Grand and Important: Books for Beginning Readers

I’m not a teacher, a day-care provider, a doctor, or an educational administrator. I have neither statistics nor formulas to deliver.

I’m a parent. I’m a writer and illustrator. And I’m a reader. I have instinct and intuition — that’s it. Today, I’m going to try to answer a couple of questions. How does a writer and illustrator work? And, what happens when you do read to a child all his/her young life? What comes next?

I’ve written and illustrated many books for preschoolers: Kitten’s First Full Moon, A Good Day, Old Bear, and Little White Rabbit, to name a few. And I’ve talked many times about the importance of early experiences with books. I believe that early and regular exposure to books opens the door to many things: to reading, of course, and to appreciating visual art, too. The physical book, itself, can open doors as well and offers much to talk about. Think of all the questions one could ask a child: is this book small or big? Why? Is it long or tall? How come? How does it feel? The possibilities for discussion with a child are endless, before you even lift the cover.

Early and regular exposure to books allows one to recognize the familiar, and to be curious about the unfamiliar. Early and regular exposure to books leads to understanding relationships, to having a substantial vocabulary, to learning to think in a complex way. And, maybe, most important is the personal bond — the human connection — that takes place when sharing a picture book one-on-one with a child. It is invaluable.

I think we all know these things on some deep level. It makes sense. We’re planting seeds. We’re growing readers. We’re making preparations for the eventual next step: learning to read on one’s own.

If one grows up with books, if one has books in his/her life from the very beginning, which is what we all advocate, then reading is the natural progression; the lovely, extraordinary movement forward.

•   •   •

Charlotte Rainsford, one of the characters in Penelope Lively’s newest 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 read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience. 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 them.

“Built by books.”

I love this phrase. I am “built by books.” I believe in being “built by books.” So does the writer Anne Fadiman — both figuratively and literally. She begins her essay “My Ancestral Castles” like this:
When I was four, I liked to build castles with my father’s pocket-sized, twenty-two-volume set of Trollope. My brother and I had a set of wooden blocks as well, but the Trollopes were superior: midnight blue, proportioned to fit a child’s hand, and, because they were so much thinner than they were tall, perfect, as cards are, for constructing gates and drawbridges. I own them now…I can think of few better ways to introduce a child to books than to let her stack them, upend them, rearrange them, and get her fingerprints all over them.

I read the Fadiman essay when my kids were little (they’re now nineteen and seventeen), and it freed me. It gave me permission to let them use our substantial The Riverside Shakespeare and our two volumes of The Norton Anthology of English Literature as parts of grand constructions with blocks, Tinkertoys, and plastic animals.

I had a fairly large collection of children’s books long before I became a parent. It was something of a struggle to give up my collection when our first child was born. My books were in nearly perfect condition, and I knew that if I moved them from “my bookshelves” to the “family bookshelves,” their condition would take a nosedive.

They did, of course, but it was worth it. I reclaimed the books as they were outgrown. Jackets were often gone. Pages had been ripped. Bindings had been strained and stained. But the books had done what they were meant to do. They’d helped my children to be built by books.

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 the process unfold was glorious and mysterious.

•   •   •

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.

It’s strange, though; it seems as if books for beginning readers are thought of as less — less grand than picture books, less important than novels. This seems wrong to me.

Before I became a parent, I’d long admired books for beginning readers. Sitting on my shelf of favorites were, among others: Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak; Uncle Elephant and Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel; and Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge. Read these books, and it’s clear that a book for a beginning reader can be an example of artistic excellence and have emotional depth and a lasting influence.

A book for a beginning reader can be just as grand as a picture book, just as important as a novel. Listen to this:
Mother and Father
went for a sail
in their boat.
I could not go with them.
I had a runny trunk
and a sore throat.
I went home to bed.
There was a storm.
The boat did not come back.
Mother and Father
were missing at sea.
I was alone.
I sat in my room
with the curtains closed.

This is the opening passage of Lobel’s Uncle Elephant. I find Uncle Elephant to be one of the most haunting and pleasantly melancholy books that exists. It is also a joyful, playful celebration of family ties that ends with an understated reunion, and then an expert, wistful fillip — the closing of a door. Like life itself, it encompasses a wide range of emotions and moods — and it does so without losing sight of its intended audience, and it never condescends. It is grand and important.

