Profile of 2020 Children's Literature Legacy Award winner Kevin Henkes

Dudley Carlson: The farmers’ market was a riot of color. Red and green lettuces, orange carrots, blue and purple berries, and breads in rich browns and tans stretched for two blocks. At one end, a single booth held only green. Beautiful green beans were neatly bundled and stacked like a quilt, ends out, sides out, ends out. Behind the stacks a girl, ten or twelve, her back turned, was arranging bundles. At one corner of the shelf that held the beans, a book stood face out as if in a store display, its cover a perfect match for the beans. Above deep green water stood a pair of bare legs and feet, the toes curled inward, and below in the water swam a pair of glimmering orange fish.

Asked, “Have you read this?” the girl picked up the book and hugged it. “Yes,” she replied. “I’ve read every single one of his books. He’s my favorite author.” The book, of course, was Olive’s Ocean.

Kevin Henkes understands children, respects them. He knows how they feel: what makes them happy or sad, how they express frustration or grief, how they wrestle with problems. His characters inhabit the real world, where parents misunderstand them, hurry them, comfort and love them, or sometimes leave. Grandparents, too, play important roles, often forming a bridge between parent and child, or foreshadowing change. And change is a central element in Kevin’s stories. A new baby arrives, parents divorce, a friend moves away or betrays the friendship, a parent or grandparent dies, a season begins and comes to an end.

Yet the constant is always love, and life. Old Bear wakes to springtime; Penny sings for joy; Kitten finds a waiting bowl of milk. Martha Boyle is glad to be home, despite humiliation, fear, and disappointment.

Kevin writes and draws with wonderful economy. His words are carefully chosen. His line is clean and spare; there is plenty of air in his pictures. They may be richly patterned and energetic, but they’re not cluttered. And he writes for everyone, including parents. (Look at the titles of the books Chrysanthemum’s father is reading as he helps her work through her anxieties, and Picasso’s mouse painting on the wall.) Whatever the troubles, there is always hope. There is comfort. His characters learn and go forward.

I love his books — every one of them. They are, to quote another famous writer, “Terrific!”

Laura Dronzek: I have been married to Kevin for thirty-five years; we have two children, and have had three dogs, two cats, and a fish. We have collaborated on six books and are working on a seventh. When I met Kevin, he was working on his fourth book — he was twenty-two years old. I have seen him create forty picture books, four beginning readers, and twelve novels. Working on books seems as much a part of him as breathing. We have a joke at our house that Kevin is “always working,” even if he is taking out the garbage or doing the dishes. And he is always working, because his work is interior and never stops. Kevin is happiest when he is working on a book — and when he isn’t working, he is reading.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A man is known by the books he reads.” Kevin reads widely and deeply. He knows more about the history of children’s literature than almost anyone I know. We have an enormous collection of children’s books, and Kevin knows each one and can tell you exactly where it is on the shelf. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is often found on his bedside table, because he reads it before he goes to sleep. Kevin reads and rereads the works of William Maxwell, Alice Munro, and William Trevor. Perhaps this is because their work is about the interior lives of everyday people. Their books are quiet, deep, and full of the mystery of everyday life — like Kevin’s work.

I have watched Kevin create all these books, and he never stops looking for the best way to illustrate a picture, the perfect way to craft a sentence. I have seen him rework a sentence for days, until he knows it is perfect. Every aspect of each book is equally important: the text, design, paper, and illustrations. Kevin cares deeply that everything is in service to the book as a whole. As M. B. Goffstein said, “You should work and work until it looks like you didn’t have to work at all.” I’m able to say, having seen him create these wonderful books, that he does just that. I am also able to say that it has been my greatest joy to share these thirty-seven years with Kevin and to raise our two children, Will and Clara, with him.

Virginia Duncan: I distinctly remember when Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse was published — I remember being convinced that it would win both the Newbery and the Caldecott. I thought it was a perfect book. I still do. I told everyone who would listen to me. I wasn’t at Greenwillow then and never dreamed that I would actually meet Kevin Henkes, let alone edit his books.

