Kevin Henkes may be most famous for Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, his mega-bestselling picture book, but he has published more than 30 books and has proven incredibly adept at making the tricky transition between picture books and novels for young readers. Among his many honors are a Caldecott Honor for Owen in 1994, a Newbery Honor for Olive's Ocean in 2004, and the Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon in 2005. His newest chapter book, The Year of Billy Miller, is a sweet and savvy story told from the point of view of a 7-year-old boy. Henkes portrays Billy's fears and foibles, public pratfalls and quiet triumphs in the light of his closest relationships. It's a lovely meditation on the fabric of family and community.
Henkes recently spoke by phone prior to his appearance at the Southern Festival of Books:
You have had the rare ability to move successfully from picture books to chapter books to novels and back again, earning top honors in all categories. Does the initial story idea dictate the format, or is there another process you use to make that choice?
The creative process is mysterious. I think it's difficult to understand and even more difficult to explain. I'm not quite sure where the ideas come from, but they tend to lend themselves to different formats. I think content dictates form, so I suppose they choose me; I don't choose them. Often when I'm working on a picture book, I will think, "Oh, I wish I were working on a novel," and sometimes when I'm working on a novel and I'm stuck, I think, "Oh, I wish I were working on a picture book. It's so much more fun — I could be sitting doing pictures."
Each is equally difficult. A picture book is shorter, but shorter doesn't mean easier to write. And a picture book tends to be simpler in a certain way, but I think they are just as complex in other ways. It's just a different art form. The fact that there are fewer words [in a picture book] means that there is less margin for error. Everything has to be exactly right. I think a really great picture book is a perfect combination of the pictures and the words, and the pictures do a great deal of the storytelling. What I sometimes find is that when I'm working on the illustrations for a picture book I can take things out of the text that were there originally because I don't need the words anymore.
Your books portray universal themes such as overcoming fears, accepting differences, dealing with strong emotions and handling difficult relationships. Is there a theme that you are particularly proud of having addressed? Or perhaps one you have yet to tackle?
I don't think about themes when I'm working. I tend to begin with character, and the story grows out of that. Often when I'm done I'm sort of surprised when someone will say, "Oh, this is a book about overcoming fear," or "This is a book about overcoming one's worries," or, "This is a book about understanding differences with other people." And that's pleasing to me, but it's not an intent that I am aware of. Anytime that I have tried to write a book with something particular in mind, it hasn't worked. So for me, theme isn't a conscious choice but something I think that just develops as the story develops, as the character develops, and becomes deeper and richer as I work.
Lilly, for instance, first appeared in Chester's Way, a story about two boy mice — Chester and Wilson. It was a book about friendship, and I needed something to shake their friendship up. I toyed with different ideas. One idea was that one of them would move away, and as I was figuring out where the story would go, the idea of a new friend moving into the neighborhood struck me. And I thought it would be nice maybe to have it be a girl, and it would be interesting to have her be very different than they were. So it all just happened. None of it was planned. And that tends to be the way that it goes. Sometimes afterward when a book is completely done I am surprised by them, and I forget all the struggles that one goes through to bring something to completion.
And have you ever started with a character or a story and not been able to get it to work and had to abandon that idea and start over with something different?
Oh, yes, that happens. My first editor, Susan Hirschman, once compared it to a compost pile: Even if one doesn't use something now, if one puts it away, perhaps it will grow and percolate and turn into something else. And that's happened.
What is the most important thing you have learned about your craft after all these years? What advice would you give to an artist or writer who is just beginning?
I think one very important thing I've learned is to trust my instincts and not to be concerned with trends or what seems to be selling, or reviews, but to really follow my vision. And I think my advice to beginners would be to really know which publishers publish the kinds of books that they are drawn to because there's a different feel to what different houses publish. It's really important to do the research and figure out which houses publish books that they really admire and where they feel that their work might fit in.
The unifying thread running through your new chapter book, The Year of Billy Miller, is his personal relationships — with his teacher, father, sister and mother. Why did you choose to tell Billy's story through his interactions with these significant people in his life? And who are the corresponding significant people in your life, as represented in the book's dedication?
It happened sort of by chance. When I began I wanted the book to be appropriate for a young reader, so I didn't want just one long story. I wanted there to be shorter stories to give the reader a reward sooner. I thought, if I divide it into sections, how would that be? What would be a good number? I did want it to have an overall arc, which I think it does: Things that happen in the first story carry over into the next and the next. But I thought four would be a nice number — there are four seasons, there are four people in his family, and this is very much a story about family. But, of course, he is one of those people so there needed to be another person, and I thought the teacher was perfect because at that age in a person's life a teacher is a very dominant figure. And I wanted it to be a school story so that made perfect sense. Those are four people who are really important in my life: my wife, my son, my daughter and Susan Hirschman.
One of my absolute favorite lines of yours comes from Sheila Rae, the Brave, an early book, in which the narrator says, "At dinner, Sheila Rae made believe that the cherries in her fruit cocktail were the eyes of dead bears, and she ate five of them." This very specific description sounds like it might have been inspired by a real-life event. Did you and your siblings by any chance get creative with your fruit cocktail?
I made it up. But I have to say that fruit cocktail was very big in my life as a boy. It was something that we had a lot, and I remember we used to fight over the cherries, and the "dead bear eyes" just came to me one day. When I'm writing I often do think back to when I was a boy. I remember many people thinking that I had children long before I did just because of the nature of my work. And then when I did become a father, many people said, "Oh, now you'll have more ideas than ever," and I found that not necessarily to be true. I think the ideas come from somewhere within, and even though I might be inspired from something that I see, or a kernel of an idea might come from one of my kids, I think one needn't have kids to be in this field, and, in fact, some of the greats never had children: Maurice Sendak, Ruth Krauss, Margaret Wise Brown, Crockett Johnson.
Do you think it's necessary, then, to have very clear memories of your own childhood to write for children?
No, I don't. No. I remember how things felt, I think, fairly well. Maybe it's just being perceptive. Maybe it's being empathetic. I don't know. Again, it's part of that creativity that's mysterious.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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