to jump off the page and into our lives. Through their actions and dialogue, we see them change significantly. Take another book by Kevin Henkes, Julius, the Baby of the World, as an example. Our old friend Lilly is having a bit of trouble with her new baby brother. He is certainly getting a lot of attention, and we must remember Lilly is "the queen." Again, we see the parallel construction in this new refrain about how Lilly and her parents feel about Julius:
Her parents loved him.
They kissed his wet pink nose.
They admired his small black eyes.
And they stroked his sweet white fur.
Lilly thought his wet pink nose was slimy.
She thought his small black eyes were beady.
And she thought his sweet white fur was not so sweet …
"Julius is the baby of the world," chimed Lilly's parents.
"Disgusting," said Lilly.
As you might guess, with all of the spunk of a young mouse like Lilly, she gets into quite a bit of hot water over the way she treats Julius. She makes noise while he is sleeping, when she is supposed to tell him "how beautiful he is and how we love him … Lilly has her own idea." In the dialogue bubbles she chants, "I hate you. You're ugly." She even tries to scare baby Julius with her nifty disguises. Here Henkes is at his best, for he simply states, "Lilly spent more time than usual in the uncooperative chair."
After an altercation with her cousin Garland, Lilly realizes where her heart really lies and changes drastically during the course of the book. Moreover, the theme of this story seems to be played out in houses all over the country, to one extent or another, where sibling rivalry becomes an issue after the birth of a new baby. Young children (and we've even presented this book to kids into the intermediate grades) can see and appreciate the way the Lilly's character develops and changes. With this dash of humor, Henkes lets us see how upsetting a new arrival can be to a family, yet how eventually all can be worked out. Noting this change as we read the book aloud to our classes helps them to notice how it occurs in the subsequent books they read themselves.
Mary M. Burns (review date September-October 1991)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 67, no. 5 (September-October 1991): 583-84.
Kevin Henkes has done it again! His galaxy of stars is brighter with the addition of another engaging female protagonist, a mouse child. To her parents she is perfect from the moment she is born—"absolutely perfect." And for so perfect a creature only one name seems to fit—Chrysanthemum. As she grows older, Chrysanthemum loves her name. Whether spoken or written, it is beautiful—a lyrical evocation of loveliness, especially when repeated: "Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum, Chrysanthemum." Then, full of enthusiasm, she starts school. But her name no longer seems desirable after the comments of her classmates: it is too long; it is the name of a flower, not a person; it doesn't fit on her name tag; it is spelled with thirteen letters—"'exactly half as many letters as there are in the entire alphabet.'" Fortunately, her parents remain supportive, reassuring her that her name is not only beautiful but also "'precious and priceless and fascinating and winsome.'" But the contrast between their unconditional love and the teasing of her peers is almost too much to bear until the day that Mrs. Twinkle, Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle, the music teacher, arrives and captivates the entire class with her trills, her panache—and the announcement that when her baby is born, she intends to name it Chrysanthemum. Suddenly, everyone wants to be named after a flower; suddenly, Chrysanthemum is in style. Perfectly executed in words and illustration, Chrysanthemum exemplifies Henkes's talent for creating true picture stories for young audiences: there is a definite plot; the conflict is within children's comprehension; the text, precise and evocative, uses contrast and repetition to achieve rhythm and balance; the illustrations are forthright yet delicately colored, remarkable for the agility of the fine line which creates setting and characters. Although his style is his own, the combination of strength and restraint recalls the work of Beatrix Potter and Arnold Lobel. Few illustrators write as well as they draw; Kevin Henkes demonstrates once again that he belongs to that select company.
Book Links (review date February-March 2003)
SOURCE: Review of Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes. Book Links 12, no. 4 (February-March 2003): 12.
K-Gr. 3—[In Chrysanthemum, a]fter being ridiculed on the first day of school, Chrysanthemum believes her absolutely perfect name is absolutely dreadful. At last, the music teacher, Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle, shows Chrysanthemum's classmates the beauty of a unique name.
WORDS OF STONE (1992)
Diane Roback and Richard Donahue (review date 31 August 1992)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Richard Donahue. Review of Words of Stone, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 239, no. 39 (31 August 1992): 79.
In [Words of Stone, ] this stirring contemporary novel set in rural Wisconsin, Henkes (Chrysanthemum ; The Zebra Wall ) paints a poignant picture of two lonely children whose paths cross one summer. First introduced is shy, red-headed Blaze, who has recently lost his mother to cancer. Now living with his grandmother and his artist father, the nine-year-old has trouble admitting his fears to anyone except his imaginary friends—until he meets Joselle, an outspoken, spellbinding girl who is staying on the other side of the hill with her Grandma Floy. Alternately showing the points of view of Blaze and Joselle, the book traces the meshing of two private worlds where ordinary objects—keys, spoons, stones, toy animals—carry special meaning. The fragile kinship that grows between the youngsters is threatened by an act of betrayal, yet, ultimately, deep-seated compassion and understanding help mend broken trusts. This story, offering an exceptionally sensitive and accurate portrayal of isolation, echoes feelings and themes found in Brock Cole's The Goats. Henkes, however, goes further in demonstrating the process of emotional healing—and acceptance of painful truths—that allows fear and loneliness to dissipate. His vivid characterizations and profound symbolism are sure to linger in readers' minds. Ages 10-up.
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 September 1992)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Words of Stone, by Kevin Henkes. Booklist 89, no. 2 (15 September 1992): 138.
Gr. 5-7—[In Words of Stone, ] Blaze is small and fearful, locked into his grief for his mother, who died when he was young. Joselle is brash and outrageous, hiding her hurt that her single-parent mother doesn't want her around and has sent her to stay the summer with her grandmother in rural Wisconsin, near where Blaze lives with his loving father and grandmother. Joselle hears about Blaze's grief and plays a mean trick on him, writing his mother's name and the word orphan with stones on the hillside. Then the two youngsters meet and become close friends, and Joselle can't bear to own up to what she did. Told from each kid's point of view in alternating third-person narratives, the story has the affectionate characterization of Henkes' picture books, such as Jessica and Chrysanthemum. Those, however, never departed from the child's viewpoint. Here, there's the author-as-therapist commenting on the story: Blaze collects old keys because "he has locks to release, doors to open"; Joselle knows "if she could make someone else more confused than she was, the weight of her own emotions might be lifted." What readers will love about this book is the friendship between these two very different loners. The shock of their meeting is funny and intimate, all sham stripped away. Just as powerful is the sense of isolation: Joselle tries to call her mother, and the phone rings like "a dull bell in an empty house." When Henkes writes like that, the vividly felt moment needs no explanation.
Martha V. Parravano (review date March-April 1993)
SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of Words of Stone, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 207-08.
In a novel that speaks to children's deepest emotions—fear, anger, loss—Henkes explores the "complicated" lives of ten-year-old Blaze Werla and his new neighbor, Joselle Stark. Joselle is big and brash, all bluster, striking out when she is hurt; Blaze is small and muffled, literally burying his feelings. Blaze's mother died when he was five, and the next year he was badly burned in a fire on a Ferris wheel; ever since, he's been struggling to conquer his many fears, and failing. When Joselle comes to stay with her grandmother—her mother, "the Beautiful Vicki," has once again abandoned Joselle temporarily in favor of a new boyfriend—and hears the story of Blaze's life, she uses stones to write hurtful words on the hill that separates the two children's houses. Blaze is devastated by this anonymous assault but, as usual, is unable to take any action or to tell anyone about it. Then the children meet and unexpectedly become friends: Joselle's sharp, rough edges are softened by Blaze's gentleness; Blaze is bolstered by Joselle's authoritative approach to life. By the time Blaze discovers that it was Joselle who wrote the words of stone, their friendship is strong enough to survive the crisis, and both children have made definite progress in their individual struggles: Blaze to overcome his paralyzing fears, come to terms with his mother's death, and learn to express himself, and Joselle to separate her self-esteem from her mother's behavior. By setting Words of Stone in an insistently everyday world of malls and summer lakeside picnics, Henkes provides just the right ballast for his introspective story, and concrete, down-to-earth details—such as the geraniums planted in coffee cans in Blaze's kitchen and the lumpy couch that serves Joselle as a bed—further anchor the story and draw the reader in. Motifs add richness and depth to the story, particularly Henkes's many references to rings, most of which threaten to engulf Blaze: the Ferris wheel; the semi-circle of buried, ineffective imaginary protectors; the burn scars that circle his ankles. In the end, the circles are healthy, positive ones, including the button-moon representing Joselle that is the center of Blaze's painting of his family. The ending—as contained and unsentimental as the rest of the book—is nonetheless one of the most satisfying in recent literature. A beautifully written, rich, and tender novel.
Hazel Rochman (review date August 1993)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Owen, by Kevin Henkes. Booklist 89, no. 22 (August 1993): 2060.
