Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies
November 27, 1960- -
2008 Ludington Award Winner
"Kevin Henkes." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photo by Laura Dronzek and provided by HarperCollins.
Kevin Henkes's fiction and picture books for young readers have been praised by many critics for their light-hearted, yet sensitive portrayal of the common occurrences in young children's lives. In her review of Jessica, Mary Harris Veeder suggested in Tribune Books that Henkes's ability to represent with accuracy, sensitivity, and good-humor, many of the events children experience in day-to-day life is one reason for his popularity with young readers. Veeder wrote, "Henkes' children are full of the imperfections and emotions which mark real life."
Henkes explained in his autobiographical sketch for Sixth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators his feelings on being an author of children's books: "I'm a very lucky person. I've known for a very long time that I wanted to be an artist and a writer--and that's exactly what I do for a living. Making books is my job, but more importantly, it is what I love doing more than anything else.
"My first book--All Alone--was published in 1981. Since then, I've tried to create different kinds of books, even novels. I like trying new ways to fill the pages between two covers. Experimenting with words and paint and ink keeps my job interesting."
The books of Kevin Henkes have been consistently praised for the funny and, above all, realistic way they portray children and the relationships they have with their parents and peers. Henkes is most famous for his picture books, but he has written several acclaimed novels as well. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Betsy Hearne observed that Henkes's writing "sounds as if the author has been eavesdropping on children at play," while Tribune Books critic Mary Harris Veeder wrote, "Henkes's children are full of the imperfections and emotions which mark real life." As Martha Vaughan Parravano similarly noted in Children's Books and Their Creators, "Henkes is the creator of true picture books--in which text and illustrations work together to make a seamless whole--that exhibit an innate understanding of children and always contain a strong element of security and comfort."
Books played an important part of Henkes's childhood in Wisconsin. His family regularly visited the local public library, and checking out his own books and carrying them home was an important part of the ritual for Henkes. Illustrations often determined which books he would select, and the works of Crockett Johnson and Garth Williams were particular favorites. "I think I always knew (I would be an artist)," the illustrator told Ilene Cooper of Booklist. "My parents and my sisters encouraged me in that. There was an art museum near my house, and we used to make excursions there." As a high schooler, Henkes was encouraged by a teacher to develop his writing skills as well, and this gave him the idea for his future career. "I knew I liked to write, draw and paint," he said in a Publishers Weekly interview with Nathalie Op de Beeck, "and I wanted to find an art form to combine those things--that's when I rediscovered picture books."
Henkes attended the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in art. Between his first two years of college, he decided to travel to New York City to find a publisher who might be interested in his work. While breaking into publishing is usually very difficult, the idealistic student was undaunted. "I picked the week I would go to New York, made a list of my ten favorite publishers, and set up appointments," he told Op de Beeck. "I went thinking, 'I'll come back with a book contract.'" Henkes had done his homework and had included among his interviews one with Susan Hirschman, an editor at Greenwillow whom he had heard lecture on tape. He made a good connection with her, and when he returned to school, the nineteen year old had a contract for his first book in hand. In 1981, Henkes published his first picture book, All Alone, which he had first drafted while he was still in high school.
Both All Alone and its follow-up, Clean Enough, are gentle stories relating ordinary, everyday activities of children. Bathtime is the focus of Clean Enough, as a little boy considers how to get the water just the right temperature and remembers previous adventures in the tub. School Library Journal contributor Joan W. Blos found this work "highly successful" and praised the text's "nuances of humor" as well as Henkes's "affectionate drawings."
After publishing Margaret and Taylor and Return to Sender, Henkes tried his hand at his first animal characters in Bailey Goes Camping, featuring the young rabbit Bailey, who is disappointed at being left behind on a Bunny Scouts camping trip. His understanding mother, however, finds ways for him to enjoy camping activities while at home. The story "truly captures the world of the small child," Anne Devereaux Jordan Crouse remarked in Children's Book Review Service, adding praise for the book's "wit and warmth." With its gentle pastels and simple text, Bailey Goes Camping is "a cozy, comfortable book that will leave youngsters smiling," Denise M. Wilms wrote in Booklist. A loving spirit also infuses Grandpa and Bo, about a shared summer between a boy and his grandfather. The book "is a welcome addition to (Henkes's) growing list of accomplishments," a Kirkus Reviews critic stated, explaining that the artist's "soft pencil drawings accurately convey the story's mood of quiet simplicity."
