by Susan Hirschman
I am lucky. Over the past twenty-five years, I have known Kevin Henkes as a very young author, a new husband, a brand-new father, a newly successful author-artist, an experienced father, an extremely successful author and supremely successful author-artist, a non-temperamental star on business trips, a joyous companion on holidays, and, always, a much-loved and loving friend.
It all started when Kevin was nineteen and came to New York with his portfolio and the dummy for his first picture book. He had made a list, in order of preference, of his choices of publishers. Greenwillow was number one. 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?” He looked slightly embarrassed and said, “Well, she cried.” Then I looked at his portfolio. It was the work of a young man, but it was the work of someone who knew what he was doing and where he wanted to go. There was nothing tentative or out of place. And the dummy—a completely finished dummy of his first book, 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.
I remember thinking that talent like this did not stay undiscovered for long. “Where is your next appointment?” I asked. And when he said “Harper,” I accepted the dummy on the spot. Then I went to the telephone to call his mother.
A few weeks later, Kevin called to tell me he planned to drop out of college and devote himself to working on his book. “You can’t,” I said. I predicted every doom I could think of. A college degree was obligatory. How could he support himself? It was a precipitate and crazy decision. He was polite—and adamant. And as on so many other occasions over the years, he knew what he was doing.
In those early years, Kevin came to New York once or twice a year. We would give him an empty office, and he would write. By the end of the visit, his next book would be well under way. He would also help my assistant with the mail, read and report (brilliantly) on the unsolicited manuscripts (years later, he was the first reader of Suzanne Freeman’s The Cuckoo’s Child, and I will always remember his excitement when he told me about it), go out to get coffee for anyone who would let him, read every Greenwillow F&G and bound galley, and lunch with the younger members of the department, all of whom were his friends. He found Manhattan stimulating and wonderful. He went to the theater, he walked all over, he conquered the subway, and he stayed in a hostel run by nuns and paid $8.50 a night for his room.
I remember when he first showed that he could be funny in his books—when the little boy in Clean Enough iced the soap with his father’s shaving cream. I remember when he enlarged Margaret & Taylor from a brief picture book to an early chapter book—presaging the novels to come. I remember when he changed his human characters to his signature mice—which allowed them the freedom to act in ways that are acceptable for mice but questionable for humans. And I remember when he wrote Words of Stone.
It was the winter of 1991. I read it, Elizabeth Shub read it, and oh, we talked. It needed work. Lots of work. But Kevin was becoming known for his mice, had written several very interesting shorter novels, and his popularity was growing. Would he listen to us, or would he want to show the novel to another publisher? And would they publish it as it stood, in order to have him on their list? It is a perennial problem for publishers, and in this case the ending was a happy one for Greenwillow. I did not know then what a perfectionist Kevin is. I did not know that there is no limit to the amount of work he will do to make something right. But I learned. And I think he learned. He never again showed us anything until he felt that each word, each sentence, each punctuation mark was exactly as he wanted it. I have known him to go over a picture-book manuscript for weeks and even months, refining, perfecting, honing, reading it aloud, listening, and listening some more. He is always open to suggestion, but he trusts himself, and certainly that trust has proved to be merited.
One of the things that distinguished Kevin as a young author, and has continued and grown as the years have passed, is his love and respect for the children’s books that came before. When I first knew him, he was a regular at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison. He was a passionate admirer of Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Margaret Wise Brown, Marvin Bileck, James Marshall, and many other authors and artists from the forties, fifties, and sixties. Of course that thrilled me, having grown up at Harper and learned almost everything I knew from Ursula Nordstrom. Kevin was always willing to listen to a “When I Was Young at Harper” story. And his was not an academic love. Recently he and his children, now aged ten and seven, made a list of the books he had read aloud to the two of them in the last couple of years. There were fifty-four novels on the list, including Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Freddy the Detective, all the Ramona books, The Moffats, Gone-Away Lake, and The Twenty-One Balloons. Both kids are avid readers on their own, and both kids have always been read to separately as well as together.
Kevin and his wife, Laura Dronzek, live in a big house at the end of their street. The large yard is a gathering place for the neighborhood children. Laura is a superb painter as well as a children’s book artist. She is talented, generous, wise, funny, loving, unflappable—and the best cook I know. When Olive’s Ocean was named a Newbery Honor Book, she picked up the phone, and every friend and neighbor arrived at the house that evening to celebrate. Laura bakes with the ease of someone opening a jar of peanut butter, and there was a huge cake with a facsimile of the Newbery Honor Medal, cookies, and champagne. I think the neighborhood was as excited and as happy as the Henkes family. And I understand that this year the celebration was even bigger and better. A friend of theirs recently wrote me, “Sometimes I just can’t believe the amount of artistic talent, grace, and friendliness that dwells in that house.” Anyone who has read his novels or his picture books knows how important family is to Kevin. Parents are three-dimensional and interesting. Children are respected and thoughtful. They enjoy each other, and they listen, eat, laugh, work, and play—together. Lilly, Julius, and their parents; Fanny and her father; Owen and his parents; Martha Boyle and her mother, father, grandmother, and siblings; Spoon, Joanie, and the other Gilmores; Sheila Rae and Louise—families all. Just like Kevin, Laura, Will, and Clara.
Kevin is almost as old now as I was when we first met. And his son, Will, is just nine years younger than Kevin was on his first trip to New York. Time is a funny thing. But what has not changed in all these twenty-five years is Kevin’s joy in his work, his appreciation of what preceded him, and his excitement at the possibilities of perfecting his craft. At any signing, people tell him about their daughter Lilly or their son Owen. And in the last few years they have begun telling him that they grew up on his books. They tell him what his books have meant to them and to their children. The emotion in the air is love. But then, that is the emotion that surrounds Kevin—from family, friends, readers, librarians, colleagues, teachers, and booksellers.
Someone once asked me, years ago, if I knew from the very beginning where Kevin was going and what he would do in the future. I said I had always known he was bursting with talent but no, I had had no idea of what the future would hold. That is equally true today. But I knew then, and I know now, that whatever it is, it will be worth the wait. And for now, all I can say is, “WOW.”