Ages 2-4. Like the kids in Jessica (1989) and Chrysanthemum (1991), Owen the mouse is a sturdy and vulnerable individual, and he is everychild. This time Henkes' droll, gentle picture book [Owen ] is about the toddler's fierce attachment to his security blanket. Simple, lovely words with pen and watercolor illustrations show and tell us that Owen loves his fuzzy yellow blanket with all his heart. "He carried it. And wore it. And dragged it. He sucked it. And hugged it. And twisted it." Fuzzy likes what Owen likes and bears the proof of it, from chocolate milk to peanut butter. When busybody neighbor Mrs. Tweezers suggests to Owen's parents that Owen is old enough to give up Fuzzy, Owen is terrified, but he outwits all their tricks. The blanket goes where he goes: in the bathtub, at the dinner table, to the dentist. But then comes the crisis: How will he go to school? There's no condescension or sentimentality. With a few simple lines, Henkes can transform Owen's nonchalant play into a shocked stillness, his terror expressed in his wide-staring eyes. Perhaps the most memorable frame of all shows Owen snugly enfolded with his scrappy blanket in the heavy, embracing curves of his bedclothes. Henkes' story takes us into the physical immediacy of a small child's day, and kids will recognize both the screaming anguish and the mischief.
Hanna B. Zeiger (review date November-December 1993)
SOURCE: Zeiger, Hanna B. Review of Owen, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 69, no. 6 (November-December 1993): 733-34.
Owen is a well-adjusted little boy mouse with a special love for his yellow baby blanket, which he calls "Fuzzy." They go everywhere and do everything together. The family's overly-helpful next-door neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, hangs over their adjoining fence with useful tips for Owen's parents about how to eliminate the blanket, but Owen foils every plan. The Blanket Fairy doesn't get the blanket at night, because Fuzzy is stuffed inside Owen's pajama pants; and Mrs. Tweezers's suggestion about dipping Owen's favorite corner in vinegar fails when Owen buries the smelly corner and then digs it up again smelling just right. Owen continues to carry the blanket with him; he hugs it, twists it, and sucks on it until Mrs. Tweezers gives her most dire advice about blankets and beginning school: "'Haven't you heard of saying no?'" When Owen's parents do just that, Owen begins to cry uncontrollably. His parents try to comfort him, and then, quite suddenly, his mother comes up with a splendid plan. Snipping and sewing and snipping and sewing some more, his mother transforms Fuzzy into a wonderful collection of handkerchiefs that go everywhere with Owen. "And Mrs. Tweezers doesn't say a thing." Owen is a great addition to Kevin Henkes's many endearing characters, and even Mrs. Tweezers is made memorable as Henkes shows her standing on stacked-up flower pots to impart her words of wisdom over the fence.
THE BIGGEST BOY (1995)
Hazel Rochman (review date 1 March 1995)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Biggest Boy, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Nancy Tafuri. Booklist 91, no. 13 (1 March 1995): 1248.
Ages 2-4. Like MacKinnon's What Size? and Jenkins' Biggest, Strongest, Fastest, this picture book [The Biggest Boy ] has fun with size and power. Billy is a big boy who can eat with a fork, get dressed by himself, and reach up high. His parents tell him how big he's growing every day. Soon he'll need new clothes. Soon he'll go to school and ride a bike. Billy says he'll be bigger than his parents: "I'll be the biggest boy in the world." They all imagine Billy as a giant who can drink up lakes and blow the clouds and hang the rainbow round his neck. Then back to the real world, where he's "just the right size" for a boy his age. The extra-large pages have big, clear illustrations in soft watercolor inks and black pen; the pictures show Billy with his toys at home and then as a giant against the sky, wearing the roof of his house as a hat. The story enters right into a child's imaginative play.
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 6 March 1995)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of The Biggest Boy, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Nancy Tafuri. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 10 (6 March 1995): 69.
Even though this collaboration [The Biggest Boy ] lacks the inspiration of some of the Caldecott Honor artists' previous work, its soft cadences and peaceful wind-down recommend it as a bedtime read aloud. Tafuri's (Have You Seen My Duckling?) unadorned, large-scale watercolor and black-ink pictures depict protagonist Billy as quite big indeed, while Henkes's (Owen ) straightforward text relays how the pre-schooler can now eat with a fork, get dressed alone and even help with the dishes. Billy, impressed with his powers, predicts that he'll be the "biggest boy in the world." Much to his delight, his parents' imagination takes wing: they describe—and pictures playfully show—how Billy will grow so big that he can wear his house like a vest, hang a rainbow around his neck, etc. At last Billy climbs into bed and—in a satisfying scene that will elicit knowing smiles from youngsters—is once again convinced that he's "the biggest boy" when he stretches his fingers toward the window and measures their size against the full moon, which appears "no bigger than a marble." Sweet and simple. Ages 3-up.
Hanna B. Zeiger (review date May-June 1995)
SOURCE: Zeiger, Hanna B. Review of The Biggest Boy, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Nancy Tafuri. Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 3 (May-June 1995): 325.
[In The Biggest Boy, ] Billy is big enough to eat with a fork, dress himself, answer the phone, and even help do the dishes. When his mother and father comment that he is growing, getting bigger and bigger, and will soon need new pants and shoes, Billy picks up on the idea and declares, "I'll even be bigger than you. I'll be the biggest boy in the world." His parents continue the game and tell him he'll be so big that he can wear the roof as a hat and the house as a jacket. The exaggerations grow from there, with Billy moving clouds about by blowing on them, wearing a rainbow around his neck, and playing ball with the sun. "'But right now,' says his mother, 'you are just the right size for a big boy your age.'" At night, however, when Billy settles into bed, the moon out his window seems no bigger than a marble between his fingers, confirming that he really is "the biggest boy." This collaboration of two award-winning book creators presents a favorite childhood theme—growing up. The bold, colorful, oversized illustrations, done in watercolor inks and black pen, add to the fun of the game played by Billy and his parents.
GOOD-BYE, CURTIS (1995)
Hanna B. Zeiger (review date November-December 1995)
SOURCE: Zeiger, Hanna B. Review of Good-bye, Curtis, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Marasabina Russo. Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 6 (November-December 1995): 733.
Curtis, the friendly neighborhood mail carrier [in Good-bye, Curtis ], is making his last delivery rounds on the day before his retirement. He receives many "hugs and handshakes and kisses," and many of the mailboxes are filled with "cards and candy and cookies." When Curtis arrives at the last mailbox and the last house, there is a big surprise waiting for him—a party with his own family and friends from all over his route to wish him well in his retirement. The next day, he sits down to write thank-you notes to his friends, and "he knows all of the addresses by heart." Henkes's portrayal of Curtis, who has worked for forty-two years at his job, is interpreted perfectly by Russo's kindly, silver-haired, smiling portraits of a well-loved man. An interesting subject to share with children and to use in the study of community helpers.
PROTECTING MARIE (1995)
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 March 1995)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Protecting Marie, by Kevin Henkes. Booklist 91, no. 14 (15 March 1995): 1330-31.
Gr. 5-7—[In Protecting Marie, ] Fanny Swann, 12, is always tense around her moody artist father. She knows he loves her, but he's short tempered and obsessive, especially when his work isn't going well, especially now that he's turning 60. When he gives her a big, friendly dog at Christmas, it's as if her deepest wish has come true, but she's terrified she won't be able to keep her pet. Can she trust her father? Always, she's watching, listening. Will the dog disturb Dad's work? Will Dad be in a bad mood? Fanny's mother is a wise and perfect background figure, but the father is achingly real in his love and his anger. Fanny's viewpoint is sometimes too adult, and the Snow Queen metaphor for inner transformation seems added on to the story. But, like Henkes' picture books, his novel gets the physicalness of the domestic scene and the child's powerlessness in a world run by unpredictable grownups. Best of all is the pet story, "hot and loamy and sweet-stinky and comfortable." Fanny's love for her dog is there in all its trembling particularity.
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 15 May 1995)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of Protecting Marie, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 242, no. 20 (15 May 1995): 73.
Thanks in part to Henkes's ability to slip inside the skin of more than one of his characters, his works stand out amid the sea of coming-of-age novels for young readers. In Words of Stone, for example, he intertwined the traumas of two young protagonists; in this equally tender novel [Protecting Marie ] (also about an artist's child) he goes one step further, contrasting an adult's preoccupation with mortality with a child's uncertainties about life. The desperation of the heroine's father, an aging painter who cannot overcome a creative block, is as strongly realized as is his daughter's wrenching desire to win his acceptance. The differences between these characters are adroitly encapsulated in their relationships with the family dog, Dinner. The self-absorbed father views the dog as a nuisance and a threat to his work, while 12-year-old Fanny feels an intense need to protect her beloved pet. When Fanny suspects that her father has given Dinner away, tensions rise to the surface; in a slightly pat but gratifying conclusion, Fanny admits her deepest worries as her father proves to her that his affection for her is deeper and more constant than his unpredictable moods. While constructing a taut, complex web of family conflicts, misunderstandings and painful revelations, Henkes never allows readers to lose sight of compassion and hope. Through sharp visual imagery, honest narrative and insightful flashbacks, he affirms the resiliency of the creative spirit and the transcending power of love. Ages 10-up.
