February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Small Stories, Big Characters: A Chat with Author Kevin Henkes

Beloved children’s book author Kevin Henkes has nearly 50 titles to his name, ranging from picture books to novels for young readers, including the Caldecott Award-winning Kitten’s First Full Moon, the Caldecott Honor Book Owen, and the Newbery Honor Book Olive’s Ocean. Henkes is probably best known for his roster of mouse characters, including the aforementioned Owen, as well as Chester, Wemberly, Chrysanthemum, Julius, and superstar Lilly. His latest book is The Year of Billy Miller, a sweet and funny novel for young readers recounting the life of a memorable second-grader.

A few months ago, Henkes joined School Library Journal as opening keynote speaker at our annual Day of Dialog (DoD), in which he told the children’s librarians, publishers, and children’s book authors and illustrators in attendance that he was a lifelong book lover and, in fact, “built by books.”

SLJ is happy to be sponsoring another event featuring the author, an exclusive webcast live from Bank Street College of Education in New York City next week, on September 17, 2013. As we look forward to hearing him speak and answer questions from kids, parents, and teachers, SLJ sat down with Henkes for an in-depth chat about his career so far, his creative process, and his next projects.

Can you tell us more about your lifelong relationship with books?
From the very beginning, I grew up in a house that didn’t have very many children’s books, but going to the library was very important to my mother, and we went to the library the same way you’d go to the grocery store or to school. So it was part of life. And I grew up loving books.

You’ve spoken before about the importance of sharing books with children. Can you tell us more about your experiences reading aloud to your kids?
I had a large collection of children’s books, and when I became a parent I was, I think, at the very beginning very stingy with my books because they were in perfect condition, and I knew what happened to the books my kids “read.” But the same person inside me knew that that’s what books are for. And I think it has been wonderful to watch my kids grow up with books. I’m sure I’ve made many mistakes as a parent but every day, [reading aloud to them] was one thing that I think was so right, and it exposed them to a lot. I think it broadened their horizons. I think it made them more empathetic.

How did you choose which books to read aloud to your kids?
Some were things that I wanted to read, that I remembered loving and I wanted to share it with them. They also read independently, but sometimes they would have something that they would want me to read aloud as well, and they would decide what they wanted. We chose them in different ways.

What were your favorite books growing up?
I loved Call it Courage by Armstrong Sperry. I loved Beverly Cleary’s books. I went through a phrase where I really loved Garth Williams illustrations, so the head children’s librarian at the Racine [WI] public library would show me books that he had illustrated. Those books were favorites. What else did I love? I went through different phases as I suppose all kids do, but I loved Charlotte’s Web—how could one not? And I remember the Henry Reed books—they aren’t very much around now, but I remember loving those. I read them to my kids! They’re still loved.

What about books of your colleagues that you newly discovered as a parent?
You know I read Harry Potter aloud. It was fun! It was! My son was also a huge Redwall fan. One book that they both really loved was James Marshall’s Rats on the Roof. It was a huge, huge favorite. I read aloud Kate DiCamillio’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, that was fun. And I read Vera Williams’s Scooter aloud when they were a big younger, and that was a big hit.

How do you create your characters’ unique voices and personalities?
I think about my characters long before I begin writing, and I really try to get a very clear picture in my mind who they are—how old they are, what they like. I try to create that whole family. And then when I feel pretty confident about them, I will jot things down, not writing the story yet but really just writing down facts about the character so by the time that I do begin writing, I’m pretty certain who they are. And if I begin too soon for me, I’ll quickly find it out.

Do you make scrapbooks or storyboards?
I have notebooks and folders. I often will have a notebook and I’ll make little tabs for the characters and write down my facts about the different characters in their section, and add to it and refer to it. And sometimes I don’t use a  lot of it. It’s not in the book per se, but it’s still helps me know who they are. Sometimes I will write down what a character’s favorite color is or favorite food, and it won’t end up being in the book, but it helped me create him or her.

