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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Kevin Henkes writes his first book for beginning readers, Penny and Her Song
A different way of thinking
<i>Lilly's Purple Plastic</i> Purse has been performed nationwide.
Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse has been performed nationwide.
Credit:Tom Klingele

Kevin Henkes is riding high following the reception of his latest book, Penny and Her Song. It's the first story for beginning readers from the Madison children's illustrator and author. "It's a very different art form," he says. "I'd never done it before, so it was exciting to try to do."

Children's Theater of Madison is currently presenting Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, a play based on one of Henkes' best-known works, at the Overture Center Playhouse.

The Racine native has published almost 50 picture books and young-adult novels since he moved here in 1979 to attend UW-Madison. Most often Henkes' tales are set in a whimsical world of mouse children, although "bits of Madison turn up in the longer books."

The New York Times recently lauded Penny and Her Song. The Washington Post called it "simple proof that less is not only more, it is nearly perfect."

"It was my favorite review, because I felt as if they really got it," says Henkes.

Writing a book for beginners turns out to be extraordinarily complicated. "I didn't use vocabulary lists, but I was trying to keep in mind the kid who is just beginning to read independently," he says. "For example, the language in my regular picture books would be more sophisticated, although I wanted to be mindful of rhythm and repetition, and all of those things. I was mindful about making sure that there were lots of picture clues in the illustrations."

He describes writing for beginners as a different way of thinking. "Some days it was really like working a crossword puzzle, because the text is also phrase-broken, so that each line would be what a beginning reader would probably be able to handle in one chunk."

Henkes' award-winning books have been adapted to animated films with narrators such as Meryl Streep and Sarah Jessica Parker. Two more are in the works. He loves the 1999 orchestral work based on Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. The stage adaptation of the book, created the same year for Seattle Children's Theatre, has since been performed nationwide at theaters including Kennedy Center.

Two more Penny books are set for release in August and February, and he's working on a novel for younger elementary students.

So what's next for Henkes? A Pixar-style feature film?

"No," he says, although "there are a couple things I think I'm not supposed to talk about."

His wife, Laura Dronzek, is also a children's book illustrator, as well as a painter. She illustrated Moonlight, a picture book written by Helen V. Griffith, which has just been released.

Children's Theater of Madison is presenting Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse through May 20. Henkes will autograph books and participate in a talkback following the 6:30 p.m. performance on Saturday, May 12.

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