Kevin Henkes Talks with Roger

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It's spring break, 1999, and twelve-year-olds Amelia and Casey, heretofore unknown to each other, find themselves thrown together for the week. Now, this is Kevin Henkes, so let's just allow that it's a richer week than most.

Roger Sutton: I want to start by talking about rabbits, because the last time we did this, for Waiting, we talked about the ceramic animals you were making and how they found their way into your book. And now they're in another of your books. Why's that?

Kevin Henkes: This is my twelfth novel, and I believe it's only the second one that has begun with a setting. Usually I begin with a character (and I think about him or her for a long time). Since 2006 I've been going to my local clay studio, and as the years passed, I decided it would be a great place to set a book.

RS: How do you find working in clay relates to the work that we know you for, in picture books and novels?

KH: I always have to be making art. It's just part of who I am, part of what I do. I don't always have a book in my life that is going well. Or maybe I'm working on a book and get stuck, or need a little break from it, but I still need to be doing something artistic. Going to the studio and making something with clay fills that need.

RS: Is there always a book in your life these days?

KH: Usually, yes. That's the real anchor in my life. I feel unmoored if I don't have a book that I'm working on.

RS: You do picture books, easy readers, early chapter books, novels for older children. Is there a rhythm to how these things come out?

KH: That's a good question, and I don't have a good answer. Things just come to me. I don't know how it works. Sometimes there'll be several picture books in a row. There have never been several novels in a row; I'm always yearning to do a novel, and sometimes I have to wait quite a while.

RS: What are you waiting for?

KH: I'm waiting for the idea, the kernel of something that moves me in that direction.

RS: That's a big mystery to those of us who don't do creative writing. You said you started with the clay studio, and that was the kernel of this novel. But where did the rest of it come from?

KH: After I knew the setting, I thought the main character would be an artist child. The rest sprang from that. I like writing about young artists, because I was one. I understand it. I decided the kid would be twelve, because I like writing about that time of life. It's a wonderful, horrible, miserable, glorious time.

RS: It's a really interesting cusp that you've put Amelia on. Even in her friendship with Casey, her perspective is prepubescent kidlike — so, mostly but not completely kidlike.

KH: Yes. That's the interesting thing about that age, because there are big life changes starting, but one can still be so rooted in childhood. I think of Amelia as a shy, young, somewhat awkward kid, and I feel like I understand that, too.

RS: That was you, huh?

KH: I think those adjectives would describe me at that point in my life.

RS: Do you think that children are natural artists?

KH: I think most kids, when given something to draw or paint with, feel free to do so and have a good time doing it. And they often do beautiful work! It seems like that freedom gets lost somewhere.

RS: As an illustrator, particularly if you're speaking to children at school, how do you resist becoming a creative arts lesson?

KH: The way I approach it is that I'm there to share stories and talk about how I do what I do in a way that's relevant to whatever age kid I'm talking to. I also like to share my love of books. But I'm not a teacher. I don't know how to do that, so I don't try to. Hopefully by sharing my love of books, by telling the kids how I do what I do, they can take something away from it, but I don't try to teach.

RS: Everyday-life realism — school, family, friends — for a long time was the core of children's fiction. Sometimes the stories are humorous, sometimes they're serious, sometimes they're peppy, sometimes they're low-key. I don't think that's the default anymore. But I've interviewed you. I've interviewed Naomi Shihab Nye. I've interviewed Erin Entrada Kelly. The three of you write this kind of story.

KH: That's what I'm really drawn to: small, domestic, ordinary stories. There's a great quote by Cathleen Schine I use in almost every speech that I give. 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." That's what I try to do, to take something that is ordinary — because that's all I know — and in the details, the focus, the telling, it becomes bigger. It reminds me of another great quote I found while reading the letters between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, her sometimes-editor, friend, and fellow writer. Eudora visited Jane Austen's house, and she wrote that Austen's house "looks big, but is really small. The opposite of her novels." It's such a beautifully stated, clever thought. You can have something that looks small, and I suppose all my books do, but hopefully they grow while one reads them or listens to them.

RS: It seems like such a daring thing to do — you've got to work out all of your characters' problems, their story, their narrative, without recourse to any kind of supernatural intervention or adventurous kick in the ass.

