"I wrote it, I guess, as a gift for her," says Kevin Henkes, the award-winning and prolific local author of children's picture books and young-adult novels. Her being his wife, Laura Dronzek, and it being Birds, the couple's new collaboration.
Published last month by the HarperCollins imprint Greenwillow Books, the 32-page picture book for ages 2-5 presents birds from the perspective of a little girl. Her observations of their sizes, shapes, colors and movements lead her to understand a certain trait she shares with them. Dronzek's illustrations bring her husband's text and its subjects to life in the fanciful way of innocent childhood imagination.
"My wife is a painter," Henkes says, "and she had done a series of paintings of birds." Dronzek's dreamy landscape paintings have been exhibited across the nation and are in the collections of such institutions as the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Her more recent acrylics have introduced birds as the focus of a quiet setting and a means to bridge the horizon line between earth and sky.
Henkes - winner of a Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon and a Newbery honor for Olive's Ocean - was moved by his wife's work to present this gift of Birds. The couple had collaborated on the 1999 picture-book celebration of winter's wonders, OH! Dronzek has also illustrated three picture books written by George Shannon.
In Birds she employs simple lines and rich colors to illustrate her husband's flights of fancy, such as how a lone bird perched on a tree branch in winter can look like a tenacious leftover leaf, or what the sky might look like if birds left contrails the color of their tail feathers.
Dronzek's earliest childhood memories of birds include the arresting reds of cardinals and robins. She grew up in Illinois. "It was a big deal when the robins came," she recalls, adding that her mother kept a ceramic robin figurine on display in a nest.
"I think the thing that's really interesting about birds is that they're sort of around all the time but they're magical in a way," Dronzek says. "It's amazing when you look out at a Wisconsin winter that there are these chickadees and cardinals that manage to exist. They're so tiny and fragile." The couple keep a birdfeeder in the backyard of the west-side home where they live with their son and daughter.
Henkes says his own earliest memories of birds are not of birds themselves but artistic representations. "I do have a very vivid memory of some glass statues that my grandmother had of birds that were absolutely beautiful," he says. Conscious of his creative impulses from an early age, he remembers entertaining a sense that art could be better than seeing the real thing.
There are, however, at least a couple pages in Birds that call on his childhood observations of birds in nature. These pages involve the clustering of birds in a tree and then their sudden explosion into flight, as if the tree is shouting, "Surprise!" It is one of the book's most compelling sequences. "I remember thinking that as a kid," Henkes says. "It was such a stunning thing to see that the tree was alive."
Dronzek says these were among the most difficult pages to render. Henkes is delighted with them.
"I love what Laura did with it, and there were some pages that blew me away," he says. "If a picture book really does work, it's when the words and pictures are a complete whole. When I look at the book now, I can't see it without the pictures."