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Kevin Henkes Talks with Roger

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kevin henkesYou ask some very great writers and illustrators about how they do what they do, and it can seem as much a mystery to them as it is to you. But Kevin Henkes is one of the most astute and articulate observers of his own artistic choices I have ever met, and it was a pleasure to talk to him about the creation of his latest picture book, Waiting.

Roger Sutton: This is probably the fourth or fifth picture book I’ve seen this year about waiting, and I want to know: What’s in the water?

Kevin Henkes: I don’t know! But in my work life, waiting has been very big. My next book is called When Spring Comes, illustrated by my wife, Laura Dronzek. It was originally called Waiting for Spring, and the word wait is in it seven times, which is quite a lot for a picture book. Then after that I have a picture book coming out called Egg, and the word waiting is in that one seventeen times. Children spend a lot of their time waiting. They wait in line. They have to wait their turn. They wait for their birthdays, holidays, weekends, the end of the school day. They seem to be waiting quite a lot, so I thought it would be a good idea for a book.

RS: How do you handle waiting in your own life? Are you good at it?

KH: If I’m working on a book and it’s going well, that’s a real anchor in my life and it makes everything else okay, including waiting. And I do love the time between when I’ve finished a book and when that book comes out in print. I use that time to come up with an idea for the next book, so I don’t mind it being stretched out. I know some people ache to see their book after they’ve finished the art, but I enjoy that lovely stretch of waiting. It’s a year, usually.

RS: Your work is done. It’s out of your control at that point.

KH: And it hasn’t hit the world yet, so it can still be the lovely thing that I think it is.

RS: Waiting can be nice if it’s something nice that you’re waiting for, like your little guys in this book, the pig with the umbrella waiting for rain. She knows it’s going to rain eventually, and she likes rain. It’s always good to have something to look forward to.

KH: I was at a bookstore in Minnesota, and the bookseller who introduced me said to the group of children sitting on the floor, “This book is about waiting. Does anyone like waiting?” One lone hand went up, a little girl about six who said, “I love waiting.” I noticed her throughout my presentation, because she was very present. If I said something that was mildly funny, she laughed hysterically. She was there. Then I noticed her again near the end of the signing line.

RS: Waiting.

KH: Waiting. And then she got to the table. She put her arms on the table. She leaned in to me. She narrowed her eyes, and said, “Okay, I changed my mind. I do not like waiting.”

RS: How do you prevent a book that is about anticipation — and now of course I’ve got that damn ketchup ad in my head — do you remember that, with the Carly Simon song?

KH: Yes.

RS: When a book is about anticipation, and the setting is essentially a tableau that doesn’t change, how do you prevent it from being static? Did you have to think about how to keep it dynamic?

KH: No, I thought, how do I keep this clean and simple? It was a conscious choice to not show a child in the illustrations. I wanted to keep it simple in its design, universal in its scope. There are no references to a home other than the window. There’s no wallpaper, no floor, no carpet, no furniture. At one point I toyed with the idea of having either the tail of a dog or a cat, or a dog or a cat itself coming in and out, but a lot of the work was just scaling back. I pictured this as a book in which the reader and the listener would have a lot to talk about. Where do you think the elephant came from? Or who do you think put the gifts on the windowsill? Is someone moving the figurines?

RS: You know, I do have to ask about that elephant. Jumped or pushed?

KH: I think it was an accident with the child owner. I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and a person came up and asked, “So, did the elephant die? Isn’t that dark for a children’s book?” And I said, “Well, no. It’s a broken figurine.” Children are people, and people deal with all kinds of loss. Some children deal with huge losses. Even if they haven’t, they’ve dealt with a popped balloon or a dropped ice-cream cone. And I think that children are good at taking from a book what they need, or not taking what they don’t need. If you’re a child who has suffered a big loss, you might interpret that spread differently than a child who has not.

RS: Or if you’re a black-hearted Irishman like me, you think the owl pushed him off the ledge.

KH: Someone else asked, “On the page where the elephant arrives, why does the pig have a come-hither look?”

RS: Wait, I have to look.

KH: I said, “Really?” This person had a whole scenario.

henkes_waitingRS: It is amazing what you can do to express motive and emotion with the placement of those little dots for eyes.

KH: Yes. The book started because I began going to my local clay studio in 2006. I make little animal sculptures. I have many of them in my studio. One day I looked at the ones on the windowsill, and they really seemed like they were looking out the window, waiting. Originally I thought I would use my figurines and photograph them, but I decided that I’m much better at drawing and painting than I am at sculpting. And actual figurines would be fixed in a certain way, and I wanted to be able to at least change their eyes or the tilt of their heads.

RS: You do a really great job of having them retain their figurine nature, but giving them just enough movement to provide a story and emotions.

KH: That was tricky. I didn’t want them to be moving all over the place as if they were living, breathing beings, but I did want them to have enough life to make the story work. Some move more than others.

RS: When creating the groupings, was it in your mind that someone was moving them or that they were moving themselves?

KH: Oh, I always imagined a child who owned them and loved them playing with them. I guess there is always that question of what happens when you turn the light off.

RS: It’s kind of like that old science-fiction story, where people realize they’re just bugs and that someone’s controlling them from above.

KH: That whole idea plays into this story, I think. One could interpret this book many different ways.

RS: The toys are never described as waiting for their owner. It’s not a toy longing to be played with. They have each other.

KH: And it’s not a toy longing to become real.

RS: Right.

KH: Probably in the child owner’s eyes, they are real.

RS: I want to talk for a minute about my particular obsession with picture books, which is page turns. When you’re creating a book, when are you thinking about the page turns of the finished book?

KH: I always write the words first. I get them to the point where I think they’re perfect, and then I dummy, cut up the words and start playing around with them. That might be the point where I really see the physical page turns, but I’m already thinking about page turns when I write.