Uncle Elephant became a benchmark for me. I remember thinking, long ago, that if I ever wrote and illustrated a beginning reader, I’d want it to be just as simple and rich and complete. I’d also want it to be as enchanting as Little Bear, with its lovely, masterful repetition that, with multiple readings, becomes a familiar echo. I’d want it to be as deeply felt as Henry and Mudge. Despite the brevity of the text, Henry’s familial relationships are so very real.

The other family I was drawn to was Eve Rice’s Brimbles. I fell in love with Mr. Brimble’s Hobby when my son did. For me, the Brimbles represent the binding power of common, quirky family love. And the book is funny and charming, too.

Each of these books makes me feel human, makes me feel alive.

•   •   •

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 my editor, Virginia Duncan, suggested it that I actually attempted it.

That first attempt was Penny and Her Song. Penny and Her Doll and Penny and Her Marble soon followed.

henkes_penny-and-her-song     Penny and Her Doll by Kevin Henkes     Penny and Her Marble

I wrote the words for all three of the books before I did any of the pictures. I’d never worked this way before. I’d always written a book, illustrated it, and moved on. But this was a different kind of project for me from the start. My publisher wanted at least three books, but I would not sign a multiple-book contract, nor take any money, until I had all three books written to everyone’s satisfaction.

Doing this — working this way — made the books stronger as a group. Each book builds on the one before it, and in different ways. For example, each is longer than its predecessor. The books developed so that the first has two chapters, the second has three, and there are four chapters in the third book.

Penny and Her Song takes place in Penny’s house. Penny and Her Doll takes place in her house and in her yard. And in Penny and Her Marble the setting is stretched even farther — Penny explores the neighborhood a bit.

The first book is about something that is Penny’s: her song. The second is about something given to her: a doll. And the third is about something she takes: a marble.

Penny’s world expands with each book. Her parents and siblings are introduced in the first book. Her grandmother is introduced in the second and plays a role off-camera. And a neighbor is introduced in the third. The doll that appears in the second book is an obvious and important part of Penny’s life in the third.

These choices are deliberate. This “invisible” part of book making is a part of my job I love deeply.

Although I had the child just starting to read on his/her own in mind while I worked, I did not use a vocabulary list, nor did I follow any rigid rules. I trusted my instincts as a writer and illustrator. I also thought back to the days when my own children were learning to read.

Rather than have several small episodes in each book, I wanted each book to be one story separated into very short chapters. This decision was based in part on my son’s experience as a new reader. If he read a chapter in a book—even if it was just a page or two — he’d shriek: “Mamma! Papa! I read a chapter!” Remembering his joy influenced my decision making, the structure of the books.

Repetition, rhythm, and clarity were important to me as I wrote the Penny books. This is no different than when I work on a picture book, or a novel for that matter. But with these books I paid so much attention to the balance of words and pictures per page, to the placement of the folios, to the line lengths, and to the space between the lines.

I did a lot of fine-tuning, too, throughout the dummy stage, more than usual: moving a phrase or a sentence to the next page or to the previous one, moving a word to the next line.

Some days I felt as if I were working a crossword puzzle. Some days I felt as if I were learning to read all over again.

My mantras were: Less is more and God is in the details.

And I tried to keep in mind the wise words of Verlyn Klinkenborg, the writer and former New York Times editorial board member. He writes, “Say more than you thought you knew how to say / In sentences better than you ever imagined / For the reader who reads between the lines.”

And yes, I do think that even someone just beginning to read can read between the lines.

People often ask about the inspiration behind a book. Where did the story come from? Although I wrote the Penny books “together,” each has its own, very different starting point.

The roots of Penny and Her Song go back nearly thirty years. Susan Hirschman, my first editor, rejected a picture book dummy of mine called Lulu’s Melody in March 1985.

Lulu was an elephant. When she came home from school with a melody, her baby siblings were sleeping. Lulu had to wait to share her melody or the babies would wake up. Sound familiar? The bones were there, but it wasn’t good enough. I was young, learning my craft. Susan thought it was “a bit too cute and that it telescoped its point too quickly and too obviously.”