Nancy Vasilakis (review date July-August 1995)
SOURCE: Vasilakis, Nancy. Review of Protecting Marie, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 71, no. 4 (July-August 1995): 458.
[In Protecting Marie, t]welve-year-old Fanny has been "protecting" her paper-and-cardboard doll Marie from her fastidious father, Henry, ever since he first came into her room when she was much younger to help her clean it up. Temperamental, self-centered, and aloof, her artist father has not always handled his paternal responsibilities with good grace, and, as long as Fanny can remember, her mother, Ellen, has had to serve as a mediator between the two of them. In a revealing moment, Ellen mutters, "Sometimes you two are so alike it's frightening." The summer before, Henry brought home the dog that Fanny had asked for all her life. When the puppy's accidents and frisky ways proved too distracting, Henry insisted that the dog be given away, creating an estrangement in his relationship with Fanny that neither has been able to bridge. Now, having reached his sixtieth birthday and an artistic block, Henry seems to be facing another crisis with his daughter. Fanny finds small ways to annoy Henry; he alternates between trying to make amends and callously disregarding her feelings. When he comes home with another dog—an older, trained one—Ellen is reluctant to risk upheaval again, and Fanny is untrusting. But Henkes has laid his groundwork carefully; with the same economical use of dialogue that is so effective in his picture books, he makes it clear how much the members of this family care about one another and how hard they will work to come to terms. The end is hopeful after all. "Sometimes I'm afraid of you," Fanny admits in a rare moment of candor with her father. To her surprise, he answers, "Sometimes, I'm afraid of you. " The characters ring heartbreakingly true in this quiet, wise story; they are complex and difficult—like all of us—and worthy of our attention.
Evelyn B. Freeman, Barbara A. Lehman, and Patricia L. Scharer (review date November 1996)
SOURCE: Freeman, Evelyn B., Barbara A. Lehman, and Patricia L. Scharer. "Faithful Pets." Reading Teacher 50, no. 3 (November 1996): 255.
… A third story featuring a pet dog is Kevin Henkes's Protecting Marie. This realistic novel recounts the love-hate relationship that Fanny Swann has with her father and her need to own a dog. Even though Fanny knows that her father loves her, she fears him because he is a temperamental artist, and she doesn't understand him. The title metaphorically reflects Fanny's anxiety; she transfers her needs and shields her doll, Marie. When her father brings her a dog, Dinner, she painstakingly attempts to keep him out of her father's way. After a particularly fearful time, Fanny finds out that she and her father are more alike than she realized. Readers will appreciate the relationship between Fanny and Dinner and how it causes a change between Fanny and her father.
LILLY'S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE (1996)
Marianne Saccardi (review date August 1996)
SOURCE: Saccardi, Marianne. Review of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 42, no. 8 (August 1996): 122.
PreS-Gr. 2—[In Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, ] Lilly loves everything about school—even the squeaky chalk and the cafeteria food. But most of all, she loves her teacher, Mr. Slinger, who is a sharp dresser and greets his students with an uncharacteristic "Howdy." The little mouse will do anything for him—until he refuses to allow her to interrupt lessons to show the class her new movie-star sunglasses, three shiny quarters, and purple plastic purse. Seething with anger, she writes a mean story about him and places it in his book bag at the end of the day. But when she looks in her purse, she discovers that he has written her a kind note and even left her a bag of treats. Filled with remorse, Lilly sets out to make amends. Rich vocabulary and just the right amount of repetition fuse perfectly with the watercolor and black-pen illustrations. With a few deft strokes, Henkes changes Lilly's facial expressions and body language to reveal a full range of emotions. When she realizes how unfair she has been, Lilly shrinks smaller and smaller. When all ends well, she leaps for joy in her familiar red boots right out of the picture's frame. Clever dialogue and other funny details will keep readers looking and laughing. As the cover and end papers attest, Lilly emerges once again a star.
Mary M. Burns (review date September-October 1996)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 5 (September-October 1996): 577.
The Ramona Quimby of picture books, that beguiling mouse-child, Lilly, a major presence in Chester's Way and Julius, the Baby of the World (both Greenwillow), takes center stage in a deliciously funny look at the traumas that can upset even the most dedicated young scholars [in Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse ]. "Lilly," proclaims the minimal introduction, "loved school." And the initial pages provide ample justification for her attitude through a series of masterfully executed vignettes celebrating pointy pencils, squeaky chalk, long shiny hallways for running, one's own personal desk, and lunch with fish sticks and chocolate milk every Friday. But most of all, school means Mr. Slinger, whose patterned shirts, brilliant ties, elegant glasses, and pupil-centered methods, particularly the "Lightbulb Lab where great ideas are born," confer instant popularity. Thoroughly enchanted, Lilly wants to be a teacher until one fateful Monday when she brings her weekend shopping treasures to school: sunglasses decorated with diamonds, three shiny quarters, and a purple plastic purse that plays music when opened. Naturally, she can't wait to demonstrate her wonders; naturally, the unflappable Mr. Slinger has to quash her efforts. Not one to be easily thwarted, Lilly plots her revenge until Mr. Slinger's final gesture, a thoughtful note and a packet of tasty snacks, makes her feel miserably small—a process made visible in an emotionally charged, carefully planned sequence. With the help of her parents and the understanding Mr. Slinger, Lilly puts her world to rights in a sensitively crafted, dazzlingly logical conclusion that teaches more about good manners—and good teachers—than any number of manuals. Kevin Henkes just gets better and better with each book. A skilled caricaturist, he conveys variations in mood with economy and charm. His concepts have enough subtle humor to entertain adults without ignoring his intended audience; his texts are precise and imaginative; his illustrations remarkable for expressive lines, delicate hatching, and superb composition. As Lilly and her classmates would say, "Wow!"
SUN AND SPOON (1997)
Elizabeth Devereaux and Diane Roback (review date 16 June 1997)
SOURCE: Devereaux, Elizabeth, and Diane Roback. Review of Sun and Spoon, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 244, no. 24 (16 June 1997): 60.
Ten-year-old Spoon Gilmore's grandmother has recently died, but her presence is strongly felt throughout [Sun and Spoon, ] this exceptionally moving drama about grief and rejuvenation. The members of the Gilmore family express their sense of loss in various ways. Spoon's parents become more protective of Pa, Gram's widower. Pa turns inward, and Spoon's young sister, Joanie, who collects sticks and carries them in a suitcase, starts talking about twigs as the "bones" of trees. Spoon himself feels a need to possess a tangible remembrance of Gram. He never dreams that taking one small keepsake, her favorite deck of cards, will bring heartache instead of comfort. In a serendipitous but believable turn of events, Spoon finds evidence of his grandmother's immortality and simultaneously learns a compelling lesson about growth and change. Via a sharply and imaginatively evoked cast of characters, Henkes (Protecting Marie ; Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse ) uses both sensitively planted metaphors and realistic experiences to explore different phases of the healing process. Readers, safely ensconced in the story's warmth, will savor the understated narrative and its powerful message of affirmation. Ages 8-up.
Marilyn Payne Phillips (review date July 1997)
SOURCE: Phillips, Marilyn Payne. Review of Sun and Spoon, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 43, no. 7 (July 1997): 94.
Gr. 4-7—Ten-year-old Spoon wrestles with sorrow this first summer since his beloved Gram has passed away [in Sun and Spoon ]. His older brother takes a planned cross-country trip to visit their other grandmother, but Spoon stays home. Worrying that his memories of Gram will fade, he seeks a special remembrance of her. Everything is a bit off-kilter, especially Pa, his grandfather. The grieving man can't get enough of six-year-old pesky Joanie and the bone collection she carts around in her suitcase, but he doesn't have the heart to play cards with Spoon, because Gram is no longer there to be the third participant in triple solitaire. Spoon finds the perfect talisman and secretly pockets it, creating a turmoil in Pa that is difficult to resolve. Verbal communication can be so difficult and yet the boy finds the courage to face up to his theft. Given the opportunity to keep the desired memento, Spoon chooses to accept a once unappreciated photo and discovers a magical, mystical, memorable connection to his grandmother. Once again Henkes captures young angst with respect and honesty. A subject that could be overwhelmingly dark and cloudy is illuminated most comfortingly. Images of supportive parents and love between generations shine through without a heavy hand. Imagery of weather and art and dreams will be caught and appreciated by thoughtful readers. Cynthia Rylant's Missing May (Orchard, 1992) and Sharon Mathis's The Hundred Penny Box (Viking, 1975) also demonstrate powerful concerns about remembering loved ones.
Mary M. Burns (review date September-October 1997)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of Sun and Spoon, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 73, no. 5 (September-October 1997): 571-72.
Because his mother had found an antique spoon engraved with the name "Frederick" before his birth, both his given name and his nickname, "Spoon," reflect that event. Which perhaps explains why he, the middle child, is just a little bit different from the others—more sensitive, more emotional. Deeply affected by his grandmother's death, Spoon fears that he will forget her and so begins searching for the right memento as a talisman against loss. When Spoon finds and takes that talisman—a worn deck of cards embellished with a sun, his grandmother's favorite symbol—it threatens to undermine his grandfather's well-being, and Spoon must learn to reconcile his own needs with those of others. The characters [in Sun and Spoon ], especially Spoon, are created primarily through action and dialogue in a skillfully understated yet affecting style. Henkes's ability to create dramatic conflict from the daily struggles of ordinary lives is rare in novels for this audience. He understands the human condition, particularly the psychology of the pre-adolescent, and conveys both angst and joy in a cathartic resolution. Controlled yet charged with feeling, the story has an impact far greater than its modest dimensions.