So, in a way, you are conducting research for your characters?
Someone once asked me about the way kids were taught to write in schools—prewriting, etc.—and at first I thought I don’t do any of that, but then I realized that I do all of it. I just do it differently. I don’t think of it as prewriting, my notebooks about characters.

[But ] with Billy Miller, in the third section, it was based on a restaurant my kids loved when they were little that I hadn’t been to in years, so I went one day by myself for lunch, with my notebook. So that was research! But when I hear the word research, I think of it differently.

Your notebooks sound like they would make a great kit lit exhibit!
I did an exhibit at the CCBC with my novel Protecting Marie, and I had the notebooks, and I even had a few handwritten paragraphs and how they morphed into the finished book. It was nice for me to go back and organize it. And again the thing that was most surprising to me was that there was so much of it. It was the first time I looked at it, I suppose, in a more academic way.

What inspired you to write The Year of Billy Miller?
 The last novel I had written was Junonia, and it was about a 10-year-old girl, and I really had spent a lot of time with her, and so I thought I wanted to spend time with a boy. I had just finished doing the three “Penny” books, beginning readers, and even though they were longer than picture books, there was a lot of art, [so]  I really wanted to do a novel or a chapter book. And because Junonia was set on an island and she was an only child, I wanted something different. I knew from the start there would be at least a sibling. That book was a away from home, so I wanted it to be a book at home—wherever, whatever home was—and so that’s sort of the way I began this book.

 So you wanted a more domestic, familiar book?
Yeah! And those are the kinds of books I’m drawn to anyway. All of my books—even one that took place on an island—I still think of them as pretty small, domestic stories. The one thing that is sort of funny to look at is the list, when I’m trying to come up with names. I had pages of names! I wanted him to have sort of a common name. I loved the internal rhyme. It just sounded right.

Is there a lot of you in the character?
I volunteered in my kids’ first- and second-grade classrooms once a week. I think all of the characters have a piece of me in them, but I was really trying to remember that and channel that experience, when my son was 7 and my daughter was 3. I really made an effort to stay in Billy’s head. It’s in the third person, limited, but I wanted to remember he’s a 7-year-old boy. I wanted the prose to reflect that.

He does have a great vocabulary.
Yeah! But I think reading to one’s kids allows him to have that. One thing I would love when I read aloud [was] when my kids would ask, ‘What does that mean?’ It would open the door to not only what a dictionary is, but [for them] to try to guess what it means. And that was wonderful.

But for Billy Miller, I tried really hard to not dwell on descriptions that Billy wouldn’t, and I love describing things, and I really had to hold back. I think I’m an artist first, and I love describing things, but I really had to watch myself. I had to cut as I went.

Do you think you will write a Billy  sequel?
I’m thinking about it…he’s still in my head. But I don’t know yet! I have a couple thoughts, but for me, one of the greatest joys about working on a novel is creating the characters, the family, the setting. And to have it already be done sort of takes away one of my greatest pleasures. There is something so satisfying about creating that whole new world.

Which is easier to do, a picture book or a novel? What’s your process like?
If I’m working on a novel and I’m getting towards the end, I sometimes think, ‘Oh I wish I was working on a picture book. They’re so much more fun and they’re easier!’ And then, if I’m working on a picture book and I have to redo a picture four times and I’m not loving it, I’ll think ‘Oh a novel is so much easier. It’s just words, and I can write in a coffee shop and I can go anywhere.’ [laughs]

I do like them both, but there are days when I think the other is easier or more fun. With a picture book, I always get to the point where I think the words are perfect before I do any kind of drawing. I don’t even let myself sketch anything until I have the words.

Do you have a favorite character or characters from your books?
I have to say that I do. I love Lilly, and I think she lends herself to story quite well. I’ve gone back to her a couple of times, and that’s been nice. Right now, [maybe] because it’s still really fresh, I do have a soft spot in my heart for Billy Miller. I do like him.

The book has been getting nice reviews so far.
Yeah, it’s been really nice! And I think it’s interesting because one never knows. I think some of the books of my own that I love most sell the least. It’s funny how that works. I don’t understand it.

