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Kevin Henkes: The mouse that roared
Kevin Henkes conquers the world with a highly anticipated children's book

This article originally appeared in Isthmus on March 17, 2006.

Sometimes an assignment can be liberating for a writer. For me, a kid-free thirtysomething, the chance to interview Madison's most celebrated writer for children -- make that one of Wisconsin's most celebrated writers, period -- gave me an opening into a world I had lost touch with.

After I ventured gingerly into the children's section of my neighborhood library -- something I haven't done since about, oh, 1979 -- I saw what I've been missing for decades. While I grew up and moved on to the adult section of the library, the world of children's literature moved on, too, with new trends and new authors.

Among the current crop of picture-book authors and young-adult novelists, Kevin Henkes is, simply put, a big deal. Since 1981, he's published more than 30 books. If you have young children, Henkes' popularity is hardly news to you. In fact, your kids are probably clamoring for the release of Henkes' latest book, Lilly's Big Day, starring the mouse in red cowboy boots that catapulted him into the front ranks of children's authors. It's a big enough event in the publishing industry to garner a Harry Potter-style midnight release on March 28.

But it's a shame, I've come to realize, for those of us outside the parenting loop to miss out on Henkes' imaginative and playful world. Henkes' tremendous skill as an artist and writer lends his work cross-generational appeal.

Working from his light-filled home studio on the west side of Madison, Henkes has quietly succeeded on his own terms in the competitive world of publishing. Now at mid-career, he has already cemented his status as one of the greats in children's literature.

That's what I want to do

Although Henkes, 45, loved art from a young age, few could have predicted the kind of renown he enjoys today. Henkes won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2005 for his picture book Kitten's First Full Moon. His young-adult novel Olive's Ocean was cited as a Newbery Honor Book in 2004, and his picture book Owen earned a Caldecott Honor in 1994.

One of five siblings growing up in Racine, Henkes was entranced by visits to the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts, where he also took art classes and had a summer job in college. As a child, he'd ride his bike there, gaze at the art and think to himself, "That's what I want to do."

Fast-forward to Henkes' late teens, when he was a student at the UW-Madison. He quickly gravitated to the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), part of the university's School of Education. The CCBC is a nonlending library for adults with an academic or professional interest in children's literature. It was like Mecca for Henkes.

"It's a one-of-kind place," he says. "It's part of the reason I came to the UW."

"Kevin was practically, it seemed, living at the CCBC when we were open," laughs Ginny Moore Kruse, the CCBC's director from 1976 to 2002. It was there that he deepened his understanding of the history of children's literature, in part through conferences and weekly lectures.

"He heard some of the outstanding artists, writers and editors of the late 1970s and early 1980s," says Kruse. "He learned that there are many decisions someone makes about any published book. It's much more than the writing, it's much more than the artwork, it's everything. Everything about it is a decision."

Henkes created a dummy copy of his first picture book, All Alone, and set off for New York to find a publisher. Miraculously, the 19-year-old from Wisconsin landed a book contract on his first visit to the city -- and with his first-choice publisher, Greenwillow Books, founded by legendary children's editor Susan Hirschman in 1974.

Great good fortune

It was a fateful partnership. Until her retirement in 2001, Hirschman was Henkes' only editor. Virginia Duncan, Henkes' current editor at Greenwillow (now a division of HarperCollins), describes the relationship between Henkes and Hirschman as "very unusual, remarkable -- and look at all the great books that came from it."

Given the changes in the publishing industry, which has become ever more market-driven, Henkes wonders if he could make a similar break into the business today.

"I'm not sure my first book would be published now," says Henkes. "I'm lucky to have had a steady career and been allowed to grow."

Recalling that first meeting, Hirschman wrote, "I remember looking up and seeing this apparent child walk into my office. I said something like, 'What did your mother say when you told her you were coming to New York?'"

But if Henkes seemed nave or unprepared, he wasn't, thanks in part to countless hours spent at the CCBC. Hirschman says that Henkes' completely finished dummy of All Alone "showed that he knew what a picture book was, and that it was an art form in which he was completely at home."