KH: I would love to do that, but I don't feel as if it's in my wheelhouse.

RS: Oh, we're not going to see a fantasy bestseller trilogy from you, Kevin?

KH: I don't think I could do it. One is just pulled toward what one feels comfortable doing, I guess, and this is what I feel comfortable doing.

RS: Do you think that your writing is like your reading, or that your reading is like your writing? I get the sense that you choose to read kind of the adult version of the books that you write.

KH: Yes. I guess the reading came first, because I was a reader before I was a writer.

RS: Were you that kind of a reader always?

KH: Oh, yeah, definitely. All my life. I was never a huge fantasy fan.

RS: Where did you find your books?

KH: The Racine Public Library. The children's librarian knew what I liked, and she would help me find it. I never felt anything except very, very happy with what I chose to read, and in my reading world, nothing else really mattered. I didn't care what other people were reading or thought I should read, or anything like that.

RS: Megan Whalen Turner once told me that she thought smart readers were undervalued by contemporary educators and librarians. That the kids who read these quiet books or difficult books or books that are special in one way or another, books that appeal to a smaller slice than crowd-pleasing books, those kids get left behind.

KH: I don't know if that's true. But I once heard [publisher] Dick Jackson say something like, "I don't always publish novels that will be read aloud to a classroom. I publish novels that will be read alone in a bedroom with the door closed." I like that. I imagine that happens often with my books. Although I'm often told that my books are quiet and there's not much plot, but in Sweeping Up the Heart, I thought maybe I had done too much.

RS: "Oh, no, Y2K!" This book never feels like it's just spinning its wheels. Something is always happening. We have a few things that we don't know, like the ongoing mystery of whether Amelia is, in fact, seeing her dead mother. We figure, oh, probably not, but still, we are in the suspense that Amelia is in, waiting to find out the truth. That's pretty dramatic.

KH: I think so. It was a lot to deal with, to work out, and to make feel right within the confines of the book.

RS: Naomi Shihab Nye told me she once turned in a manuscript, and her editor Virginia Duncan, who is also your editor, pointed out that there weren't any people in the book, and gently suggested she might want to add some characters.

KH: Oh, I love that.

RS: Is there something that you count on editorially, a blind spot you might have about your own writing?

KH: It's just wonderful to have someone I trust, who is looking at my work with a clear, cool eye, who hasn't been living with it for years, who can see it for what it is. That's priceless. Because I've been thinking about the idea for a long time before I begin to write. And I don't have an outline. I have a general idea of where I think I'm going, but I really figure it out on the way. It reveals itself to me as I plod along.

RS: How much do you know before you actually start writing a book?

KH: Sometimes it's just sentences that are coming to me, and I feel like I have to put them down. I wrote the very first lines of this book — "Poor Amelia Albright. Gordon Albright's daughter. Poor thing, people said. It was Mrs. O'Brien who said it most often" — I remember writing those lines years before I really began writing the story. The character was starting to come to me, and I had the setting of the clay studio, but I figured it out as I went. When I began the actual writing, I thought my main character might see somebody that made her think of her mother, but I had no idea who that person was going to be. The thing that I did give myself — but I thought I could change later — was the timeline. I like working within narrow, small timeframes. I thought, "I'm going to give myself a week."

RS: So you discover things about your characters and your story as you go?

KH: Oh, absolutely.

RS: I'm guessing there's a lot of going back, then.

KH: Yes. I write very slowly, and I revise as I go. It might take me a week to write one paragraph. As I'm working, I have to go back, if I figure something out, and either write what leads up to it or fix what doesn't make sense anymore. I know writers who write dozens of drafts. Really, I have one draft that I'm working on, and when I'm done, I have my one draft. Sometimes I think I should write with an outline, I should figure this all out first, but I don't know if I could. I also have come to realize, over the course of all these years, that often something that's going on in my everyday life becomes important to the book while I'm working on it, and that would never have happened had I written an outline. So I try not to think too much how I do it, and just keep doing it.

RS: Which could be terrifying or exhilarating or both, I guess.

KH: Some days it is terrifying. I have no idea where I'm going. Did I write myself into a dead end? That's when it's a really good time for me to have a big canvas to work on, or to work on a collage, or to make something out of clay, because you can just do it and you're done. You do one thing. You don't have to do fifty-two of them and make the character look the same in every illustration. There's no one you have to show it to and get their approval. It's just me.

