Kevin Henkes x’83: Connecting with Kids

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Which of his famous mice is Henkes most like? “I’m a worrier, so I’m like Wemberly. I think Owen is quietly tenacious, and I think I’m probably like that. I’m not like Lilly — I wish I were,” he says of his most spunky heroine. Photo: Andy Manis

Kevin Henkes x’83 had just finished his freshman year at UW-Madison when he took “All Alone,” a children’s story that grew out of a class project for Professor Jack Kean, and headed to New York in search of a publisher.

“I think I had more confidence at nineteen than I do at fifty-three,” the author-illustrator says with a laugh. “And it was a different world then. One could get an appointment with a publisher without having an agent.”

His chutzpah paid off: Henkes immediately landed a contract with Greenwillow Books, which has since published dozens of his best-selling children’s books, including his most popular, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. Featured on the cover of the Fall 1999 On Wisconsin, Henkes’s star has continued to rise. The New York Times called him a genius, and the New Yorker described him as “one of the best writers of contemporary picture books.” He recently won a Newbery Honor for The Year of Billy Miller, a novel for young readers; and his novel Olive’s Ocean, another Newbery Honor winner, has been optioned for a movie. Henkes’s picture book Kitten’s First Full Moon earned the prestigious Caldecott Medal, and Owen received a Caldecott Honor.

Henkes’s youngest fans often ask when he became an artist, and he tells them: “I don’t ever remember making that decision. I’ve always been an artist.” In fact, when he’s painting, he still dips his brush into water in a margarine tub that he’s used since fourth grade.

Henkes decided in high school that he wanted to become a children’s author-illustrator and chose UW-Madison in large part because of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in the School of Education. The non-circulating library offered tantalizing access to the latest children’s books and was a source of inspiration for Henkes, who later had a work-study job there.

He took the fall semester of his sophomore year off to finish the artwork for his first book and continued alternating semesters with book contracts before deciding to quit school to concentrate on his publishing career. But he settled in Madison and visits the CCBC regularly.

“It’s a great resource if I’m designing a new picture book and I’m thinking about typography,” he says. “I love to go and spend time browsing there.”

Henkes’s earliest picture books featured human protagonists before he transitioned to animal characters — particularly the mice for which he is best known. “My stories became more humorous, and I thought I could better tap the humor if I used animals,” he says. “I chose mice for A Weekend with Wendell, and I had such a great time with Wendell that I put him in my next book. Then I just kept doing it.”

But Henkes’s books are just as heartfelt as they are humorous. “I want the books to have emotional truth, and I want the reader or listener to connect on an emotional level,” he says. “That’s what I always strive for.”

Despite his popularity in the children’s literary landscape, Henkes lives a quiet life in Madison with his wife, painter Laura Dronzek ’82, MFA’93, and their two children. He’s never had an email address or a cell phone. “In the beginning, I thought I’m not important enough to have either one,” he says. “And then I thought, I try so hard to keep life simple, and I kept thinking both would complicate my life. And I don’t want to be connected all the time.”

But when it comes to connecting with young readers, Henkes already has all the tools he needs.

Published in the Fall 2014 issue

Tags: Alumni, Arts, Humanities, Libraries

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