Teri S. Lesesne, Lois Buckman, and Kyle Beers (review date December-January 1997-1998)
SOURCE: Lesesne, Teri S., Lois Buckman, and Kyle Beers. Review of Sun and Spoon, by Kevin Henkes. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 41, no. 4 (December-January 1997-1998): 322.
[In Sun and Spoon, ] Spoon longs for something special by which he can remember his grandmother. One day while he is visiting his grandfather, Spoon sees the deck of playing cards the three of them used in their frequent games of double and triple solitaire. Furtively, Spoon takes the cards home with him. When he places them under his pillow his dreams are filled with images of his grandmother, and Spoon is pleased to finally have that something special with which to remember their times together. However, when his grandfather finds the cards are missing, Spoon faces an important challenge. Should he admit what he has done or simply sneak the cards back into place?
Henkes revisits territory that has been explored in novels such as Missing May (Orchard, 1992) by Cynthia Rylant and Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell, 1972), among others. Yet Henkes's story remains fresh, in part due to the realistic characters of Spoon, his pesky younger sister, and the wonderful adults who populate the book.
Linda N. McDowell (review date November 1998)
SOURCE: McDowell, Linda N. Review of Sun and Spoon, by Kevin Henkes. Language Arts 76, no. 2 (November 1998): 183.
Death can be a difficult issue for children. Literature can be a way for children to sort through their feelings. In Sun and Spoon, Frederick's grandmother has been dead for three months before he realizes that he wants something special of hers to keep. Thus begins the quest of Frederick, known as Spoon. This is a story of a boy dealing with loss while working through his relationship with his grandfather. Kevin Henkes constructs a story that connects to the reader's personal feelings of family. Children will relate to Spoon's relationship with his younger sister, having her "tag along." This is a good choice for teachers looking for a book to discuss intergenerational relationships, death, and grief.
CIRCLE DOGS (1998)
Pam Gosner (review date September 1998)
SOURCE: Gosner, Pam. Review of Circle Dogs, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. School Library Journal 44, no. 9 (September 1998): 173.
PreS-Gr. 1—A love letter to dachshunds, called "circle dogs" because of their ability to form that shape with their bodies. The text [of Circle Dogs ]is simple, almost primerlike, with lots of onomatopoetic words: "Circle dogs like circle snacks—crunch, crunch, crunch—right from your hand." The pooches play, dig holes (and get yelled at), sniff Baby's face and lick Big Sister's, bounce, bark, and sleep (a lot). The lively gouache paintings in large flat areas of color have a retro look, somewhat reminiscent of Lane Smith's work in The Happy Hocky Family! (Viking, 1993) or Yaccarino's illustrations for Laura Godwin's Little White Dog (Hyperion, 1998). Besides the circles made by the dachshunds, there are lots of other shapes to pick out in the pictures. Fun for the youngest dog lovers.
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 September 1998)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Circle Dogs, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Booklist 95, no. 2 (15 September 1998): 237.
Ages 2-5. "Two circle dogs live in a big square house." Part loving pet story, part math lesson, this picture book [Circle Dogs ] dramatizes the toddler's visceral, joyful, licking, cuddling bond with two circle dachshunds. At the same time, kids will see the simple shapes in the house that the family and dogs share through the day. The direct physical words and the clear, bright gouache pictures, which are like cutouts on lots of white space, will draw in youngsters to interact with the pages, imitating the sounds ("Kibble-clatter, kibble-nibble") as the dogs crunch their circle snacks in circle bowls or run in circles in the square yard or curl up in circles to sleep and sleep and sleep. Many concept books, such as Tana Hoban's Round and Round and Round (1983), use photos and other illustrations to identify shapes in everyday life. Here it is the playful doggie tale that will lead kids to find circles, squares, and triangles wherever they look.
Colleen Thrailkill (review date October 1999)
SOURCE: Thrailkill, Colleen. Review of Circle Dogs, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. Teaching Children Mathematics 6, no. 2 (October 1999): 129.
Circle Dogs describes a day in the lives of two dachshunds, using four-color pictures and simple text. The story emphasizes the shapes of circles, triangles, and squares in objects that the dogs encounter in their everyday lives. Much of the text is presented as sounds that are part of the dogs' daily routine—"flip, flap" for their tails; "clink, clank" for their tags; "crunch, crunch" as they eat snacks.
This book, which is intended as a bed-time story, would be most appropriate for preschool children. The use of onomatopoeia has strong appeal for children between the ages of 3 and 5. Children would enjoy duplicating the sounds and the activities in which the dogs engage—rolling, bouncing, and twitching their legs as they sleep.
This book does not have a strong mathematical slant. Although the simple pictures will allow children to find some shapes easily, their selections would be limited primarily to circles and squares. The book's greatest strength is that it is an engaging bedtime story for very young children. The story ends with the words, "Shhh. They're sleeping now. And you should be too. Good night," making this a fine tucking-in sort of a tale. In that setting, I would recommend it strongly. I would not choose to use it in the classroom for any of my students above kindergarten level.
THE BIRTHDAY ROOM (1999)
Ilene Cooper (review date July 1999)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of The Birthday Room, by Kevin Henkes. Booklist 95, no. 21 (July 1999): 1946.
Gr. 5-7—For his twelfth birthday [in The Birthday Room ], Ben Hunter receives a room that he can use as an art studio and a letter from his uncle—the one responsible for the loss of Ben's little finger when Ben was a toddler. The room seems overwhelming to Ben, as if he must make art to live up to it. But the letter, which contains an invitation from his uncle to come visit, holds more allure. Mrs. Hunter, who has been angry at her brother since the accident, reluctantly agrees to go to Oregon with Ben. Once there, Ben finds himself adrift in the storm of emotions that surround his Uncle Ian and his mother, his new aunt, Nina, and the baby she is about to have. When an accident occurs and the young brother of a new friend is hurt, Ben feels partially to blame, and he learns that making amends is one of the most important lessons life has to offer. This is a quiet story, gracefully written but with a focus on the adult characters that may distance it from young readers. On a more practical level, readers may wonder about the ability of two 12-year-olds to build the redemptive gift, a hut in the forest. In some ways as much allegory as contemporary tale, this story will find an audience among children who are sensitive to nuance and willing to ponder such eternal issues as family and forgiveness, and how both are forged by bonds of love.
Joanna Rudge Long (review date September-October 1999)
SOURCE: Long, Joanna Rudge. Review of The Birthday Room, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 75, no. 5 (September-October 1999): 611-12.
From the picture-book travails of Owen or Lilly to his novels about older children, Kevin Henkes's gift is depicting everyday events with disarming simplicity. His characters' experiences help them mature; meanwhile, gently but reliably, they offer vicarious insights for the reader. Ben [of The Birthday Room ] is the latest such protagonist. When his proud parents surprise him with his own studio, the gifted young painter feels trapped by their expectations; after all, he's only twelve. The question of this room frames events during a week with Mom's estranged brother Ian, who was responsible for Ben's loss of a finger at age two. Truths unfold: Ian will soon be a father; Mom admits she never did get along with him, even as a child, but quickly bonds with his new wife, Nina. Ben discovers in Ian a fellow artist whose drawings are inspirational for Ben, though Ian's true vocation is making beautifully painted furniture. Meanwhile, the boy makes friends with neighbor Lynnie. When Lynnie's little brother Kale is hurt as the result of a series of innocent acts, including one of Ben's (echoing Ian's negligence when Ben himself was injured long ago), the accident dramatizes the irrelevance of blame, and of guilt. A number of adult issues play roles here, as they have in the author's other novels: Nina's distress over the possibility of a breech birth, Ian's reluctance to have a child before making sure that Ben has turned out all right. And so he has, a nice, thoughtful boy on the cusp of adulthood; helping to resolve these adult concerns contributes to his own maturation. At the same time, the "house" he and Lynnie build for Ian and Nina's baby is a purely childlike project, and neatly parallels the conclusion: Ben comes up with a better use for his studio, one that signifies his family's reconciliation—a guest room. Told in spare, unobtrusive prose, a story that helps us see our own chances for benefiting from mutual tolerance, creative conflict resolution, and other forms of good will.
Corinne Camarata (review date October 1999)
SOURCE: Camarata, Corinne. Review of The Birthday Room, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 45, no. 10 (October 1999): 152.
