Thursday, November 02, 2006

WLA 2006: Charmer in the Dells

Wisconsin children's book author Kevin Henkes was charming and generous in his presentation at Wednesday's Youth Services Section luncheon. Not that the creator of such acclaimed books as Kitten's First Full Moon and Chrysanthemum hadn't already stolen our hearts with his whimsical and lovingly drawn characters and well-crafted books.

The Racine native walked his audience through a brief history of some of his more popular books, explaining the thought process that went into the choices he made in many of his illustrations. He revealed to us that, of all the many characters he has drawn over the years, his favorite is Lilly, the headstrong little mouse who has starred in several books since she made her first appearance in the Chester's Way in 1988.

Lilly may be impulsive, somewhat self-centered, and a little too controlling. "Restraint is not her strong point," Henkes said. But she is also a girl who knows what she wants. "She has vision ... and she gets things done."

Out of curiosity, Henkes said he recently counted the number of images of Lilly he has drawn since that first book in 1988. Not counting rough drafts and rejected drawings, he has drawn her 263 times.

He said the relationship between Lilly and her much more passive younger brother Julius was modeled after two characters in an earlier book, Margaret & Taylor published in 1983. Like Lilly, Margaret liked to be in control. Yet, like Julius, Taylor sometimes got the last word.

Included in Henkes' slide presentation of book illustrations were photographs from his childhood. For six years he was the youngest (he was the fourth of five children), so he knows what it is like to be bullied by older siblings, he said. But he also understands having to cope with a new baby in the family, as did Lilly in Julius, the Baby of the World.

A great deal of thought is put into each illustration and each sentence. The outfits and poses worn by Lilly, her teacher Mr. Slinger, and others are chosen very carefully to match the mood at each point in the story. Henkes uses patterns, rhyme, and repetition to help push the story forward. Even if no one consciously notices such little touches, he said, they still have an impact, at least on the subconscious level.

Among Henkes' many honors and awards are the Caldecott Award and the Charlotte Zolotow Award, both in 2005 for Kitten's First Full Moon, a 2004 Newbery Honor book citation for Olive's Ocean, and a Caldecott Honor for Owen in 1994. Most recently he was given the Sterling North Literary Award.

He described his career as immensely rewarding, particularly when children come to him with their own drawings after reading or experiencing one of his books. Such personal, heartfelt responses affirm for him that books truly do matter, and that his work is important.

"I know that what I do is larger than me."

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