RS: Why did you set the book in 1999?

KH: The most important reason is that I wanted to avoid cellphones, texting, social media; I don't have a smartphone. I have a flip phone that I take with me when I travel, but I never have a phone on my person in my daily life.

RS: I know that, Kevin. You're very hard to get a hold of.

KH: I don't know the technology, so I didn't want to have to write it. I knew I had to set the story earlier than now. But I wanted it to be the not-too-distant past, because I didn't want to have to do research. And one day it struck me that 1999 would be perfect, because I could have a character think that every number in the year would be changing, and that signified huge change. It's not in there a lot, but having Casey worried about Y2K gave him something else to worry about other than his parents' marriage. I thought it was a nice balance, Amelia and Casey each being so consumed with something.

RS: One of the best conversations I ever heard was with Richard Peck and Rebecca Stead, and the two of them got talking about how they dealt with technology in fiction. She embraced it and he tried to get around it.

KH: I'm in the "trying to get around it" camp. It is funny how those choices, for whatever reason, become larger than I expected. For example, with Casey's Eiffel Tower. At first I didn't know why he was building it, but I made it work. I gave meaning to it. With the ceramic rabbits — in my studio I have made rabbits and elephants and foxes and birds and whales. At first I didn't know why I decided to focus on rabbits in the story, but then as I was writing, it took on a certain symbolism that made sense and seemed exactly right and made me very happy. I don't know how it works — did I subconsciously know the reason for the rabbits from the very beginning? I think if you look at the two kids, Casey and Amelia, you might think, "Here's this kid, Casey, who, looking at it from the outside, has an intact family, and Amelia does not; and yet he's building this thing that's tall and wobbly and isn't going to work, and she's building these small, sturdy, rock-like little things. Later on — I didn't know it when I was beginning the writing — that had a certain significance to it. And rabbits represent rebirth, abundance, hope, happiness, all those things. It's a nice symbol, but I didn't know that when I chose it. When I look at certain things like that and see them after the fact, or I sense they're becoming something that I hadn't initially intended — that I'm really mystified by, creativity.

RS: Did you have to learn to trust yourself on these things?

KH: I do trust myself. Sometimes I have to cross something out or throw it away and try again.

RS: And that's something you become aware of as you continue with the story.

KH: Yes, or sometimes it just doesn't feel right. I remember when I discovered, just by chance, the Emily Dickinson poem that includes the line that's the title of this book. In the beginning, I didn't know that Mrs. O'Brien would have a book group. Later when I found this poem, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is absolute perfection." The whole idea of something broken, and it takes place in a clay studio — this is exactly what I want. But I didn't know that when I began.

RS: I wonder if it hits some kind of endorphin, like when you fall in love with somebody, where everything seems magical. It all acquires meaning that normally you wouldn't pay any attention to.

KH: I think that's probably true. What often happens is when I discover something like that, or when something seems to work in a way that I hadn't known it would, it makes me feel fired up and excited. There is a sense of joy about it, which really helps move the story forward.


More on Kevin Henkes from The Horn Book

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. 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 MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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~ mwt

Hey, Roger, I think you’re misquoting me. I don’t think librarians and educators undervalue readers like Kevin. They treasure their readers. Kevin mentioned a special librarian at the Racine Library. My concern is that we rely heavily on the individual librarian doing superhuman work when we know that many of them are allowed almost no time in their schedules for reader advisory. I'd like to see more articles in professional journals about the best way to run programs for kids who love to read. Ones that talk about connecting isolated readers to a wider community. I'd like to see suggestions on how to encourage a good reader to take on a more intellectually or emotionally challenging book. To read more diversely. Sometimes readers, even “good” readers, need a nudge to find a new thing to read that they will really, really love.I think —institutionally—we could devote just a little more attention to how best to help good readers read more expansively. That’s a very different thing than worrying that those readers will fall behind.

Posted : Jul 21, 2019 07:15

Roger Sutton

Yes, I was imprecise. What I took from that long-ago conversation was that you believed librarianship and education, as professions, did not give as much attention to good readers as they should. So, as you say, "institutionally" is what I was going for.

Posted : Jul 21, 2019 07:15



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