When I’m writing — and particularly when I was writing this book — I wanted there to be a real pattern to the words. In the beginning I’m playing with the pattern. “When the moon came up, / the owl was happy. / It happened a lot. / When the rain came down, / the pig was happy. / The umbrella kept her dry.” It sets up a series. After the characters are introduced, there’s the section where we’re getting more information about their lives. “Sometimes one or the other of them went away, / but he or she always came back. // Sometimes they slept. / But mostly they waited. / Sometimes gifts appeared.” So you have sometimes, sometimes, sometimes. And then to heighten that little series, once, and it’s big: “Once a visitor arrived…” When I wrote the line “They saw many wonderful, interesting things…” I remember thinking, oh, this is my chance to have a wordless section. Trying to decide how many wordless pages there would be and how the pages would play against one another—that was a long, hard process of decision-making.

RS: One thing I love about this book is that it keeps confounding us as to, well, what kind of book it is, exactly. Do you know what I mean?

KH: Oh, I do. Most of my books are about something small writ large: girl has purse, wants to show it to the world, and has to wait. The waiting again. When I decided that I wanted this book to be about waiting, I didn’t want it to just be about a child or a character waiting for something. I wanted it to be bigger than that. I was thinking about the changing of the seasons, the wonder of nature, sudden sadness and disappointment, those unexpected moments of joy or sadness that crop up while you are waiting for something. And I wanted it to be big enough to include birth and death.

RS: Ah, so the elephant does die.

KH: Well, of course that’s what I was thinking about. And with the matryoshka cat at the end, it’s birth.

RS: But it’s never a “you’re getting a baby sister” book either, though.

KH: No. Although — so far I’ve read it about twenty-five times across the country, from New York to California. With the elephant, there’s usually a collective “awww.” And with the cat, there’s usually an “aaahh.” But one little boy — he was about three — grabbed his head and said, “Oh, no. Not more babies!” I overheard someone saying he had newborn twin siblings at home. It was poignant and funny and I loved it. And again, it made me think everyone sees what they see. It might not be what I intended at all. But waiting for a baby is another big wait.

RS: This book swims against the tide of thinking we need a lot of action, that we need a child or at least personified animal characters. We need a big plot. I wouldn’t say yours is a particularly plotted book in the way we traditionally think of those.

KH: I would agree, but I would also say I think there is a lot going on.

RS: There’s a ton going on.

KH: For a young child, there’s a lot to talk about. I recently spent some time with my niece’s two-year-old daughter. I’m amazed at her ability to imagine and play with just about anything. And at her willingness to stay on one page of a book and really talk about it with an adult who’s asking questions. I think of this book as being pretty packed. I was a little surprised when I read a couple of reviews — which have been lovely — that said not much happens. I think a lot happens.

RS: But it’s not happening in a traditional plot trajectory.

KH: I’ll give you that.

RS: Do you think, as you’re creating a book for young children, about how it’s going to be read? Do you assume the kid is looking at it by him or herself? Do you assume an adult and a child together?

KH: I hope it works all ways. With this book I was thinking about an adult and a child, and thinking about an adult asking certain questions. But I think a child could do that on his or her own as well. I also wanted there to be a lot of space between the words, between the sentences, between the thoughts. I give space to the reader or listener to fill it in. I think that’s important. Even in books without pictures, I think we need a space between chapters. We need a space between paragraphs sometimes. It can be really powerful. What you leave out can be pretty dynamic.

RS: There’s so much mystery in this story. How did these particular figurines get there? Are they toys? Are they alive? What’s going on with them? Is there anybody else in the world besides them? I think you echo that mysteriousness by giving lots of room around each picture, around each sentence. Don’t you think that, visually, that encourages someone to wonder?

KH: I do. I used white space with this book in a way that I never have before. Both with the words — space between the words, the sentences — and the white space with the design of the book. And yet I wanted it to be very grounded. I wanted the illustrations to work together. I think of them as being echoes of each other. When I introduce each of the characters, there’s a double-page spread. “The owl with spots was waiting for the moon. / The pig with the umbrella was waiting for the rain.” And then: “The rabbit with stars / wasn’t waiting for anything in particular. / He just liked to look out the window and wait.” He’s in the lower right-hand corner of the right-hand page. When the cat comes, and the text goes through the whole series of questions — “Was she waiting for the moon? / No.” And then when I say, “She didn’t seem to be waiting / for anything in particular,” I’ve echoed the position of the rabbit. It creates a rhythm. There’s a reason to it. That part of bookmaking is what I love most. Thinking everything through and making it work together in a certain way.

RS: And then making all that work disappear.

KH: Yes. There’s that great M. B. Goffstein quote from her picture book An Artist: “You should work and work until it looks like you didn’t have to work at all.”

A spread that really pleased me when I came up with it was one of the wordless ones — the one where on the left-hand side of the page is the window with frost and on the right-hand side are the fireworks. I remember thinking the fernlike pattern of the frost was a great way to segue into the feathery nature of the fireworks. One is natural, and one is not. There’s a similarity, but there’s a tension. You could compare it; you could contrast it. You could talk about it; you don’t have to talk about it; you don’t even have to notice it, but I did, and that’s what matters. Those are the kinds of things that, when they happen, I think: I love my job.


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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Wow, what a great interview. Thanks for sharing with us Mr. Henkes. You’ve been one of my favorites since childhood. 🙂

  2. You lead us deeply into thinking about the way and where you leave the ‘white space’ in pages. That is one powerful way of speaking. Thank you Roger and Kevin for a wonderful interview/discussion of your book “Waiting”. I love the idea of the clay figurines and how they were not to come to become ‘alive’, but to be ‘life’. Can’t wait to see more of your work this coming year.

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