Many of Henkes's most popular books feature a group of young mice whose adventures and concerns mirror those of children worldwide. "I found I could get much more humor out of animals, and besides it freed me from having to sketch from a human model," the artist revealed to Cooper. "I tried rabbits for a while, but I found mice to be the most fun. Now, I've really grown attached to some of my mouse characters, so I'd like to explore their lives a little bit more." The first of these mouse works is the Children's Choice Book A Weekend with Wendell. The story of Wendell staying with Sophie's family for the weekend is "divertingly recounted by Henkes with good humor and charm," a Publishers Weekly critic stated, adding that "the postures of his mice children speak volumes."
In 1987, Henkes brought out two more stories about his little rodent characters, Sheila Rae, the Brave, and Chester's Way, which introduces one of the author's most popular characters, the imaginative and impish Lilly. When Lilly moves into the neighborhood, best friends Chester and Wilson both have some adjusting to do before the trio become good friends. "Henkes's vision of friendship captures the essence of the childlike," a Publishers Weekly critic noted, adding that "every sentence is either downright funny or dense with playful, deadpan humor."
The mid-1980s also saw the author introduce the first of what has since become a growing body of novels that address issues that confront children everywhere. Two under Par is the story of a boy, Wedge, as he tries to adapt to his new stepfather and stepbrother. When his mother becomes pregnant, Wedge feels more isolated than ever. One Publishers Weekly reviewer applauded Two under Par, in particular the "complicated process of learning acceptance and being accepted . . . (which) Henkes explores with confidence and care." A new baby is also arriving in The Zebra Wall, prompting a visit by the eccentric and slightly annoying Aunt Irene. Adine, the young girl who must share her room with Aunt Irene during her stay, is none too pleased--about either new arrival. Elizabeth S. Watson concluded in Horn Book Magazine that The Zebra Wall "embodies genuine understanding of a ten-year-old's fears," making for a "beguiling story peopled with true characters."
Although he was earning critical and popular acclaim for his picture books featuring mice, Henkes was not content to merely repeat a formula in his work. The 1989 picture book Jessica is the story of Ruthie and the imaginary playmate who "becomes real" when Ruthie meets a similarly-named new student at school. "Not one extraneous element in text or pictures mars the lyrical, joyous tone," Mary M. Burns declared in Horn Book Magazine, while Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books writer Roger Sutton hailed the excellent design of the book, "with a witty use of white space and an imaginative variety of type and line placement." In his first venture outside of watercolors, Henkes used broad-stroked acrylic paintings in Shhhh, a gentle portrayal of a child awake in the quiet early morning. Henkes's artwork is perfect for conveying "the hushed world of a child's first waking moments," according to one Publishers Weekly critic. "How rewarding to watch an artist stretch, and achieve another perfect fit."
To the delight of his fans, Henkes has continued to explore the world of his young mouse characters in several critically acclaimed picture books, including Julius, the Baby of the World. "There is much to admire, giggle over and learn from Julius, the Baby of the World, " Ann Pleshette Murphy wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Veeder offered a similar positive assessment in Chicago Tribune Books, admitting: "I've read this one over and over just for fun."
Henkes explores everyday concerns in books such as Chrysanthemum, in which a girl discovers that being different can mean being special, and Owen, which earned Henkes a Caldecott Honor Book citation. As Hazel Rochman explained in Booklist, like previous Henkes heroes, "Owen the mouse is a sturdy and vulnerable individual, and he is everychild." A Publishers Weekly writer hailed the "characteristically understated humor" of Henkes's "spry text and brightly hued watercolor-and-ink pictures."
