Where Do Story Ideas Begin?
Kevin Henkes is as delightful as the 50 award winning books he has authored and illustrated. I had the pleasure of interviewing him recently and got to see firsthand the spirit behind the creation of so many beloved children’s books. Kevin went to New York at age 19 to become a writer and held this one job for all of his professional life – and young children and those of us who read to them are grateful!
“Why mice,” I asked Kevin. “I started out with humans,” he replied, “but after drawing several characters, mice seemed more humorous and expressive.” And why big words? In Chrysanthemum (1991) we find precious, priceless, fascinating, winsome, envious, begrudging, discontented. Kevin said that he used to read books to children in his son’s kindergarten who asked about words they didn’t know – they were never embarrassed to ask. He wants the “rhythm of the words to be right,” and he also quoted E.B. White who talked about “the sound …words make on paper.” Read aloud these words from The Year of Billy Miller (2013) to see what he means: raindrop, dewdrop, snowdrop, gumdrop, lemon drop. And Kevin’s words look the part as in Wemberly Worried (2000) where we see She worried all the way there in a large, bold font. I noted that Kevin often uses illustrations that might be deemed unusual for children’s books such as Munch’s “The Scream” in the background of Owen (1993). Kevin confirmed that he likes to add something that adult readers will enjoy.
Where do Kevin’s ideas begin? He said that the character comes first. He thinks about it a lot and lives with it a long time as the characteristics develop, and he keeps notes in a spiral notebook. “I never know where they’ll end up when I begin.” When the story is developed, Kevin goes from longhand to a typewriter that once belonged to his wife. No computer here, no email, and a cell phone that’s used for travel only. For Kitten’s First Full Moon (2004) Kevin knew from the beginning that the story would be told in black and white and he started illustrating with a brush, not a pen.
Kevin expressed an idea that is at the heart of Growing Readers Review: “If we expose our kids to books and art, nothing but good can come from it.” He closed by saying, “The older I get, the more I am drawn to books for younger children.” His fans could not be happier.
Look at this issue’s Books of Excellence to see the range of ideas that permeates children’s literature. The spectrum for young readers is as wide as the creativity of the authors and illustrators who craft these books – books that inspire young children to use their own imaginations.