Kevin Henkes still owns some of his favorite books from childhood. "They're brimming with all the telltale signs of true love: dog-eared pages, fingerprints on my favorite illustrations, my name and address inscribed on both front and back covers in inch-high lettering, and the faint smell of stale peanut butter on the bindings," he says in an interview on his web site.
Back in his peanut-butter sandwich days, Henkes dreamed of becoming an artist. By high school, he had combined his love of drawing with a newfound interest in writing, and at age 19, he took his portfolio to New York City in hopes of finding a publisher. Young Henkes returned home from his weeklong trip with a contract from Greenwillow Books, and he's worked as a children's writer and illustrator ever since.
Henkes's style has evolved over the years to include more humor, more whimsy and a lot more mice. Though he began illustrating his picture books with realistic drawings of children, he's since developed a recurring cast of mouse characters rendered in a more cartoon-like style -- though with a range of expressions that make the spirited Lilly, anxious Wemberly, fearless Sheila Rae and sensitive Chrysanthemum into highly believable heroines. Owen, the story of a little mouse who isn't ready to give up his tattered security blanket, won a Caldecott Honor Medal for its winsome watercolor-and-ink illustrations.
Many of Henkes's mouse books deal with such common childhood ordeals as starting school, being teased and getting lost. Chrysanthemum, about a mouse whose new schoolmates tease her about her name, was inspired by Henkes's own feelings when he started school. "The book is about family, and how starting something new and going out into the world can be very hard," he told an interviewer for The Five Owls. "I remember going to kindergarten -- my grandfather had a beautiful rose garden, and he gave me the last roses of the season to bring to the kindergarten teacher the next day. I don't even remember how it happened, but an older kid took these flowers from me on the playground, and I remember coming home, feeling awful." As a grown-up, Henkes is able to translate difficult childhood transitions into stories that are both honest and reassuring. In a review of Chrysanthemum, Kirkus Reviews noted: "Henkes's language and humor are impeccably fresh, his cozy illustrations sensitive and funny, his little asides to adults an unobtrusive delight."
Henkes has also written novels for older children, in which he "explores family relationships with breathtaking tenderness" (Publisher's Weekly). In The Birthday Room, for example, a twelve-year-old boy learns the reason for his mother's long estrangement from her brother, and helps effect a reconciliation. "Refreshingly, Henkes has given us a male protagonist who is reflective, creative and emotionally sensitive," wrote Karen Leggett in The New York Times Book Review. "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."
Though his novels are more complex and serious than his picture books, all Henkes's works suggest an author with deep empathy for the intense emotions of childhood. As a Publisher's Weekly reviewer wrote, "Behind each book is a wide-open heart, one readers can't help but respond to, that makes all of Henkes's books of special value to children."
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Henkes's wife, Laura Dronzek, is also an artist. She painted the cover illustration for Henkes' novel Sun and Spoon and illustrated his picture book Oh!.
Henkes has turned down requests to use his mouse characters in a television series, but some of his books are available in video form in Chrysanthemum and More Kevin Henkes Stories. The video's narrators include Meryl Streep, Sarah Jessica Parker and Mary Beth Hurt.
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse has been adapted into a stage play.
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In the summer of 2003, Kevin Henkes took some time out to answer some of our questions about his favorite books and authors.
What is the one book that has most influenced you throughout your life?
One of the many books that influenced me was Is This You? by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. I loved it as a child. It is essentially a guide to making a book of one's own. Now, looking back as a published writer and illustrator, it seems interesting and logical that this book was a favorite of mine.
What are some of your favorite children's books by other authors?
Other children's books I admire include:
Harry the Dirty Dog by George Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham
Ellen's Lion by Crockett Johnson
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Amos and Boris by William Steig
Milo's Hat Trick by John Agee
The George and Martha books by James Marshall
Who are some of your favorite authors for adults?
Adult writers whose work I admire include Alice Munro, William Trevor, Cormac McCarthy and Richard Ford to name just a few.
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|Kevin Henkes Home
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|All Alone, 1981|
|Clean Enough, 1982|
|Margaret and Taylor, 1983|
|Return to Sender, 1984|
|Bailey Goes Camping, 1985|
|Grandpa and Bo, 1986|
|Weekend with Wendell, 1987|
|Two Under Par, 1987|
|Once Around the Block, 1987|
|Sheila Rae, The Brave, 1987|
|The Zebra Wall, 1988|
|Chester's Way, 1988|
|Julius, the Baby of the World, 1990|
|Words of Stone, 1992|
|Protecting Marie, 1995|
|Biggest Boy, 1995|
|Good-Bye, Curtis, 1995|
|Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, 1996|
|Sun and Spoon, 1997|
|Circle Dogs, 1998|
|The Birthday Room, 1999|
|Wemberly Worried, 2000|
|Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick, 2001|
|Owen's Marshmallow Chick, 2002|
|Wemberly's Ice-Cream Star, 2003|
|Olive's Ocean, 2003|
|Lilly's Chocolate Heart, 2003|
|Kitten's First Full Moon, 2004|
|Lilly's Big Day, 2006|