Gr. 5-7—On his 12th birthday [in The Birthday Room ], Ben's parents give him a present that he's not sure he wants—a room of his own to use as an art studio. He knows for certain, however, that he wants to accept his other birthday surprise—an invitation to visit from his estranged Uncle Ian. Ben's mother blames her brother for an accident that occurred when Ben was a toddler, which left the boy minus a pinkie. Henkes's cerebral, analytical style and his penchant for observation work better when he is exploring a character's interior landscape, as he did so well in Sun and Spoon (Greenwillow, 1997). Here, they are not as successful in moving the plot forward, and some of the descriptive detail seems gratuitous. Ben is a convincing, well-adjusted only child, apparently not traumatized by the loss of his finger, who shows potential for developing into a talented artist. He is torn between being his own person and trying to live up to his loving parents' expectations. The tension between Ben's mother and his uncle, and the steps toward its resolution, are dealt with offstage. Other small, but not particularly compelling, crises include Ian's pregnant wife's concern about a breech birth and the injury of a young neighbor for which Ben feels responsible. When Ben returns home, he has decided that the birthday room should become a guest room, ready to welcome his newfound extended family. Although the story's various threads fall short of forming a gracefully woven tapestry, Henkes does create a memorable character in Ben.
Karen Leggett (review date 5 December 1999)
SOURCE: Leggett, Karen. Review of The Birthday Room, by Kevin Henkes. New York Times Book Review (5 December 1999): 95.
How often have you given a child a gift that is the stuff of your dreams? [In The Birthday Room, ] Ben's parents, excited by their son's budding artistic talent, gave him a studio of his own—the birthday room. On his 12th birthday, Ben had also received a letter from his Uncle Ian, inviting him for a visit. He hadn't seen his uncle since he was a toddler and Ian had accidentally cut off Ben's little finger while working in his shop. Ben's mother had never forgiven her brother, so Ben "could see her jaw tighten" as he told her, "If I had to choose, I'd take the trip over the room."
So begins a journey into the struggles of a preadolescent boy thrown into the gray world of family relations. Kevin Henkes's language allows the reader to taste the awkward moments and the delicious ones. "You're all grown up," Ian says upon seeing Ben.
"'You are too,' Ben replied automatically.…He blushed, his eyes circling shyly as if a proper response were hanging in the air."
Ian is not the only new acquaintance in Ben's life, as we soon discover: "Talking to a girl, alone, a girl he had only met the day before, a girl who was 13 and whose bellybutton he had seen, was something new for him."
Refreshingly, Henkes has given us a male protagonist who is reflective, creative and emotionally sensitive. Ben feels the anguish of his mother's long-simmering bitterness and his uncle's agonizing guilt. Yet at a time when it is almost a fad to blame dysfunctional families for problems, we learn that even though there are never simple answers and not many fairy-tale endings, families can heal. The Birthday Room is not an action-packed thriller, but there is always a bit of suspense, as well as a quiet surprise in the final chapter. There is even some delightfully touching comic relief from Uncle Ian's neighbors, a pair of 5-year-old twins, Kale and Elka.
Alicia Eames (review date October 1999)
SOURCE: Eames, Alicia. Review of Oh!, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek. School Library Journal 45, no. 10 (October 1999): 115.
PreS—"The snow falls and falls all night. / In the morning everything is white. / And everyone wants to play. / Oh!" It's a simple beginning for an innocent day of subdued glee [in Oh! ]. Double-page spreads feature a spare, repetitive text that's reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown's work and faces framed illustrations of familiar animals and a duet of children on bright white backgrounds. For example, "The dog wants to play. / Run, run, run, / clever old dog" accompanies a frisky red dog at play, and a bunny poised for jumping follows "The rabbit wants to play. / Hop, hop, hop, / shy little rabbit." Animals and children come together and the whole group is seen enjoying the snow-filled winter day on a hilly expanse. Finally, evening draws near. "Rush on home. / Good-bye, snow. / See you again tomorrow. / Oh!" Imbued with a soft, fuzzy quality, the full-color acrylic illustrations evoke the haziness of falling snow, and the illustrator's choice of blue and white as dominant colors is gently soothing. A winter book that's sure to please.
Ilene Cooper (review date 1 October 1999)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Oh!, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Booklist 96, no. 3 (1 October 1999): 354.
Ages 2-4. A book with all the fun and magic that winter offers. [In Oh!, t]he flakes fall all night, and the next morning all is white and everyone wants to play. "Oh!" the text reads, and this gentle exhalation captures in one syllable the wonder of newly fallen snow, especially to the fresh eyes of the intended audience. In neatly squared illustrations set against pure white backgrounds are pictures of bundled-up children and animals who want to wiggle their toes in the snow—the squirrel, the bunny, the cat, the dog, the birds. Dronzek's acrylic art sweetly matches the unembellished text, but there are hints of humor, as well: the tail of a previously pictured animal takes up a corner of the new illustration. A final two-page spread shows the children building a snow rabbit as the animals cavort around them. As soft as snow, this book's simple, playful premise will make readers sigh, "Oh!"
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo (review date 11 October 1999)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Cindi Di Marzo. Review of Oh!, by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 41 (11 October 1999): 74.
In [Oh!, ] this tender treatment by Henkes and Dronzek, Henkes's wife, a painter making her children's book debut, "Oh!" becomes a universal expression of friskiness elicited by the first blanket of snow. When morning arrives and "everything is white," the squirrel wants to "skitter, skitter, skitter," the rabbit wants to frolic (the illustration shows it has chased the squirrel from the previous page up a tree). Two children, hoods up and backs to the viewer, jump into snowdrifts and dashing red cardinals swoop in and out of the snowflakes. "OH!" writes Henkes after accounting for all the landscape's gleeful inhabitants, and Dronzek heightens the moment by switching from neatly framed compositions to a full-bleed, double-page spread of all the characters at play. But all snowy days must come to an end: "The sky turns dark. The snow turns blue," and everyone heads for his or her respective home, with promises of more snow-play tomorrow. Extending himself to a younger audience than in his previous works, Henkes keeps his prose succinct and unadorned, seasoning it with repetition and an easy cadence: "The cat wants to play. Sneak, sneak, sneak, brave young cat." Dronzek's acrylic renderings swiftly evoke how snow both sharpens and softens the world. The whitened landscape throws every other color in her palette into sharp relief, while her pastel-like textures look positively downy. Ages 2-up.
WEMBERLY WORRIED (2000)
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton (review date 3 July 2000)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Jason Britton. Review of Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 27 (3 July 2000): 70.
Henkes (Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse ) introduces another wonderfully appealing child-mouse with a stubborn habit: worrying [in Wemberly Worried ]. Wemberly, a shy white mouse with gray spots, always feels nervous whether at home or away. "At the playground, Wemberly worried about / the chains on the swings, / and the bolts on the slide, / and the bars on the jungle gym." She tells her father, "Too rusty. Too loose. Too high," while sitting on a park bench watching the other mice play. Her security blanket, a rabbit doll named Petal (whose spot over the left eye matches her own), rarely leaves her grip. Henkes adroitly juggles the main narrative, hand-lettered asides and watercolor-and-ink imagery of the young pessimist and her supportive parents; each element contributes a different strength. For instance, as he lists Wemberly's worries, "Big things" heads the list, paired with a vignette of the heroine checking on her parents in the middle of the night with a flashlight, "I wanted to make sure you were still here." He later shows how Wemberly's anxieties peak at the start of nursery school with huge text that dwarfs tiny illustrations. At this overwhelming moment, Wemberly meets another girl mouse, Jewel, who turns out to be a kindred spirit (she even carries her own worn doll). Henkes offers no pat solutions, handling the material with uncanny empathy and gentleness; while playing with Jewel, "Wemberly worried. But no more than usual. And sometimes even less." This winning heroine speaks to the worrywart in everyone. Ages 4-up.
Kitty Flynn (review date September-October 2000)
SOURCE: Flynn, Kitty. Review of Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 76, no. 5 (September-October 2000): 550-51.
[In Wemberly Worried, ] Worrywart Wemberly is the newest of Kevin Henkes's distinctly individual yet universal picture-book mice characters. The dizzying, almost psychedelic jacket image of an anxiety-ridden Wemberly—looking as much like a deer caught in headlights as a mouse can—sets the tone. Wemberly, a sensitive soul, is beset with fears, both big and small. She worries about everything: What if she shrinks in the bathtub? What if the tree in the front yard falls on her house? What if no one comes to her birthday party? Or worse: what if too many mice come and there isn't enough cake? Thank goodness her stuffed rabbit Petal is always there for some comforting ear-rubbing. The format is the same as in Henkes's previous books: with text and art perfectly integrated, the vibrant panel illustrations help tell the story, and small asides extend the text. As always, Henkes zeroes in on a familiar childhood emotion—feeling helpless in an uncontrollable world—and brings it compassionately to the surface. Although Wemberly's phobias are catalogued at too great a length and the story's main conflict—the dreaded first day of school—isn't introduced until halfway through the story, the satisfying resolution offers hope for both the timid and the brave among us. Thanks to her perceptive teacher, Wemberly embarks on a new friendship, and by the end of the day, a better-adjusted but still-careful Wemberly leaves school with her friend, the equally cautious Jewel, and assures her teacher that she will come back tomorrow. Like rubbing Petal's ears or finding a friend, Henkes's picture books make finding your way in the world a little less daunting.