I have a fondness for Junonia, I think in part it’s because it’s set on Sanibel Island, and we’ve gone there every year since my son was 6 months old, so it’s really become a part of what my family does. I wrote a lot of it during the winter, and it was really wonderful. Every day I could escape to this sunny blue warm world; I really remember that very vividly. I’d have to go out and shovel, but I could come back in and be on the beach. It was nice.

What can you tell us about your next project?
I have a picture book written called Waiting for Spring that my wife, Laura Dronzek, is going to illustrate. We’ve collaborated twice before, on my books Birds and Oh!
And I’ve just written the words for a picture book that I am illustrating myself.

How intense is the collaboration with Laura? Do you brainstorm together?
No! I try not to really say much of anything, to let it go. Laura can do with it what she wants. I really want it to be hers as much as its mine. It is [hard] at the very beginning, but once it’s gone—as long as I have something else to work on—then it’s great! I do like to just focus on one thing. And now that I have my thing to work on, it’s time.

You are known for your many animal characters, especially mice, but each one is its own unique person, its own mouse.
[laughs] Yes! I hope.

Can you tell us more about how those came about?
The first four books that I did had humans as the characters fairly realistically rendered, and the fifth was Bailey Goes Camping. My texts were starting to become more humorous, and I thought I could better tap the humor in the words by drawing more loosely and using animal characters. I tried rabbits for Bailey Goes Camping, and I liked it.

The next book I wrote was A Weekend with Wendell, and I wanted to try something else. And I sketched several different animals and I thought, ‘Oh! Mice would be fun!’ And I had such a good time with Wendell that the next book I wrote was Sheila Rae the Brave, and I wrote Wendell into the story. And Sheila Rae the Brave was really the first book of mine that had a bigger sales bump than the other ones, and I really had a good time doing it, so I kept doing it. But it wasn’t anything that I planned.

If someone would have told me some 30 years ago, ‘When you’re 52, that you’re going to have 13 books with mice,’ I would have [denied it]. It just happened, it did! [laughs]

My career just happened very slowly and steadily. I was young when I began, too, so I’ve had a lot of time to grow. But I think it would be really difficult to have the first book be a smashing success. I’m really grateful for the slow steady way things progressed.

Attend the Kevin Henkes LIVE webcast event on September 17 for a chance to win one of 25 signed copies of his new book The Year of Billy Miller, courtesy of HarperCollins.
It’s not too late to register! Click the link below to sign up:

The 25 winners are:

1. Kim Simmons, Longbranch Elementary,  Midlothian, TX
2. Shannon Houghton, Wildwood Elementary, Federal Way, WA
3. Amy Bansak, Harwinton Consolidated School, Harwinton, CT
4. Monica Williams, Port Jefferson, NY
5. Cara Frank, Clermont County Public Library, Amelia, OH
6. Donna Shannon, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
7. Karen Angiolet, Medford School District 549C, Medford, OR
8. Linda Watson, Hillfield Strathallan College, Hamilton, Ontario
9. Lona Sepessy, Sunrise Elementary, Redmond, WA
10. Susan McAdams, Baton Rouge Lutheran School, Baton Rouge, LA
11. Diane Schrecker, Ashland University, Ashland, OH
12. Pam  Lansberry, King Elementary School, Woodbridge, VA
13. Cindy Vanderbrink, Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Toledo, OH
14. Audrey  Campbell, Rogers Adventist School, College Place, WA
15. Amy McWilliam, Lee County Library System, Fort Myers, FL
16. Jo-Anne Lenz, River Valley School, Sundre, Alberta
17. Judith Addington, Danville, CA
18. Kim Tomblin, Forsyth County Public Library, Cumming, GA
19. Karin Woodruff, Lincoln Elementary School, Lincoln, AL
20. Beth Abramovitz, Columbus School for Girls, Columbus, OH
21. Cynthia Williamson, Gregory Portland Jr. High, Portland, TX
22. Ellen Richmond, Waterville, ME
23. Anne Harris, Wichita Public Library, Wichita, KS
24. Joyce Moore, Vermillion Public Library, Vermillion, SD
25. Sarah Lilly, Eau Claire, WI

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.