The Birthday Room

The Birthday Room

3.0 1
by Kevin Henkes

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Benjamin Hunter gets two things for his twelfth birthday: a freshly renovated room in the attic from his parents and a letter from his uncle, Ian, whom he hasn't seen in nearly ten years. Ben is lukewarm about the room . . . but the letter! It's an invitation to visit, and Ben has an unexplainable urge to see-and know-this man who's been estranged from the family for… See more details below

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Benjamin Hunter gets two things for his twelfth birthday: a freshly renovated room in the attic from his parents and a letter from his uncle, Ian, whom he hasn't seen in nearly ten years. Ben is lukewarm about the room . . . but the letter! It's an invitation to visit, and Ben has an unexplainable urge to see-and know-this man who's been estranged from the family for so long. That is, if Ben's mother can let go of an old grudge long enough to let him have his wish...Beloved author Kevin Henkes delivers a stirring novel about a family ready to give and to heal-and to give again.

Editorial Reviews

Karen Leggett
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.
New York Times Book Review
Horn Book
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 is the latest such protagonist. When his proud parents surprise him with his own studio, the gifted young painter feels trapped by their expecta-tions; 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. j.r.l.
Kathleen Odean
When Ben was two years old, he lost a finger in an accident while under the care of his uncle Ian. He hasn’t seen his uncle since. On Ben’s twelfth birthday, Ian invites him to come to Oregon for a visit. His mother hates the idea but eventually agrees to go with him. In Oregon, she begins a tentative reconciliation with her brother and Ben starts a friendship with a neighboring girl. Outstanding character development brings the children and adults to life, while beautifully chosen imagery adds richness to this novel.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Two gifts on a boy's 12th birthday fortuitously bring an entire family closer together. Young Benjamin likes to draw and paint, but when his parents give him a present of a room to use as a studio, he feels pressured into becoming an artist. He is enthralled by his second gift: a letter from his Uncle Ian in Oregon, inviting Ben to come for a visit. Ben's mother, however, is not so enthralled; she still blames her younger brother for a wood-shop accident that caused Ben to lose a finger at age two. Not until Ben tells her, "If I had to choose, I'd take the trip over the room," does she consent to the visit. As Ben spends time in Oregon with his mother, Uncle Ian, Ian's expectant wife, Nina, and the Deeter children who live nearby, he makes some important discoveries about his family and himself, and eventually finds a special purpose for his "birthday room." Once again, Henkes (Sun and Spoon; Protecting Marie) explores family relationships with breathtaking tenderness, showing how feelings of guilt, bitterness and fear can be quelled by more deeply rooted love. His understated narrative from Ben's perspective has a translucent quality that allows readers to discover the subtle dynamics among the adult characters right along with Ben. The characters here, especially Ben and the Deeter children, will be cherished. Ages 10-up. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-Two gifts given to Ben on his 12th birthday bring changes to his family in this novel by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 1999). The first gift, from his parents, is a room of his own to use as an art studio. The second is a letter from his mother's brother in Oregon inviting him for a visit. While Ian feels pressured by the first gift, he wants to know more about his Uncle Ian. At the age of two, Ben lost a finger as a result of an accident in Ian's woodshop, and his mother has never forgiven Ian. When Ben tells his mother that he would prefer the trip to the room, she relents and they travel to Oregon. While in Oregon, Ben meets his uncle, aunt, and the Deeter children who live nearby. He begins to understand that guilt affects people in different ways and sees how love can mend family problems. Reader Terrence Mann brings to life the lyrical prose of the descriptions. His subtle vocal nuances make each character easily recognizable. Appropriate for classroom, small group, or individual listening, fans of Henkes will not be disappointed.- Sylvia Feicht, Kankakee Valley Intermediate School, Wheatfield, IN Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Henkes (Sun and Spoon, 1997, etc.) peoples this oblique tale of a family healing an extended rift with his usual cast of disarming characters. Ben doesn't remember the shop accident in which he lost a finger ten years before, nor Uncle Ian, his baby-sitter at the time, who dropped out of touch soon afterward; when an invitation from Ian to pay a visit comes out of the blue, Ben is intrigued enough to persuade his still-angry mother to take him. Ian, as it turns out, lives in apple and peach orchards with an expectant wife and neighbors who include lively five-year-old twins Kale and Elka, and their older sister, Lynnie. Sharing baby-sitting duties, Ben and Lynnie hit it off instantly. Amid quiet discussions about blame and guilt the author gives everyone immediate worries; a sonogram shows the baby in a breech position, and, following a casual remark of Ben's, Kale climbs a tree and then falls, breaking an arm and a leg. The story is constructed of deft characterizations and pleasing, unforced symmetries. Ben's remorse for being at least indirectly responsible for a child's injury, of course, echoes Ian's, but other parallels spin out and curve back toward resolution. It's a beguiling story, with near tragedies, happy endings, and clear insight into the hearts of adults and children. (Fiction. 10-12)

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.12(w) x 7.62(h) x 0.35(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Two of the things Benjamin Hunter received for his twelfth birthday took him completely by surprise: a room and a letter. The room was from his parents. The letter was from his uncle.