She was right. But I always thought it might become something else, something better, something worth publishing. And it did.

Fast-forward many years — Lulu became a mouse named Penny.

The song from Penny and Her Song was written in New York City, the place that inspires me more than any other. In the first few drafts I intentionally did not write and include the words to the song. I was torn as to whether to include words or not. I knew that if I did include them, they would have to be very simple and childlike. Exactly right. I didn’t know if I could pull it off.

But then, on a very rainy day in New York, spent with Susan, the song popped into my head like magic. This kind of thing rarely happens to me. I repeated it first in my head and then aloud with Susan until we got back to her apartment, soaked to the skin, and I could quickly write it down. The song goes like this:
One is nice, two is nice,
Three is even better.
Four is nice, five is nice,
Six in rain is wetter.
Seven is nice, eight is nice,
Nine is almost best.
But ten is even bigger,
And is better than the rest.

Now, if I’m with Susan and it’s raining, we look at each other and say, “Six.” Or, if we’re talking on the phone, Susan might ask, “Is it a six in Wisconsin today?”

Penny and Her Doll, oddly enough, came to be because of a kitten. My family was on a long car trip in Oregon. We had many hours to go to get to our destination. The kids were small and restless. We were to be getting a kitten on our return home from this vacation, and so my wife suggested the kids spend some time coming up with a name for the kitten. Of course, our daughter rejected all the names our son suggested, and he did the same for hers. But it did help the time pass, and it did make me think how important naming things is—and wouldn’t that be a good idea for a book? Naming something. Hence, many years later: Penny and Her Doll. In the book, Penny receives a doll in the mail from her grandmother and struggles to find a name that is exactly right.

Speaking of names, the name Penny had been in my name bullpen since about 1987. When I was working on my picture book Chester’s Way, I toyed with the idea of calling Chester’s and Wilson’s new friend Penny. I ended up going with Lilly — and now, frankly, I cannot remember why I chose the way I did.

But Penny, the name, stayed with me over the years and was often a candidate when I was working on a new book, including novels. Alice Rice, the heroine of my novel Junonia had a brief stint as Penny during my prewriting, note-taking stage.

Often it’s a name’s origins that attracts me to it — where it comes from and what it means. But other times, it’s simply the way a name looks and sounds, and the personal connotations it holds, that win me over.

The word Penny, in type, is lovely. I particularly like the way the descender of the lowercase y echoes or mirrors the height of the capital P, forming bookends of a sort. Between them, the rounded tops of the two ns and the curve of the e look like three small hills.

In short, Penny is nice to look at and nice to say — and I think it’s fairly easy to read, to sound out.

An added bonus about the name is that, for me, it evokes a happy feeling. It makes me think: lucky penny, shiny, good. After all these years it was satisfying to find a book-home for one of my favorite names.

Virginia once described Penny and Her Marble as a perfect little novel — and that makes me happy. Penny and Her Marble is the closest to my heart of the three, and yet its roots go back the furthest. (Or maybe that’s why it is the closest to my heart.)

When I was about five years old, I took a plastic medallion from my neighbor’s crayon box. My neighbor was a year younger than I. She liked to draw as much as I did. Her name was Karen. She had a shoebox full of crayons.

We were drawing together on her porch on this particular summer day. While searching for the color I needed, I discovered the wondrous coinlike object. It had a K on it. I’d never seen anything with my initial on it before. And I wanted it badly.

I slipped it into my pocket and took it home. I told no one. The guilt nearly killed me. After a fitful night, I returned it secretly. The relief was extraordinary. Forty-some years later, the experience gave me a book.

That’s the way it is with books, in general. Bits and pieces of life mix with other, imagined bits and pieces to form something new. When a book is completed — published and making its way in the world — it’s difficult to remember precisely all the stages that led to the finished product. Sometimes, I’ll look back at a book of mine and think: how did this happen?

I tried today to explain as best I could “how this happened.” Creativity is difficult to understand, much less make clear to someone else.

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 I’d had a concrete idea of how it all was supposed to be — that there was a straight line from the idea to the printed page. But that’s not the case. Sometimes, I even surprise myself by discovering things — symbols, layers of meaning, references — that I’d forgotten about or that I hadn’t consciously known I’d put into place.

