Read Kevin Henkes's 2020 Children's Literature Legacy Award Acceptance Speech at ALA's Virtual Book Award Celebration

When I found out on January 26th that I’d won the Legacy Award, I was ecstatic. However, it didn’t take me long — about an hour! — to start fretting about my speech. That’s just the way I am. I began working on my speech right away and had a solid draft by the end of the week.

The world has changed since then, and we are living in particularly challenging times. More than once, I debated rewriting my speech but decided to leave it as I first wrote it.

So imagine we’re all together in a vast, crowded ballroom in Chicago. Imagine that social distancing and sheltering in place are not things we’ve come to know. Imagine that we have a decent, competent president. Imagine.

*    *    *

Every few years, I reread the collected letters between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. Maxwell was Welty’s sometime editor and dear friend. Like Welty, he was an esteemed writer of fiction — one of my favorites.

Photo: Clara Henkes

The correspondence reveals a long, loving relationship between two creative people and offers an unusual, intimate glimpse into the writing process.

Eudora Welty was an admirer of Jane Austen. Upon visiting Jane Austen’s house in England, Welty wrote the following description of the house to Maxwell: “It looks big, but is really small. The opposite of her novels.”

This sharp-sighted, distinctive, artfully put observation screams to be quoted. “It looks big, but is really small. The opposite of her novels.” It cogently states what I try so hard to do with my books. To keep them tightly focused, domestic, grounded in the ordinary — the realm in which I feel most comfortable — but to allow them to be expansive.

Cathleen Schine has written about this. She says: “A trash novel tells you everything you already know about a way of life you will, in fact, never know. A serious novel tells you, in one way or another, what you don’t know about the familiar, the personal, the dailiness of life — and so about life itself.”

I try as best I can, when I’m building a book, to dig my emotional foundation deep, to layer details with precision and clarity, to stay true to my private vision, and always to be mindful of the beauty of form.

Admittedly I am more drawn to the ripple than the wave. But when rendered well, something small — the familiar, the particular — can be as big as life itself.

When I visit schools or libraries, children often ask me how long it takes to make a book. I give a sensible answer, a generalization of sorts, because each book is different. But the more truthful answer would be that it took my entire life. Everything I’ve lived and done goes into each book.

So if a book is a house, its author is an architect and builder. And here is this builder’s beginning.

I was born in 1960 in Racine, Wisconsin.

I’m one of five children, the fourth. Until I was nearly seven years old, I was the youngest. Then — surprise of all surprises — my younger brother arrived. I went from being the baby of the family to being an older brother. I think that my position in my family has made me a better writer. It has helped me understand what it feels like to be both an older sibling and a younger one. I know what it feels like to be left out, and I know what it feels like to not want someone to tag along.

I understand my characters Sheila Rae and Lilly. And I understand their younger siblings, Louise and Julius. I understand Billy Miller. But I understand his little sister, Sal, too.

I’ve always loved to draw. And I cannot remember a time when I did not think of myself as an artist.

Although we didn’t have a lot of books in our house, my mother made it a point to take us to the public library regularly. It was part of our routine. It’s just what one did — and I’m grateful to my mother for that.

Books were my exposure to art. They fed my soul. They were everything to me. I needed them.

*    *    *

Charlotte Rainsford, one of the characters in Penelope Lively’s novel How It All Began, is a lover of books. She needs them. Lively describes beautifully the importance of books in Charlotte’s life:

Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction, even…She has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her — then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing…

She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

I am built by books. And I am a builder of books. That’s my job. The only job I’ve ever had.

I was a junior in high school when I decided that I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. And I was nineteen when I was offered a contract for my first book.

It was forty years ago next month that I went to New York City for a week, in search of a publisher. Forty years ago that I met Susan Hirschman.

It was a glorious day when I had my appointment at Greenwillow Books. Susan took me in. She told me she’d publish my book. And she did something else. She told me which appointments with other publishers to keep and which to cancel. And then she said, “Tell them you’ve been offered a contract, but if you fall in love with someone at another house, come and let me know and we’ll talk about it.”

It was an amazing thing for her to say, but how could I fall in love with someone else? Greenwillow had been my first choice — and is the only ­publisher I’ve ever had.

Susan did something else on that first trip. She had me return to Greenwillow every day I was in New York, to check in. On the last day she handed me the keys to the locked glass-fronted bookcases filled with Greenwillow books that lined the hallway. She told me to pick whatever I wanted and to show her what I chose.

I picked two books and brought them to her. She gave me a look and said, “You may pick more than two,” and waved me off.

I picked two more and returned to her office. She gave me another look and said, “I’ll tell you once more — you may pick whatever you want. We can put the books in boxes and send them home.”

Kevin Henkes and Susan Hirschman. Photo: Karin Snelson

To Susan’s great delight, the third time I picked more than two, many more — from Jane Gardam to Virginia Hamilton to Donald Crews to Arnold and Anita Lobel to Byron Barton to Tana Hoban to Vera B. Williams. I was in book heaven. Or, rather, simply, I was in heaven.

And when the books (in boxes) arrived home to Wisconsin, I wrote my name, “July 22, 1980,” and “Gift of Susan Hirschman” on the inside cover of each one.

On that initial visit to New York and Greenwillow, and on those that followed over the years, I felt so fully human, so alive, as if I’d found exactly what I was meant to do with my life. I felt as if my skin was sending off sparks and all the world could see.

*    *    *

I began as a picture book maker, but I like to build other kinds of books, too. It was Susan who nudged me onward when I attempted to write a novel.

