A Q&A With Kevin Henkes

Q: When Lilly’s at school, she knows she wants to be a teacher. When you were at school, did you know you wanted to be a writer and illustrator?

A: I grew up desperately wanting to be an artist. That desire was a huge part of my identity for as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t until I was in high school that writing became as important to me. During my junior year of high school I decided I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books for a career.

Q: Your picture book stories are told just as much through your illustrations as through your words. Do the illustrations sometimes come to you before the story?

A: The words always come first. But, because I’m both the author and illustrator, I often edit as I write, knowing that the pictures will provide important information. For example, in Chester’s Way, I didn’t mention Lilly’s boots, crown, or cape when I wrote the story, although I knew long before the manuscript was finished that Lilly would be wearing them.

Q: When you begin a picture book such as Wemberly, do you always know where the story is going, or do your characters ever take you by surprise and pull the story in quite another direction?

A: Books begin with character; character is the seed from which a book grows. When I set out to write Wemberly Worried, I didn’t know the book would end with the start of school, although in hindsight, it seems a logical path for the book to have taken. That’s the magic and mystery of creation.

Q: It must be a very different process, working on a novel. Do you still have vivid pictorial images of the characters and their environment in your head?

A: Writing a novel is very different. I can delve much deeper into a character’s psyche, for example. I can describe a scene at length. And I can deal with subject matter that is more complex than the subject matter of my picture books.

But, because I’m a visual person, I do have very strong images in my head as I work. I love describing my characters and their environments. Setting a scene—providing proper lighting, the colors and textures of things, sounds—is one of my favorite things about writing a novel.

Q: To what extent is your writing inspired by your own experience, or by watching your children’s experiences?

A: Of course, all of my writing is filtered through my eyes, my experience. And I suppose I remember how things “felt” when I was young—this helps me when I’m writing. On occasion, I’ll use a fact or two from my life, but only as a starting point. And I’ve never directly used an incident from one of my children’s lives in a book.

Q: The Horn Book wrote of The Birthday Room as “a story that helps us see our own chances for benefiting from mutual tolerance, creative conflict resolution, and other forms of good will.” Is this a theme that you are consciously pursuing in all your writing?

A: I don’t really think about that sort of theme as I’m writing. I want my characters to be believable. I want the story to be convincing. And I want to write good sentences. It’s as simple and difficult as that.

Q: If you had to sum up in one word the characteristic you most admire in each of your mice—Chester, Chrysanthemum, Lilly, Owen, Sheila Rae, Wendell, Sophie, and Wemberly—what words would you choose?

Chester: reliable
Chrysanthemum: sensitive
Lilly: exuberant
Owen: centered
Sheila Rae: brave, of course
Wendell: clever
Sophie: tenacious
Wemberly: Thoughtful

Q: How did you come to use mice as the characters in so many of your books? Did you consider other animals as well?

A: My early books have realistically rendered humans as the protagonists. As my stories became more humorous, I thought that I could better match my texts by drawing more loosely and using animals as my main characters. Bailey Goes Camping was my first book in which I did this; Bailey and his family are rabbits. For my next book, A Weekend with Wendell, I chose to use animals again, but I wanted to draw something other than rabbits. I made sketches—a dog, a cat, an elephant, and a mouse. I liked the mouse sketch, and so, Wendell was a mouse. I enjoyed doing that book so much, I continued to use mice as the protagonists in many of my picture books. I have no particular affinity for mice, nor was using them repeatedly in my books something I planned to do. It just happened.

Q: Your mouse characters have loving, supportive, understanding parents, teachers, and other adults in their lives. What was your own childhood like?

A: I grew up in the 1960’s in a working-class neighborhood in Racine, Wisconsin, with my three brothers, my sister, and my parents. There were people of all ages in my neighborhood . . . and many children.
As a boy, I drew more than anything. I also read, rode my bike, and played outside a lot. We didn’t own many books, but we went to the public library regularly. This was one of my favorite family activities, and I’m certain it played a role in my becoming a writer and illustrator.

Q: Which of your characters is most like you?

A: Like Owen, I think I’m quiet, yet tenacious. And, like Wemberly, I am a worrier.

Q: How long does it take you to complete a new picture book, from getting the idea to final page proofs? How much time do you spend on each illustration, and what kinds of changes do you make to your words and pictures?