The craft of writing is as mysterious to me now as it was thirty-some years ago when I began my career. And I have a feeling that that will never change.

•   •   •

Late last year, I’d been feeling a bit down about Penny and Her Marble. In November a piece of art from the book was stolen from the Society of Illustrators’ annual children’s book show in New York. I’ve never sold art from any of my books, so the sting of the theft seemed particularly sharp. For a while I hoped that life would imitate art and that whoever had taken the illustration would read the book from whence it came, feel remorse as Penny does, and return it safely. No such luck.

But I reminded myself that, in our business, the real art is the printed product, the bound book that goes out into the world in multiples, not the original art that sits in boxes in my studio. I told myself that thousands of copies of Penny and Her Marble were in libraries and schools and bookstores and homes, and none was missing an illustration.

The more I focused on this fact, the easier it was to let my attachment to the illustration go. It didn’t bring the original art back, but it did lighten my dark mood.

It wasn’t the happy ending I’d hoped for, but it was okay. The endings of my Penny books are much happier. But I was in control of those. And although they’re happy endings, I think they’re earned: Penny learns patience and self-control; she solves a naming problem; and she works through feelings of guilt. She does so all on her own. This was important to me — that she do these things on her own. It seemed particularly fitting in books intended for kids learning to read on their own.

Learning to read by oneself, becoming “built by books” — now that’s a very happy ending. Or rather — a very happy beginning.

And we know how to set it in motion.

Take a child, take a book, and bring them together.

It’s relatively easy, but it’s grand and important.

Kevin Henkes is an award-winning author and illustrator, most recently winning a Newbery Honor for The Year of Billy Miller and a Geisel Honor for Penny and Her Marble (both Greenwillow). His article is adapted from a speech he delivered on September 19, 2014, at the Fostering Lifelong Learners conference held at the Parma-Snow branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio. For more on the 2014 Fostering Lifelong Learners Conference see SLJ's coverage of the event.
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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Steffaney Smith

What a coincidence...just used "Little White Rabbit" in my public library toddler storytime this morning...the kids and I had fun pretending to be a rock, pretending to be TALL and pretending to be a rabbit that flies. Thank you, Kevin, for the wonderful commentary on being built by books. I had not thought of it, but that is exactly what happened to me! I remember librarians didn't speak to children in the days I grew up...we were left to wander and select on our own, which of course is not wrong, but I did miss so many of the classics that would have been so meaningful for me in my challenging growing-up years. But the books I did find, built me me an English degree and made me a pretty good legal secretary until LIFE happened and a parttime library job brought me to early literacy in a library setting...aha! My passion was discovered...and now I discover wonderful books...your "Birds" and "All In A Day" are important parts of my toddler storytimes...Surprise...the crows fly off the wire all at are so talented and so inspired. Thanks for helping build the books that build my kids in my community..I will certainly refer to you as Sir Kevin Henkes from now on..thanks for letting us "inside" your artistic world! from (cold still!) Littleton, NH

Posted : Mar 31, 2015 10:09

Amy Losak

Dear Mr. Henkes, What a lovely essay. My late mom, Sydell Rosenberg, was a public school teacher in NYC and a published American haiku poet of some note. I know she wanted to publish a children's haiku picture book: ideally, an alphabet reader. Syd never got this opportunity (she died in 1996). I hope to do this as a tribute to her talent -- even if it means self-publishing (and I know this means that The Horn Book won't review it!). Haiku is a lovely way, in their very brevity, to introduce children to the power of words, images, impressions and feelings -- her haiku are often like tiny stories. I'm not a teacher, artist or writer, but at some point, I'm going to try. Meanwhile, I'm working with Arts For All in NYC on classes for second graders that pair some of her haiku with visual art; and with music. Thank you for your wonderful piece.

Posted : Oct 02, 2014 03:11


Thank you for this article, I really enjoyed it. I would also like to write children's books and I can do the Illustrations. I found what you wrote very helpful. I have been recently writing poetry and I want to do something with that and children. Your books look great.!!! I don't have any children but I have always been in tune with children and children really like me. At one point when I was younger I was going to go into Early Childhood Education but then I didn't. I really love to create characters for children so making a children's book is right up my alley.

Posted : Oct 01, 2014 08:12



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