After sending her a few very rough, very uneven pages of what I imagined would be my first novel, she wrote me a letter that included the following: “I have never doubted that you are a real writer, so the fact that you are writing a real novel comes as no surprise.”

I kept the folded letter with me at all times, for a while. It was — and is — a beautiful, effective talisman.

*    *    *

It was my current editor — Virginia Duncan — who asked me to try writing a book for beginning readers.

I was one of those parents who read to his kids in utero. Books were a huge part of my family’s daily life from the very start. And I remember with great fondness when both of my kids began to read. To see it unfold was mysterious and wonderful.

Watching them fall in love with books for beginning readers was pure joy for me. And it was different than their continuing love for picture books. This kind of love was new, and their sense of ownership was obvious.

And, even though the thought of trying my hand at books for beginning readers had been on the edges of my mind for many years, it wasn’t until Virginia suggested it outright that I attempted it.

That’s what a good editor does: suggests things, asks the right questions, sees with a sharpened eye. An eye that not only sees what’s on the page but also what’s in the heart and mind of the writer.

A good editor is a builder, too. He or she builds a shelter within which the writer can create freely. I’ve been lucky — Susan and Virginia are the only editors I’ve had.

Brilliant author-illustrator M. B. Goffstein wrote, “There is one way for your book to look. It is your duty to find it.” An art director helps with that search. Ava Weiss and Paul Zakris are the only art directors I’ve worked with — Ava for the first half of my career, and now, Paul.

Time and time again, over the years, Ava and Paul have suggested things — a typeface, a particular paper stock, a slightly different trim size — that were exactly right, just what was needed. The details of bookmaking — the color of the headbands on a novel, the weight of the paper, moving an illustration or a line of text a fraction of an inch — matter enormously to me. And so, these things always mattered to them. And I can build my little houses knowing that I am understood.

*    *    *

Librarians can provide another kind of shelter. They surely did — and do — for me. And I’m grateful to all the librarians who have been an important part of my life, all my life.

Since I became a published author and illustrator, I’ve met so many wonderful librarians and gotten to know some of you well. I admire what all of you do for kids — and for books and those of us who create them.

Thank you for your support and enthusiasm. Thank you for keeping my books alive and well.

Special thanks to Nancy Elsmo, Ginny Moore Kruse, Barb Barstow, Amy Kellman, Dudley Carlson, Maria Salvadore, Betsy Hearne, Caroline Ward, and Barbara Bader.

*    *    *

Always, thanks to my wife, Laura Dronzek, my first reader, first everything; and to our children, Will and Clara.

Fifteen years ago, I was in Chicago, in a ballroom on a night similar to this. My book Kitten’s First Full Moon was being honored with the Caldecott Medal.

One moment from that night stands out more than any other. The second I finished my speech, Will and Clara, then nine and seven, leaped to their feet before anyone else. They were smiling and clapping wildly. And in that moment, they were the only people in the room, the only people in the world.

*    *    *

Alice Munro wrote,

A story is not like a road to follow…It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.

I like thinking about books as buildings or houses. M. B. Goffstein has referred to them as temples. In her book My Editor, M. B. Goffstein’s first-person narrator, a writer, says:

Day and night
I work hard
to rebuild
a little temple
no one knows
is there.

I tear it apart
and rebuild it
the old way.
Take it apart
and remake it
the new way.

Take it apart
and suddenly see
how it goes.

It’s work to build a book. Some days it seems impossible. The poet Mary Oliver has said: “Writing memorably…is done slowly and in solitude, and it is as improbable as carrying water in a sieve.”

Improbable — and mysterious. The crafts of writing and illustrating are as mysterious to me now as they were forty years ago when I began my career. But when you “suddenly see how it goes,” it’s glorious.

When a book is finished and I’ve had time to think about it and I’ve begun to talk about it, it might seem as though everything had been precisely planned, that I had a concrete idea of how it all was supposed to be. But even with a blueprint, a general idea of what I think I want, that’s not the case.

Sometimes I even surprise myself by discovering things — symbols, repeated images, layers of meaning — that I hadn’t consciously known I’d put into place. Sometimes I surprise myself by seeing things I didn’t know I knew.

More often than not, the house is not quite the house I originally had in mind. But no matter how ordinary, how familiar, how small it looks, I hope it has substance. I hope it is memorable. I hope — in its own humble way — that it’s big.

*    *    *

And so, thank you, Legacy committee members: chair Sylvia Vardell, Lucia Acosta, Rob Bittner, Louise Lareau, and Jessica Hilbun Schwartz. I am so honored to have been your choice, honored beyond words to be among the list of past recipients.

The poet Friedrich Schiller said, “Man is made of ordinary things, and habit is his nurse.” I agree. However, for me, habit has been altered nicely since I learned I was to receive the Legacy Award. And tonight — and everything about it — is anything but ordinary.

Thank you. 

I wrote this speech in January. I amended it in April to acknowledge the global pandemic. And now, in June, I am adding the following statement: I hope that the worldwide recognition of systematic racism brings about long-needed change. I hope justice is served.

Kevin Henkes is the winner of the 2020 Children’s Literature Legacy Award. His acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 28, 2020. From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020. Look for the full electronic issue -- free -- beginning next week.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Kevin Henkes
Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes is the winner of the 2020 Children’s Literature Legacy Award. He recently illustrated Finding Things, and his next novel is Still Sal (both Greenwillow, 2024).

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timothy egan

Fantastic speech by one of the all-time greats.

Posted : Jul 10, 2020 05:57



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