Doug Ward (review date 15 October 2000)
SOURCE: Ward, Doug. "A High-Anxiety Mouse." New York Times Book Review (15 October 2000): 31.
Kevin Henkes has a way with mice. He makes them human. And therein lies the charm of characters like Lilly, whose headstrong ways get her into trouble in Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse and Julius, the Baby of the World, and like Chrysanthemum, whose name causes her angst in Chrysanthemum. And now Henkes brings us Wemberly, whose worries never seem to end.
Into Wemberly Henkes has poured anxieties that all children must confront: Will Mom and Dad still be there in the morning? What if I'm different from everyone else? Will I fit in at my new school? At home, Wemberly's mother and father comfort her when she worries that the bath water will make her shrink or that the tree in the front yard will crash onto the house.
Later, on her first day of school, she clings to her doll and her mother's skirt, watching all the other children frolic. Well, almost all of them. At school, Wemberly meets Jewel, and together they find comfort in their shared anxieties. Readers of Henkes's previous books will recognize much in Wemberly Worried (Greenwillow, ages 4 to 8): the mice with the triangular faces, the multitude of small water-color pictures against open white pages, and Henkes's flair for capturing the sheer joy of children at play. There are new gems, as well, like the grandmother with a cane, roller skates and a "Go with the Flow" shirt; and a lone image of Wemberly clutching her doll as she sits in the corner of a page, looking like a minnow in a bubbling tank of questions and question marks. With his characteristic humor, tight prose and vibrant images, Henkes takes Wemberly on a journey that allows her to confront her fears, showing children that it's all right to worry. And, like Henkes's other characters, Wemberly shows that being human is cause for celebration, even if you're a mouse.
Lisa G. Kropp (review date July 2004)
SOURCE: Kropp, Lisa G. Review of Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 50, no. 7 (July 2004): 43.
PreS-Gr. 2—[In Wemberly Worried, ] Wemberly stews about everything, from cracks in the living room wall to playground equipment and spilled juice. When the first day of school arrives, she takes worrying to a new level. Extra-large fonts and Henkes's trademark watercolor and black pen illustrations showcase the mouse's concerns: "What if the teacher is mean?… What if they make fun of my name?… What if I have to cry?" In this touching story, Henkes allows first-time students to acknowledge their fears and worries.
SHEILA RAE'S PEPPERMINT STICK (2001)
Kitty Flynn (review date September-October 2001)
SOURCE: Flynn, Kitty. Review of Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 77, no. 5 (September-October 2001): 574.
This deliciously paced and plotted board book [Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick ], featuring the mouse sisters from Sheila Rae, the Brave, explores a favorite Henkes theme—the relationship between a bossy older child and a timid, yet tenacious, younger one. Here, Sheila Rae and her little sister, Louise, play out a bite-sized sibling drama for the toddler crowd. The straightforward story is appropriately simple and familiar: quiet Louise covets Sheila Rae's peppermint stick ("Please?"), while Sheila Rae, in classic older sister style, revels in the power the peppermint stick gives her ("You can have one lick, if you can reach it"). Of course, Sheila Rae's pride is her downfall—literally. Balancing precariously on a stool, some pillows, and some books, Sheila Rae dangles the candy just out of Louise's reach. Listeners can guess what happens next: Sheila Rae falls and lands on her bottom, and the peppermint stick breaks in two. Page turns and line breaks add just the right amount of tension, and Henkes's expressive illustrations work perfectly with the short-and-sweet text. Set against a white background and facing a candy-colored text page, each picture zeroes in on the characters, inviting pre-readers to participate in the story's unfolding. A tantalizing taste of the pleasures of picture books to come.
OWEN'S MARSHMALLOW CHICK (2002)
Kathleen Odean (review date April-May 2003)
SOURCE: Odean, Kathleen. Review of Owen's Marshmallow Chick, by Kevin Henkes. Book Links 12, no. 5 (April-May 2003): 20.
[In Owen's Marshmallow Chick ,] Owen eats one Easter treat after another, declaring each his favorite, until he befriends a marshmallow chick instead of eating it. Uncluttered pictures matched by the brief, exuberant text convey his delight. The companion board book, Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick (Greenwillow, 2001), is equally delightful.
JULIUS'S CANDY CORN (2003)
Olga R. Kuharets (review date August 2003)
SOURCE: Kuharets, Olga R. Review of Julius's Candy Corn, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 49, no. 8 (August 2003): 129.
PreS—[In Julius's Candy Corn, ] Julius's mother has baked cupcakes with candy corns on top for his Halloween party. As he admires them, she informs him that he can't eat them until the guests arrive. "So Julius started counting instead. 'One candy corn,' said Julius." The illustrations show the little white mouse eating the candy—not the cupcakes—until he has "counted" them all. Just as he finishes consuming the last of them, the doorbell rings, and the party begins. One to four lines of short text on lilac, lime green, sunshine yellow, sugary pink, or candy-corn orange backgrounds face simple illustrations on all-white backgrounds. The cupcakes are arranged in a straight line on a tabletop in each picture, enabling young listeners to help count the cupcakes (and candy corns) along with Julius. This is a gem of a story; it's short and sweet and perfect for toddler and preschool storytimes.
OLIVE'S OCEAN (2003)
Maria B. Salvadore (review date August 2003)
SOURCE: Salvadore, Maria B. Review of Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 49, no. 8 (August 2003): 160.
Gr. 5-8—As Martha and her family prepare for their annual summer visit to New England [in Olive's Ocean ], the mother of her deceased classmate comes to their door. Olive Barstow was killed by a car a month earlier, and the woman wants to give Martha a page from her daughter's journal. In this single entry, the 12-year-old learns more about her shy classmate than she ever knew: Olive also wanted to be a writer; she wanted to see the ocean, just as Martha soon will; and she hoped to get to know Martha Boyle as "she is the nicest person in my whole entire class." Martha cannot recall anything specific she ever did to make Olive think this, but she's both touched and awed by their commonalities. She also recognizes that if Olive can die, so can she, so can anybody, a realization later intensified when Martha herself nearly drowns. At the Cape, Martha is again reminded that things in her life are changing. She experiences her first kiss, her first betrayal, and the glimmer of a first real boyfriend, and her relationship with Godbee, her elderly grandmother, allows her to examine her intense feelings, aspirations, concerns, and growing awareness of self and others. Rich characterizations move this compelling novel to its satisfying and emotionally authentic conclusion. Language is carefully formed, sometimes staccato, sometimes eloquent, and always evocative to create an almost breathtaking pace. Though Martha remains the focus, others around her become equally realized, including Olive, to whom Martha ultimately brings the ocean.
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy Bean, Emily Chenowith, and Jeff Zaleski (review date 18 August
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, Joy Bean, Emily Chenowith, and Jeff Zaleski. Review of Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 33 (18 August 2003): 80.
With his usual sensitivity and insight, Henkes (The Birthday Room ) explores key issues of adolescence, through the observations of aspiring 12-year-old writer Martha Boyle. In the opening scene [of Olive's Ocean ] on an August morning in Madison, Wis., Martha receives a visitor: the mother of her classmate Olive Barstow, who was hit by a car the month before. The woman hands Martha a journal entry, in which Olive describes her own wish to be a writer—and to "get to know Martha Boyle next year … the nicest person in my whole entire class." Since Olive kept to herself, these revelations forge an unexpected bond between Martha and this classmate she never knew. The other hope Olive confides in the entry is that she could "one day … go to a real ocean such as the Atlantic or Pacific." Martha begins an unwitting pilgrimage of sorts: she strolls with her toddler sister to the corner where Olive died and, when she goes to visit her grandmother, Godbee, on Cape Cod, Martha experiences the ocean for Olive and for herself. In brief chapters, Henkes reveals Martha's discovery of life's fleeting qualities, her deepening bond with Godbee, and her first stirrings of romantic feeling and betrayal. Readers can peer through this brief window into Martha's life and witness a maturation, as she becomes a young woman, appreciates life anew and finds a way to give something back to Olive. Ages 10-up.
Karen Coats (review date September 2003)
SOURCE: Coats, Karen. Review of Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 1 (September 2003): 17.
A rather morbid premise underlies [Olive's Ocean, ] this tender coming-of-age story: the mother of Olive Barstow, a twelve-year-old girl killed in a bicycle accident, appears at Martha Boyle's door with a bit of Olive's journal. Apparently, Olive had three unrealized hopes at the time of her death—to see the ocean, to become a writer, and to befriend Martha. Martha is touched by her similarities to the dead girl, as she too wishes to be a writer, and she is in fact on her way to visit her grandmother who lives in a cottage overlooking the ocean. Her vacation becomes a meaningful rite of passage, involving a first crush, a first kiss, and a first betrayal, as well as many large and small epiphanies about life, love, death, and her place in the universe. If it sounds thoroughly clichéd, that's because it is, from plot to characters, but it is also affirming and not overly sentimental. Henkes' use of short chapters, many less than a page long, present much of the story in sensory poetic vignettes that limn the plot with a contemplative stillness; readers with a view toward the delicate melancholy of growing up, and the even more profound melancholy of not growing up, will find emotional affirmation here.