The room was on the second floor of the house, in the tree-shaded corner of what until a few months earlier had been a musty, unused attic. Ben's parents had reclaimed the attic by having it remodeled to add extra living space to their small, cramped bungalow. Two dormers had been raised-one on the front and one on the back of the house-and three rooms had been built. The largest room was for Ben's mother to use as a weaving studio. The other good-size room was for Ben's father; he had been dreaming for years of a quiet space all his own where he could work on his poetry and listen to his Jazz CDs. And the third room, long and low roofed, had been planned as a reading room with a comfortable overstuffed chair, a skylight, and plenty of shelves to accommodate the overflow of books that seemed to multiply in stacks all over the house, starting in corners and spreading to end tables, countertops, and ottomans like some persistent growth.

Ben had watched the progress of the renovation with great interest. Seeing the exposed structure of the house fascinated him-the beams and wires, the ancient plaster and lath stripes. The crew working on the house, he thought, wasn't unlike a surgical team performing an operation. At the height of the project, the house was a body, skin peeled back to reveal muscles, bones, veins, arteries, and organs.

When the work was completed, the reading room seemed to have been forgotten. The shelves and chair never materialized. Ben just assumedthat his parents were both so consumed with setting up their own private rooms that the reading room was temporarily abandoned. They would get around to it eventually, but obviously it wasn't a priority.

Soon thereafter, on his twelfth birthday, when Ben's parents coaxed him from bed before dawn and led him upstairs, the door to the reading room was bound in stiff, blue velvet ribbon. The bow in the center was as big and round as a basketball.

"Happy birthday," said his mother as she straightened a curled length of ribbon hanging down from the bow. Her voice was mild, with a trace of first-thing-in-the-morning hoarseness. Her eyes moved from Ben to the ribbon and back, and she smiled with parted lips.

"All yours, bud," said his father. He opened the door, and without looking, reached around the jamb and flipped on the switch for the overhead light. He nodded, inviting Ben to enter.

Ben stepped into the room. His eyes tightened against the brightness. The room was empty. "I don't get it," he replied.

"The room -- it's yours," his mother explained. "An art studio."

"What about the reading room?" Ben asked.

"Forget the reading room," said his father. "You're an artist. You need a place to work." He went past Ben to the opposite side of the room to look out the skylight. There was nothing to see but darkness.

"We'll get you an easel or a drawing table," his mother told him. "Whatever you need."

"Wow," Ben said, faking enthusiasm. He blinked. "Thank you."

His mother had been standing on the threshold. When she walked into the room, the pocket of her thin bathrobe caught on the doorknob. The door was pulled along behind her until it was only open a crack. "If you could paint Yellow Sky among all the clutter on the kitchen table," she said, readjusting her robe, cc just think what you can do here." She nudged the door wide open again.

Ben nodded. He could tell how pleased his parents were with the gift. Because he was a lark and his parents were owls, he knew that they had made a great effort to rise early to present their gift before he had had the chance to wake and discover the decorated door on his own.

"Wow," Ben said again. He didn't want to disappoint them. He loved his parents more than he could say. "Great. This is so great."

The room smelled new, or fresh paint. Glossy white beadboard covered the walls. The look and feel was like that of the inside of a cottage.

His mother kissed his cheek and his father kissed the top of his head, and they both hugged him at the same time, encircling him with their arms, making what they used to call a "Ben sandwich," but because he was thinking of Yellow Sky and the empty room and what it meant, he barely felt the embrace. He kissed the air twice, once for each of his parents, which was the closes he'd gotten to actually kissing them in months.

Ben's father yawned noisily like a lazy dog. "I desperately need coffee. And you," he said, facing his son as they broke away from one another, "you need your birthday breakfast. Twelve. I can hardly believe it."

Ben could hardly believe it either. But, whereas his father couldn't believe how quickly the last twelve years had spun by, Ben couldn't believe how long it had taken to turn twelve. In another slow year, he'd finally be a teenager.

Downstairs, in the kitchen, Ben blew out twelve candles stuck into a stack of blueberry pancakes. His parents sang to him and toasted him with orange juice. The three of them ate, while out the window the birds awakened, then chattered and called from the heavy branches nearby and beyond.

When he had finished eating, Ben made stripes on his plate by dragging his fork through the remaining maple syrup. He drew a rectangle. A door. His door. In the seconds before the birthday-room door had been opened, Ben had shivered, one small shiver of excitement. The prospect of what wonderful thing or things could be concealed behind the closed door had made his mind race, guessing. It had to be something too large to put in a regular box and wrap in a normal way. A new bicycle? A big-screen TV? A CD player with giant speakers? A year's supply of cream soda? When he had fully realized what the gift was - and wasn't - his excitement vanished as quickly as the flames on his birthday candles had when he blew at them. The Birthday Room. Copyright © by Kevin Henkes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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