Growing Readers Review: Where Do Story Ideas Begin?

Pre-kingergarten boy listening to the teacher read aloud

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.

By Susan C. Brenner, EdD.


 Waiting, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, Infant/Toddler: Like young children often do, the characters in this Caldecott Honor winner are waiting. They wait for rain, snow, wind and the moon, but while they are waiting, interesting things happen. Visitors come and so do gifts, and the characters – bear, pig, rabbit, dog, and owl – use their imaginations to see many wondrous things from their windowsill perch. Then they welcome a new friend who has a surprise of her own. Young readers will be intrigued by the beautiful and thoughtful illustrations that invite interaction throughout.

What Do You Do With An Idea?, written by Kobi Yamada and illustrated by Mae Besom, Preschool: A young boy cannot get rid of something that is following him around. Everywhere he goes, it follows until the boy understands that it is his very own idea that is pursuing him. Once he realizes this and begins to nurture his idea he sees that it can become a reality. This is a story about believing in yourself and having confidence to live your dreams, a story that will appeal to readers of all ages.

 This Book Just Ate My Dog, written by Richard Byme and illustrated by Henry Holt, School-Age: A simple stroll with her dog turns into a very different affair for Bella. As she walks across the crease in the page, something very strange happens…the dog disappears. When the same thing happens to others, Bella is left with no choice but to investigate herself. She needs the readers help to get everything sorted out. Young readers will appreciate the humor of turning this tale on its end.

 The Fourteenth Goldfish: Believe in the Possible, written by Jennifer L. Holm, School-Age: This story by a Newbery award-winning author is about 11-year-old Ellie whose grandfather is a scientist experimenting with reversing the aging process, using himself as a guinea pig. In this humorous tale, Ellie learns about the wonders of science, navigates relationships with family and friends, and gains insights into the secrets of life.


 I Get Dressed, written by David McPhail, Infant & Toddler: Join the critters as they get dressed from head to toe in this easy page turner for babies and young toddlers.

 Peekaboo, written by Giuliano Ferri, Infant & Toddler: Infants and toddlers will delight in playing a game of peek-aboo with a number of animal friends. Children can open up the flaps themselves to see who is hiding beneath and will find a surprise waiting for them at the end…Peek-a-boo!

 Mix It Up, written by Herve’ Tullet, Preschool: Squish, rub, and smudge! Children and adults will enjoy the magic of mixing colors in this interactive art masterpiece.

Take Away the A, written by Michael Escoffier and illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo, School-Age: Subtitled “an Alpha beast of a book”, this clever volume will have new readers delighting in the difference one letter can make. Take away the K, and monkey becomes money with a monkey at the cash register to make the point. New readers (and spellers) will want to come up with their own examples.

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Pre-kingergarten boy listening to the teacher read aloud