Michael Cart (review date 1 September 2003)
SOURCE: Cart, Michael. Review of Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. Booklist 100, no. 1 (1 September 2003): 122.
Gr. 5-8—More than anything Martha wants to be a writer. The problem is that her father does, too. Is there room for two writers in a single family? This is only one of the many questions that beg to be answered during Martha's twelfth summer [in Olive's Ocean ]. Here are others: Is Godbee, the paternal grandmother whom the family is visiting at Cape Cod, dying? Why is Martha's father so angry? Could Jimmy, the eldest of the five neighboring Manning brothers, be falling in love with her (and vice-versa)? And what does all this have to do with Olive, Martha's mysterious classmate, who died after being hit by a car weeks earlier? Olive, who also wanted to be a writer and visit the ocean, and hoped to be Martha's friend. Like Henkes' Sun and Spoon (1997), this is another lovely, character-driven novel that explores, with rare subtlety and sensitivity, the changes and perplexities that haunt every child's growing-up process. He brings to his story the same bedrock understanding of the emotional realities of childhood that he regularly displays in his paradigmatically perfect picture books. This isn't big and splashy, but its quiet art and intelligence will stick with readers, bringing them comfort and reassurance as changes inevitably visit their own growing-up years.
Sarah Ellis (review date November-December 2003)
SOURCE: Ellis, Sarah. Review of Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 6 (November-December 2003): 745-46.
Martha opens the door. A strange woman holding an envelope announces: "Olive Barstow was my daughter." Olive, a schoolmate that Martha had barely noticed, has recently been killed in a car accident; the envelope contains an extract from Olive's diary in which she shares her dreams, including the hope that Martha, "the nicest person in my whole entire class," would become her friend. With this original and compelling opening scene Henkes draws us into one summer in the life of a familiar, convincing, fully realized twelve-year-old girl. Olive's Ocean has all the elements of a traditional summer novel: a grandmother with a house by the sea, sandcastles, Parcheesi, a summer crush, and the idea of summer as the time between, the hinge time of growth and change. The book is a web of relationships with Martha at the center. A beloved older brother begins to pull away. Martha sees her grandmother with new eyes. Martha and her mother can't seem to stop irritating each other. The crush-object turns out to have feet of clay. In other hands this might be too much material, but Henkes has a jeweler's touch, strong and delicate. All of Henkes's strengths as a fiction writer—economy, grace, humor, respect for his characters, a dramatist's eye for gesture, and an underlying good-naturedness—are given wonderful play here. In her diary Olive reveals that she dreamed of writing a book. "Not a mystery or adventure one, but an emotional one. Maybe I can make kids change their opinions on emotion books like some authors did to me." Who were those authors, we wonder. Very likely somebody just like Kevin Henkes.
Brigid Patrizi (review date September 2004)
SOURCE: Patrizi, Brigid. Review of Olive's Ocean, by Kevin Henkes. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 48, no. 1 (September 2004): 73.
The world can change in a minute … (p. 165)
[In Olive's Ocean, ] Martha Boyle is as content in her world as most 12-year-olds can expect to be. School is out and Martha and her family are readying themselves to take their annual summer vacation to Cape Cod to stay with Martha's grandmother. Before she leaves, Martha gets a visit from the mother of a classmate who died in an accident three months before.
"You don't know me," said the woman at the door. "Olive Barstow was my daughter. I was her mother."
Martha heard herself gasp. A small, barely audible gasp.
"I don't know how well you knew Olive," said the woman. "She was so shy." The woman reached into the pocket of the odd smock she was wearing and retrieved a folded piece of paper. "But I found this in her journal, and I think she'd want you to have it." (p. 1)
With this piece of paper, Martha's world changes in a minute. It's not like Martha and Olive had been friends. In fact, Martha can't even remember ever having had a conversation with Olive. For that matter, she's not sure that Olive had any friends at all. Everyone at school thought she was a little weird. Yet, Olive refers to Martha in her journal as the nicest person in the class. In this same journal entry, Olive spells out her hopes and dreams for the future, hopes and dreams that, to Martha's amazement, are much like hers. She becomes consumed with wondering what she said or did to become part of Olive's journal entry. If they were so much alike, sharing the same aspirations, why hadn't they become friends? More haunting to Martha is the idea that if someone just like her has died, could she die too? Unsettled by the visit and the unusual gift of Olive's journal entry, Martha hopes to seek solace in the comfort and familiarity of her grandmother's house on the ocean.
Yet, the annual summer visit brings with it even more questions as Martha begins to see that what was once familiar has now inevitably changed. She realizes that this may he her last summer with her elderly grandmother, who she affectionately refers to as "Godbee." Should she confide in her grandmother, as she has always done, the story of Olive? She is certain that her parents won't understand. Can she somehow make sense of Olive's death and her strange connection to her? To complicate matters further are the five Manning brothers, specifically the oldest, Jimmy. Is she falling in love with him, and could he possibly feel the same about her? Why is her oldest brother, once so content to sit for hours with her and play Parcheesi, now so quick to take off alone for the beach? Why does her father seem so unhappy at his current job as a writer? Can Martha's aspiration to be a great writer herself, an aspiration that she unnervingly shares with the dead Olive, ever be realized?
Kevin Henkes has done a wonderful job of capturing with words the angst of any 12-year-old who begins to ponder the uncertainties of life, with its many changes, and the mysteries of death. While grappling with such heady issues, Martha also deals with the everyday trials of a 12-year-old: parents who often embarrass her, an older brother who has suddenly discarded their childhood games, a toddler sister whom (according to Martha) she has to babysit too often, and Martha's anticipation of her first kiss. Henkes's characters are warm and authentic, with a quiet depth. The characters move as naturally as the ebb and flow of the ocean current that serves as the novel's backdrop. This is not an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat novel, but Olive's Ocean will allow young readers—from 9 to 14—time to ponder, along with Martha, their own ideas of life, love, and death.
WEMBERLY'S ICE-CREAM STAR (2003)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 March 2003)
SOURCE: Review of Wemberly's Ice Cream Star, by Kevin Henkes. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 5 (1 March 2003): 386.
Henkes (Owen's Marshmallow Chick, 2002, etc.) winningly brings another of his characters to the board-book crowd [in Wemberly's Ice-Cream Star ]. Worried that she might drip on her new dress and that there might not be enough to share, Wemberly is creative in how she eats her special treat. An ice-cream star on a stick seems like the perfect snack on a hot day, but this little mouse is a bit concerned at first on how to stay clean and how to share her gift with her staffed bunny friend, Petal. Grabbing "two bowls and two spoons and two napkins," Wemberly patiently and carefully allows the ice-cream star to melt evenly into the two bowls giving her a neat and polite way to share. The friends cozy up to the table to share the ice-cream star soup and Wemberly, ever helpful, assists Petal in finishing her share. Henkes has mastered the art of transferring his mouse children to the simplicity required for a board book, creating new stories around well-loved figures. Pastel-colored pages highlight the simple text while facing pages depict Wemberly in the same soft colors set against an all-white background keeping the page clean and visually right for the audience. A sweet treat worth waiting for.
Melinda Peihler (review date May 2003)
SOURCE: Peihler, Melinda. Review of Wemberly's Ice Cream Star, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 49, no. 5 (May 2003): 120.
PreS—Wemberly is back in another winning story [in Wemberly's Ice-Cream Star ]. It is a hot summer day and she is given an ice-cream star as a special treat. She worries that it will drip on her dress, and feels bad that her stuffed rabbit did not receive a treat as well. Her solution: to get two bowls and wait until the ice cream has melted. Soon the little mouse and her toy sit down to "… ice-cream star soup. And neither of them spilled a drop." This charming story is perfectly complemented by adorable illustrations rendered in pastel hues against a white background. The text, art, and design are particularly well suited to young children.
KITTEN'S FIRST FULL MOON (2004)
Gillian Engberg (review date 15 February 2004)
SOURCE: Engberg, Gillian. Review of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes. Booklist 100, no. 12 (15 February 2004): 1056.
Henkes creates another winner in [Kitten's First Full Moon, ] this simple, charming story about a naive little kitten who mistakes a round, shining moon for a bowl of milk. Kitten laps at the sky's creamy circle, but she is surprised when she tastes bugs instead of milk. Then she chases the milk-bowl moon through the garden and field to the pond, where she climbs a tree, discovers another milk bowl shining in the water, and dives in after it. Finally, "wet and sad and tired and hungry," she returns home to find, at last, a true bowl of milk, out of the sky and on the porch, waiting for her. Henkes' text, reminiscent of Margaret Wise Brown's work in the elemental words, rhythms, and appealing sounds, tells a warm, humorous story that's beautifully extended in his shimmering, gray-toned artwork. Working in bold black lines and the silvery palette of moonlight, he creates a lovable, expressive character in the determined kitten, and his dramatic contrasts of light and dark capture the excitement of a nighttime adventure. Wise pre-schoolers may chuckle at the kitten's folly, but they'll also recognize the mysterious power of moonlight to transform the familiar world of daytime into something altogether new.