Hirschman not only published Henkes' first book, but also nurtured him as an artist.

"I had the great good fortune to work with someone who created an atmosphere that who I was and what I did was important," Henkes says. "My early books were given care, and not just the big sellers. She created an environment in which one thrived."

Even five years after Hirschman's retirement, the two speak several times a week, and Hirschman vacations with Henkes, his wife and their two children. "She's like family," Henkes says.

Although Henkes loved New York instantly and toyed with the idea of moving there, he remained rooted in Wisconsin, even though he dropped out of the UW to pursue his budding career. It was a gamble that others worried might be foolish, but, as with other aspects of Henkes' life, his instincts and trust in himself paid off.

Thinking like a child

From his picture books for very young readers to his young-adult novels, a large part of the appeal of Henkes' books comes from his ability to tap into the everyday experiences and conflicts that children actually face. His is not a world of unicorns or space aliens; instead, he sticks to the modest borders of a real child's world and finds deeper realizations within that. Even Henkes' talking mice, like the beloved Lilly, are essentially children.

"He captures the interior life of a child," says Kruse. "He's got an amazing capacity to write about the intimate thoughts of a growing and imaginative young person."

Henkes' current editor, Virginia Duncan, notes, "He's so good because he doesn't talk down to children, and he tells stories that are truly about their lives."

What makes a good children's author? "It is something that enables you to still see and feel and think like a child," Henkes says. "It's something inside. It's not about being childish, it's being childlike."

Henkes knows a thing or two about children's perspectives. "Sometimes kids write me with suggestions for books, or ways I could have made a book better," he says, smiling. "They have such a pure, uncensored vision."

Writing for children doesn't have much to do with actually being a parent, Henkes contends, noting that his earliest books were published before he had kids. And now that he and his wife, artist Laura Dronzek, are parents, people sometimes falsely assume episodes in his books are taken from real experiences with their kids, who are now 8 and 10.

"A lot of the great children's authors never had kids," he says, citing Margaret Wise Brown, Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak.

Live it in my head

Henkes' working process is sometimes slow and decidedly low-tech. He doesn't use e-mail, and the drafts of his novels are written longhand in spiral-bound notebooks. He rigorously revises and hones until no word is superfluous or out of place ("lean and clean," as my old poetry teacher intoned).

"I write in very small chunks," notes Henkes, "so there's less rewriting at the end. I need to live it in my head for a while. I've also learned to put away things that aren't working and come back to them later. It's like a compost heap; nothing is lost. That's what I learned from Susan Hirschman."

Part of what makes Henkes' picture books so good is the pared-down but poetic nature of the language, with careful attention to the arrangement of the words on the page and subtle repetition. This, coupled with attention to composition both within illustrations and between them, makes these beguilingly simple books for young children so satisfying.

Consider how Henkes, in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, describes his concept for Kitten's First Full Moon, which he illustrated himself: "From the start I pictured this book with black-and-white illustrations, bold sans serif type, a square trim size, and soft, creamy paper. I love to use color...but for this book color seemed unnecessary. I thought that by keeping everything as simple and spare as possible, a better, tighter, more complete book would result."

It's this sort of meticulous attention to the composition of the whole that helps explain why kids' books -- not unlike abstract art -- can sometimes look easy but be so difficult to do well.

Henkes is so unassuming and friendly that you wouldn't necessarily guess he's such a high-powered international star. Although he likes to devote his attention to a single project, he usually has multiple demands on his time. Currently, he's juggling two speeches, one novel and the text for a picture book.

He does it all from a third-story studio in his character-filled 1920s home near West High School, where he is surrounded by books and art. Windows and skylights keep his workspace bright and give him a bird's-eye view onto the neighborhood. His wife, Laura, has her painting studio just a few steps down the hall. But once their children are home from school, it's family time -- at least until the kids turn in for the night, when Henkes is sometimes tempted to return to work if he's at a critical phase in a project.

"If I need to, I can just go back upstairs after the kids go to bed," he says.

At 45, Kevin Henkes has already accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. Children -- and adults unafraid of the kids' section -- will have a chance to enjoy the fruits of his fertile imagination for years to come.

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