While Owen earned its creator his first major award citations, Henkes's next picture book has proven to be one of his most popular. Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse features the return of the spunky little girl mouse, now in school. Henkes "once again demonstrates his direct line to the roller-coaster emotions of small children," a Kirkus Reviews writer stated. Reviewers highlighted the artist's use of humor as well as his ability to express feelings in his drawings. School Library Journal contributor Marianne Saccardi observed that "with a few deft strokes, Henkes changes Lilly's facial expressions and body language to reveal a full range of emotions." Ilene Cooper of Booklist likewise hailed Henkes's ability to portray Lilly's mixed emotions, and commented, "That Henkes is able to bring this perplexity--and its sometimes sweet solutions--to a child's level is his gift." The result of this gift, wrote M. P. Dunleavey in New York Times Book Review, is "a book so delightful, so exuberant, honest and evocative of the passionate life that children live as we look on, that one considers nailing a proclamation to the door of the local bookseller or wearing a copy around one's neck to advertise it."
Other recent books by Henkes include Sheila Rae's Peppermint Stick, which reviewer Kathy Broderick, writing in Booklist, called a "beautifully told story," that "reflects an honest childhood experience." In Wemberly Worried, Henkes focuses on a "worrywart's" imaginings about starting school. "Whimsical watercolors will win over even the mousiest readers," wrote a School Library Journal reviewer.
Throughout the 1990s, Henkes has continued developing his skills in the novel genre as well. In Protecting Marie, he portrays the world of twelve-year-old Fanny, who longs for the dog she feels is her destiny. Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman found that Henkes's novel portrayed the same feeling of "the child's powerlessness in a world run by unpredictable grownups" as his picture books do. "This is a rich and intensely developed story," Joanne Schott observed in Quill & Quire, concluding that "adolescent Fanny is complex, true, and delightful to know."
The 1997 novel Sun and Spoon also received praise as offering "another meticulously crafted, quietly engaging epiphany," according to a Kirkus Reviews writer. At no loss for story ideas, Henkes has authored several picture books illustrated by other artists, including Once around the Block, The Biggest Boy, Good-bye, Curtis, and Circle Dogs. Henkes has also extended his range into novels, preventing the "job" of being a writer from becoming routine. "I like trying new ways to fill the pages between two covers," Henkes said. "Experimenting with words and paint and ink keeps my job interesting."
Although Henkes has had numerous offers to have his characters, such as Lilly, turned into cartoon characters for television and video, he has refused nearly all of them. "I will do more books with these characters, and I thought if there was a television series with mouse characters they would do so many episodes that it would hinder my future book work," commented Henkes to Wisconsin State Journal. "For example, if they did a story about Lilly's birthday, then could I write a book about Lilly's birthday?" However, the Lilly character has been adapted into a play with the same name as the book Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. The play, which helps introduce children to orchestra music, has been performed by Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center Imagination Celebration performers throughout the United States. "When I first heard the music, I instantly thought that this was exactly right, which was nice," Henkes told Sandra Kallio and the Wisconsin State Journal.
Sharing his enjoyment of art and writing with his readers is one of his most important goals, as he wrote in Children's Books and Their Creators. "I hope that there is something about my books that connects with children, and something that connects with the adult readers. Even if something traumatic happens to one of my characters, I like to have my stories end on a hopeful note. That's my gift to the reader."
January 12, 2004: Henkes won a 2004 Newbery Honor Book award, for his 2003 title Olive's Ocean. Source: American Library Association, www.ala.org, January 12, 2004.
April 26, 2004: Henkes was nominated for the 2003 Los Angeles Times book award for young adult fiction for Olive's Ocean. Source: Los Angeles Times website: http://www.latimes.com, April 26, 2004
January 18, 2005: Henkes was awarded the 2005 Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon. Source: American Library Association, www.ala.org, January 18, 2005.
February 15, 2005: Henkes was awarded the 2005 Charlotte Zolotow Award for Kitten's First Full Moon (Greenwillow Books/ HarperCollins, 2004). Source: www.soemadison.wisc.edu/ccbc/books/cz05.asp, February 15, 2005.
March 28, 2006: Henkes's self-illustrated children's book Lilly's Big Day was published by Greenwillow. Source: Amazon, www.amazon.com, May 18, 2006.
Born November 27, 1960, in Racine, WI; son of Bernard E. and Beatrice (Sieger) Henkes; married Laura Dronzek, May 18, 1985. Education: Attended University of Wisconsin--Madison. Addresses: Home--Madison, WI. Agent--c/o Greenwillow Books, ATTN: Author Mail, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Writer and illustrator.
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