Diane Roback, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean (review date 16 February 2004)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, Jennifer M. Brown, and Joy Bean. Review of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 251, no. 7 (16 February 2004): 171.
From their first glimpse of the title character [in Kitten's First Full Moon ], licking her front paw on the cover illustration, youngsters will find the star of Henkes's (Wemberly Worried ) fetchingly simple story quite irresistible. When Kitten spies her first full moon, she thinks, "There's a little bowl of milk in the sky. And she wanted it." Yet when she closes her eyes and stretches her neck to lick the milk, Kitten instead ends up with a bug on her tongue. Next, she springs for the moon from the porch, and tumbles down the steps. Henkes's minimal narrative underscores the feline's drama with a refrain that encourages young listeners to chime in, "Poor Kitten!" After each such refrain, a white spread with a spot illustration of the kitten in the bottom left corner and the full moon in the upper right corner emphasize the feline's impossible dream: "Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting." Horizontal scenes of Kitten's "chase" and vertical panels of the feline's climb up a tree to reach her prize make cinematic use of the spreads, rendered in variegated hues of black and white, in gouache and colored pencil. After all her trials, her own bowl of milk is waiting for her at home. The narrative and visual pacing will keep children entranced, and the determined young heroine and her comical quest will win them over. Ages 3-up.
Deborah Stevenson (review date March 2004)
SOURCE: Stevenson, Deborah. Review of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 57, no. 7 (March 2004): 277-78.
[In Kitten's First Full Moon, ] Kitten isn't astronomically inclined: when she sees her first full moon, she's positive that it's a "little bowl of milk in the sky." Determined to reach the milk, she stretches out for it and licks, only to get a bug in her mouth; she jumps for it but only falls down; she chases it but it never comes closer; she sees it in the pond, but only gets soaked. Fortunately, when she returns, chastened, to her home, "there was a great big bowl of milk on the porch just waiting for her." There are gentle overtones of Thurber's Many Moons in the lunar theme, and the tight focus and neatly expressive text give the simple and appealing kitty adventures their full due. The repetition ("Poor Kitten!") and the toddler-sized tension of Kitten's unsuccessful efforts will further involve listeners. Henkes' illustrations evince quite a departure in style here: gouache and colored pencil combine in a palette that seems at first nocturnal blush to be monochromatic, but on closer examination reveals some smoky, ruddy-toned browns softening the charcoal tints. Broad black lines give the drafting a stylized clarity, but there's enough textured modeling to ensure that the result is emphatic rather than merely flat; framed sequences and creative page layout help keep the momentum flowing and the visual interest high even with the deceptive simplicity of line and palette. The result is a tender but robust little picture book that will be storytime catnip.
Wendy Lukehart (review date April 2004)
SOURCE: Lukehart, Wendy. Review of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 50, no. 4 (April 2004): 114.
PreS-K—[Kitten's First Full Moon is a]n irresistible offering from the multifaceted Henkes. The spare and suspense-filled story concerns a kitten that mistakes the moon for a bowl of milk. When she opens her mouth to lick the treat, she ends up with a bug on her tongue. Next, she launches herself into the air, paws reaching out for the object of her desire, only to tumble down the stairs, "bumping her nose and banging her ear and pinching her tail. Poor Kitten." Again and again, the feline's persistent attempts to reach her goal lead to pain, frustration, and exhaustion. Repetitive phrases introduce each sequence of desire, action, and consequence, until the animal's instincts lead her home to a satisfying resolution. Done in a charcoal and cream-colored palette, the understated illustrations feature thick black outlines, pleasing curves, and swiftly changing expressions that are full of nuance. The rhythmic text and delightful artwork ensure storytime success. Kids will surely applaud this cat's irrepressible spirit. Pair this tale with Frank Asch's classic Moongame (S & S, 1987) and Nancy Elizabeth Wallace's The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars (Houghton, 2003) for nocturnal celebrations.
Karla Kuskin (review date 16 May 2004)
SOURCE: Kuskin, Karla. "Cat and Mouse Games." New York Times Book Review (16 May 2004): 18.
[In the following excerpt, Kuskin applauds Henkes's illustrations in Kitten's First Full Moon, remarking that "the pictures fit the words perfectly."]
In 1938, when I learned to read, one of my favorite books was titled Sleepy Kitten. The words and pictures were by Miriam Clark Potter. I loved it dearly then, and I still do. Like a lot of books that we fall for as children, it captured my heart early and has retained its favored status through a lifetime of reading. The pictures are in pencil and the only color is on the cover. It's blue.
Until about 20 years ago, full-color picture books were rare because they were so expensive to print. That is why most children's books were illustrated in black and white. When there was color it was prepared on handmade overlays. All that has changed.
Kevin Henkes is too young to have grown up with Sleepy Kitten. But Kitten's First Full Moon shares the flavor of many children's books from those faraway days. In addition, Henkes uses the advantages of today's printing technology with care and a well-disciplined eye. The pure white circle with its thick black rim on the cover that represents the moon, or a bowl of milk, is a visual theme that shows up handsomely through the pages. It rises behind Kitten, licking her paw in a field of flowers, and frames the embossed silver title. And in a much smaller form it makes a repeating pattern on the deep gray endpapers. Even the cat's eyes become round, moonlike circles when she is frightened.
The black-and-white illustrations are simple and charming and accompany the words perfectly. Only when you examine the art closely will you find both rosy and cooler shades in the grays. And only then will you understand that Henkes's art has been prepared in full color.
This is the way the story starts: "It was Kitten's first full moon. When she saw it, she thought, there's a little bowl of milk in the sky. And she wanted it." But then she discovers that getting this particular bowl of milk is not as easy as it looks. Kitten falls down stairs, climbs a really tall tree and plunges into a pond that just looks like a bowl of milk. And all her efforts to reach the delicious-looking bowl in the sky are to no avail.
"Poor Kitten." Those two words finish the story's middle, or second act, an interlude of Kitten's frustrated chasing of the moon.
The end of Kitten's tale goes like this: "So she went back home—and there was a great big bowl of milk on the porch, just waiting for her. Lucky Kitten!" In the classic children's-book convention, the story is succinctly told, pared down to a beginning, a middle and the end. The pictures fit the words perfectly, with equal amounts of simplicity and charm. As the title implies, there are two stars in this story: the moon, which doubles as a bowl of milk, and Kitten.
LILLY'S CHOCOLATE HEART (2004)
Nancy A. Gifford (review date February 2004)
SOURCE: Gifford, Nancy A. Review of Lilly's Chocolate Heart, by Kevin Henkes. School Library Journal 50, no. 2 (February 2004): 114.
PreS-Gr. 2—[In Lilly's Chocolate Heart, ] Lilly has one red-foil-wrapped chocolate heart left and she wants to find the perfect hiding place for it. However, every place the little mouse considers is either too dusty, too warm, too tight, too narrow, or just wrong. She finally decides to put the candy in her mouth: "Perfect." The straightforward text is printed on pastel-colored pages facing a picture of Lilly on a white background. This is a delightfully simple tale, but not really a concept for the under three-year-olds who would appreciate the board-book format. Slightly older children will enjoy the story but they're likely to be turned off by the packaging. Too bad.
Dresang, Eliza T. "Handheld Hypertext and Digital Design: Picture-Book Stories." In Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age, pp. 111-14. New York, N.Y.: H. W. Wilson Company, 1999.
Examines Henkes's use of "digital design" in Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Owen, and Chrysanthemum.
Henkes, Kevin. "Caldecott Medal Acceptance." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 397-402.
Transcript of Henkes's acceptance speech for the 2005 Caldecott Medal, in which he comments that "[t]he picture book texts I love most are those that are so succinct that not one word can be extracted and not one word need be added."
——, and Ilene Cooper. "The Booklist Interview: Kevin Henkes." Booklist 100, nos. 9-10 (1-15 January 2004): 853.
Henkes discusses the inspirations behind the creation of Olive's Ocean.
——, and Kathleen T. Horning. "The Complete Package." School Library Journal 50, no. 10 (October 2004): 50-3.
Henkes discusses the writing and illustrating of Kitten's First Full Moon.
Heppermann, Christine M. Review of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes. Horn Book Magazine 80, no. 3 (May-June 2004): 314-15.
Applauds Henkes's "imaginative, unpretentiously poetic" text in Kitten's First Full Moon.
Hirschman, Susan. "Kevin Henkes—Twenty-Five Years." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 4 (July-August 2005): 403-07.
Personal recollection of Henkes's early career from Hirschman, his long-time editor and founder of Greenwillow Books.
Norgren, Tina. "Snow Business." New York Times Book Review (21 November 1999): 41.
Compares the illustrative strength of Henkes's Oh! to Douglas Florian's Winter Eyes.
Roback, Diane. Review of The Birthday Room, by Kevin Henkes. Publishers Weekly 246, no. 27 (5 July 1999): 72.
Compliments Henkes's "understated narrative" in The Birthday Room.
Additional coverage of Henkes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 59; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 23; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 38, 139; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; and Something about the Author, Vols. 43, 76, 108, 154.