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The Book That Changed My Life: Barbara’s Book

The Book That Changed My LifeI decided when I was a teenager that I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. I’d always considered myself an artist, but when I was in high school I narrowed my focus. Children’s books would be my life’s work. This decision came to me, in part, because of Barbara Bader’s book American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within.

It was Nancy Elsmo, director of children’s services at the Racine (WI) Public Library, who introduced me to Barbara’s book in 1978. If memory serves, Barbara’s book was kept in the office, out of circulation, on a shelf of reference books for the staff. Mrs. Elsmo not only showed me the book, she let me take it home. Many times.

What a revelation. Barbara’s book was a big, thick, gorgeous, smart exploration and celebration of American picture books. It convinced me that children’s books were serious and substantial. They were art. Barbara’s book legitimized my career choice.

I couldn’t get enough of it. Unlike other large-format art books, which I loved, I actually read Barbara’s book. And, of course, I looked and looked and looked through it. I think it became part of me.

Barbara’s book was filled with reproductions of both illustrations I knew and loved and those I was seeing for the first time. This was where I learned about Jean Charlot — now one of my favorite artists. Although I’d recognized some of his illustrations, I hadn’t known his name nor his body of work. There was an entire chapter devoted to Jean Charlot, as there was to Crockett Johnson. I’d long admired Crockett Johnson. I’d loved his work since I was a boy and tried to copy it many times. I couldn’t believe that someone else shared my feelings so strongly.

Barbara’s book became my guide throughout the time I was preparing for my first trip to New York to search for a publisher. Looking back, it seems strange that I didn’t buy a copy of Barbara’s book, but it was too expensive for me at the time. So I checked it out of libraries where I lived if they had it, and I pored over the non-circulating copy at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Years passed before I realized that Susan Hirschman, my first editor, was the editor of Barbara’s book, too. More years passed before I met Barbara — and I was awestruck and shy.

And, then, nearly twenty years after my introduction to Barbara’s book, the story came full circle. For my thirty-fifth birthday, Susan gave me a copy of Barbara’s book. It was inscribed by Susan and by Barbara.

Maybe my life would have turned out the way it did, with or without Barbara’s book.

But maybe not.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

Kevin Henkes About Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes's latest book is In the Middle of Fall, illustrated by Laura Dronzek. He won a Newbery Honor for The Year of Billy Miller and a Geisel Honor for Penny and Her Marble (all Greenwillow).

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Comments

  1. Dr. Yomi Ogunnaike says:

    Mr. Henkes:
    It is always with pride that I inform my students that you are from and do reside in WI. Thank you for many many books that you have thoughtfully written about life, friendship, and more. I recall sharing your book “Chrysanthemum” with someone whose child had a long name and was about to start preschool. I observed a student and her learners as she guided them through creating a “garden” of theirs through another beautiful book of yours. My personal favorite is ‘Waiting” – such a personal but universal theme. Thank you. If you travel through my town – Stevens Point, please let me know if you are able to stop on our campus and share some of your treasures with us.
    I teach courses in ECE and also direct our beautiful preschool Lab program – Gesell Institute for the Study of Early childhood on campus – UW-Stevens Point

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