Now, when I think about Kevin, I think about all the times I’ve traveled with him to schools and bookstores and conferences. The time an elevator full of reading teachers in Ohio spotted his nametag and went hilariously berserk between the twentieth floor and the lobby. Watching kids creep, creep, creep closer and closer across a gymnasium floor; watching him read Egg to a group of very young children — oh, that book is magic! How many times has he drawn Lilly at an assembly and demonstrated how to change mood with an eyebrow? How many times has he politely fielded personal remarks about his age? How many cheeseballs has he happily crunched? How many future writers and artists has he inspired?

These past months at home have presented their challenges, but the time afforded to organize bookshelves and reread books has been a gift. Kitten, Lilly, Chrysanthemum, Owen, Old Bear, Penny, Martha Boyle, Bo, Bailey, Billy Miller, good days, miraculous gardens, surprising eggs, little white rabbits, luminous windowsills…old friends who never grow old, never lose their luster.

I know I speak for everyone at Greenwillow when I say that it is such an honor — and so much fun — to work with Kevin and to publish his books. Each one full of joy and kindness and truth and generosity. Each one perfect in its own way.

Lucky readers. Lucky us.

Virginia Duncan, Kevin Henkes, Susan Hirschman. Photo: Robert Burton.

Susan Hirschman: I am lucky. I have known and loved Kevin Henkes since he was nineteen. Forty years ago. He is about to turn sixty while I, of course, am a perpetual thirty-seven.

Legacy: a gift that is handed down from one person to another. Surely the perfect word for Kevin. By nineteen he was steeped in the history of children’s books. He knew whose work he loved — and no one had told him. He had found out for himself. From the books he had heard and read as a child — by Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Marvin Bileck. From the books he had discovered at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin. From the books he had found in the public library. Perhaps the highest compliment the field has bestowed on me was that after this research, Greenwillow Books was Kevin’s first choice as publisher when he made his first trip to New York in 1980.

From the beginning, Kevin knew what he wanted to do. I didn’t know what that would be, but I knew it would be worth waiting for. There is no such thing as “just another Henkes book.” Each is unique. Each starts with a concept that is the bones of the story—not the meat. You have to think and explore, because nothing — no line, no line break, no character, and no art element — is there by chance. They look simple — but oh, they are not. They sound as if they just poured from his mind or pen, but they did not. Some of his most simple books take years to see the light of publication. They live in file folders. They live in his mind. But they are not shared with us until they are ripe — until they are perfect. Many times over the years when I suggested an editorial change, Kevin said, “Yes, I thought of that.” And he had. Nothing in a Henkes book is arbitrary. It has been through the mill of his mind many, many times.

Kevin’s legacy works both ways. He would not be who he is without those who preceded him — whose work he has loved and studied and promoted and grown under. But also there is the legacy he leaves to those who follow — the children who have grown up reading him and naming their children Lilly and Owen. And to all the children who listen to Chrysanthemum on the first day of the school year. And, of course, to the thousands or millions of children who just plain love Kevin Henkes. Like all the rest of us. 

Dudley Carlson was manager of youth services at Princeton (NJ) Public Library from 1973 to 1996.

Laura Dronzek is a painter whose work has been exhibited nationally as well as an illustrator of picture books.

Virginia Duncan is the VP and Publisher of Greenwillow Books.

Susan Hirschman founded Greenwillow Books in 1974, after twenty years at Harper & Row and Macmillan.

Kevin Henkes is the winner of the 2020 Children's Literature Legacy Award. 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.

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


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Cathy Bonnell

I admit it, I love Kevin Henkes, I love his picture books. I heard him speak once years ago at an AASL conference & continue to retell one great story over & over that he told that day. Good luck to u Kevin & thanks for all the good work!

Posted : Jul 05, 2020 08:03



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