Many have praised Kevin Henkes’s artistic achievements in Waiting. The Horn Book review, for example, cites “confident brown outlines filled in with a muted palette of light greens, blues, and pinks in colored-pencil and watercolor.” While I recognize and laud such successes, I believe the criterion of “Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience” is the one that best supports Waiting as a Caldecott contender. This picture book not only recognizes a child audience, it depends on it in order to achieve its greatness.
I first read Waiting on my own, and it made me think of my oldest son, Rory, who’s now in his first year of college. When he was two or three years old, he used to create what his other mom and I called “altars.” We’d walk into his bedroom, or the kitchen, or the living room, and find graceful little arrangements of toys and other objects he’d gathered from the house. Visits to the playground often resulted in altars made of stones, acorns, pinecones, and sandbox toys. It was if he were a pint-sized installation artist bent on creating order and balance from found objects. I thought of Rory’s altars when I saw Henkes’s illustration on the page where the text says, “Sometimes there were gifts.” Here, the five waiting toys on the windowsill behold an assortment of small objects: an acorn, a marble, a shell. This scene was akin to the altars Rory created and watched over.
Why were these displays so important to him? I think part of their importance arose from the fact that they were a site of control for him. Children exercise such very little power in their lives. They start off as utterly helpless and vulnerable infants, and only slowly and haphazardly do they gain agency and control over their day-to-day existence. There is no child depicted in Henkes’s picture book, but the toys arranged on the windowsill imply a child’s hand, a child’s control, and the very design of the book invites the real child reader’s active participation in a shared reading.
Reading Waiting on my own, I appreciated Henkes’s fearless use of white space. I marveled at how he seemed to channel James Marshall in his ability to convey so much expression with mere dots and lines for eyes and mouths. I delighted in the expert pacing of the text, and in the sequence of wordless spreads that evoke a quieter, more contemplative wild rumpus in their deference to the visual.
When I asked the group what they saw happening in the front of the jacket art, one child immediately noticed that the toys are gazing out the window at clouds that somehow reflect their forms. This observation provoked lots of matching — the pig with the umbrella-shaped cloud, the bear with the kite-shaped one, and so on. Then I showed them the back of the jacket, and they noticed the toy cat.
“It’s not on the front,” one child observed.
“It’s not there, either,” said another child when I turned to the title page.
The dedication page depicts the three “gifts” that show up later in the story, and the children simply named them when we encountered them on this front matter page. But naming them proved useful in recollecting them when we arrived at their gifting, and a child burst out, “Maybe that’s what they’re waiting for!” in direct reference to the title.
A similar response came when the “cat with patches joined them”:
“I was waiting for that cat!” someone exclaimed.
Here, I plainly saw the excellence of Henkes’s recognition of the child audience. Yes, as many reviewers have noted, the very theme of waiting is central to a child’s existence; this truth ties into the lack of control I cited earlier. But what this storytime underscored is that it’s not just the characters who are waiting, perhaps provoking empathy from child readers who’ve been there/done that: the child readers themselves are immersed in waiting during the reading, too. Sometimes the payoff is a fulfillment of expectation, as with the appearance of the gifts and the cat, which are first introduced in paratexts, therefore allowing readers to anticipate their arrival. But readers also await small twists that result in unexpected occurrences — the quasi-birth of the nesting-doll cat’s kittens, the sight of the toys stiffly prone on the windowsill when they sleep, the tragic fall of the elephant.
“I think that rabbit pushed him,” one child said, instantly sparking storytime debate reminiscent of I Want My Hat Back throw-downs I’ve mediated in the past. Like Klassen, Henkes trusts his child readers implicitly. He doesn’t push morals or tidy messages on them. He just lets them wait to see what will happen, what will change, what will arrive, what will come to be. But if we want to identify a message in this picture book, I think we can find one that verges on the holy. This book quietly asserts that there are gifts to be had in waiting and in the realization of answers that culminate in periods of wonder.
Time moves so quickly. The little boy who made altars in my home and on the playground is now, in most ways, an adult. We’ve both been waiting for this moment for his whole life, and we are now “waiting to see what [will] happen next.” There are other 2015 picture books I love dearly and would champion, too, if I were on the committee (Drum Dream Girl; Voice of Freedom; Leo: A Ghost Story; Wolfie the Bunny, to name a few), but I can say without reservation that I hope that part of what’s next for Henkes is well-deserved Caldecott recognition.