A: Each book is different. Some come easily, and some are very difficult to bring to completion. I’ll often think about an idea for months, even years, before I’m ready to write.

It’s difficult to say how much time I spend on each illustration. I don’t do each illustration from start to finish; I do them in stages. I do sketches for the entire book first. Then I’ll refine all the sketches. Next, I’ll do a finished pencil drawing for each illustration in the book. Inking comes next.
At this point, I make several copies of each ink drawing so that I can test different colors before I finally paint each piece.

If I change words at this point, it’s usually a matter of taking something out that isn’t necessary any longer. Perhaps I’ve “said” what I want to say in the illustration and don’t need the words any longer.

Q: What comes first—the words or the pictures?

A: The words always come first for me. I try to perfect them before I draw anything. However, I do think about the pictures while I write.

I work on my stories in long-hand on lined notebook paper. I’ll rewrite several times before I type a nice, neat copy on my typewriter.

Q: Do you have a favorite among your own books?

A: My favorite book is always the next one, because I always think that the next one will be perfect, my best.

Q: Children adore Kitten’s First Full Moon, but they do wonder why there’s no color in it. Can you give them some insight into how you came up with the story and developed the illustrations?

A: The story began as part of a failed attempt at creating a young concept book about circles. There was one line from the manuscript that I like: “The cat thought the moon was a bowl of milk.” This line stuck in the back of my mind. I expanded upon it to write Kitten’s First Full Moon.

All along I saw the book in my mind as a black-and-white book. I’d long wanted to do a book with limited or no color, and for the first time, I’d written a story that seemed just right for this approach.

The text is simple and young, and so I wanted the art to be simple, too. I liked the idea of having a white cat, a white moon, and a white bowl of milk surrounded by the night.

Q: Several of your books feature mouse-themed paintings, including a mouse-inspired facsimile of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (Owen), a Picasso-like portrait (Chrysanthemum), and the word “Mice,” inspired by Robert Indiana’s Love paintings and sculptures (Lilly’s Big Day). What artists have influenced or inspired you in your work and your life? How about writers?

A: When I was a boy, my favorite artists were Walt Disney, Norman Rockwell, and N. C. Wyeth. Now, I’m drawn to work by the likes of Albert York, Giorgio Morandi, and Balthus, to name a few.

My favorite writers include: Alice Munro, William Trevor, William Maxwell, and Ian McEwan.

Q: What is a typical workday like for you?

A: Now that I’m a parent, I work from the time my kids go to school until they return home. Sometimes, I’ll work again before I go to bed.

Among other things, my day may include: drawing, painting, writing, answering mail, working on a speech, going over a contract, or get slides organized for a talk.

Drawing, painting, and writing are the best of these.

Q: What does your studio look like?

A: My studio is the remodeled attic on the third floor of our house. It is a large room filled with books. From the windows I have a great view of our yard. When I’m working, I feel as if I’m up in the trees. My “tools” are old-fashioned, but they suit me well. I use a typewriter that belonged to my wife when she was a teenager. And the light box I use for drawing is a small plastic one I received as a Christmas gift when I was a boy.

Q: Do you work on more than one book at a time?

A: Typically, I work on one book at t a time. However, when I’m working on a novel, I sometimes become stuck or simply need a break from it, and then I’ll work on something else temporarily. If after a while the novel is not begging me to come back to it, I’ll put it away even longer and take something else to completion.

Q: Which is more satisfying to you—writing or drawing?

A: Writing and drawing are very different, but both are satisfying. I suppose drawing comes more naturally to me. I am much more daunted by a blank piece of typing paper than I am by a blank piece of drawing paper.

Q: In your books, we meet several inspirational teachers, notably Mr. Slinger and Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle. Who were the inspirational teachers in your life?

A: I’ve had several teachers who inspired me. Most notable was, perhaps, an English teacher I had during my junior year of high school. All my life I’d been praised and encouraged as an artist. This particular teacher did this, but she also encouraged me as a writer, going so far as to say once, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw your name on a book one day.” The power of these words was enormous. I’ll never forget them. Or her.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for ways classroom teachers or parents can help children grow as readers, writers, and artists?

A: Exposure is everything. Read aloud as often as possible. If your child likes to write or draw, make sure that he/she always has paper available. Encourage children to experiment when it comes to art, and remind them to have fun and not be concerned with creating a masterpiece. If, as adults, we value art and books, our children will, too.

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