Some Kids' Books Are Worth The Wait: 'They Do Take Time,' Says Kevin Henkes The Caldecott and Newbery award-winning author says he won't publish anything he isn't proud of. His new picture book is about five figurines on a windowsill who are all waiting for something.
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Some Kids' Books Are Worth The Wait: 'They Do Take Time,' Says Kevin Henkes

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Some Kids' Books Are Worth The Wait: 'They Do Take Time,' Says Kevin Henkes

Some Kids' Books Are Worth The Wait: 'They Do Take Time,' Says Kevin Henkes

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

His fans may not know his name, but they love the characters in his books - Chrysanthemum, Wemberly, Kitten and her saucer of milk, Lilly and her plastic purse. They're the creations of award-winning children's author Kevin Henkes. His latest creations are figurines - five of them sitting on a windowsill waiting for something to happen.

KEVIN HENKES: (Reading) The owl with spots was waiting for the moon. The pig with the umbrella was waiting for the rain. The bear with the kite was waiting for the wind. The puppy on the sled was waiting for the snow. The rabbit with stars wasn't waiting for anything in particular. He just liked to look out the window and wait.

MCEVERS: Kevin Henkes reading from his new book titled simply "Waiting," something he says kids spend a lot of time doing.

HENKES: Wait your turn. Wait for your birthday. I mean, you wait for the end of the school day. You wait for snack time. You wait to graduate from your car seat. There is so, so much waiting in childhood.

MCEVERS: I was wondering if you could just read for us a little bit.

HENKES: Sure.

MCEVERS: Could you start the section that starts with sometimes?

HENKES: (Reading) Sometimes one or the other of them went away, but he or she always came back. Sometimes they slept, but mostly they waited. Sometimes gifts appeared. Once, a visitor arrived from far away. He stayed a while. Then he left and never returned.

MCEVERS: And he was a little elephant figurine...

HENKES: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...Who appeared on the windowsill, and then he got knocked off the windowsill and was broken.

HENKES: Yes, yes - never returned.

MCEVERS: (Sighing).

HENKES: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: Big stuff dealing with loss. I mean...

HENKES: Yeah, and it's interesting. I've read the book now - I'm out on a tour, and when I read it to large groups, there's this huge gasp. And then at the end when the cat arrives and there's a surprise and there are kittens, there's this huge collective sigh.

MCEVERS: You take on tough things - right? - in kids' lives?

HENKES: Well, kids are tough, and kids are resilient. And kids - you know, sometimes, I think, as adults, we think of them as - because they're small in size, that they're small in all ways. And they're not. I mean, they have big feelings, and they, you know, have big eyes. And they see things. They hear things. They, you know - they're living their life just the way an adult does. And I think sometimes, as adults, we forget that.

MCEVERS: You seem like somebody who was pretty inpatient, actually. You know, you've known that you wanted to be a children's book writer and illustrator since you were pretty young. Like, high school you knew. Is that right?

MCEVERS: Well, I grew up always wanting to be an artist, and it was in high school when I started to really like writing. And I was, you know, a junior in high school thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought it would be great if I could find a job in which I could both draw and paint, which I loved, and write, which was this new thing that I loved. And I thought children's picture books would be the perfect job for me. It was a great combination of those skills. And that's when I decided that's what I wanted to do.

MCEVERS: Because I think a lot of people might say, oh, you know, I should probably write a children's book someday.

HENKES: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: But, like, you were very determined. Like, by your...

HENKES: I was.

MCEVERS: ...Freshman year of college, you'd - you were studying the art of publishing and you went to New York. I mean, tell us that story.

HENKES: Well, I went to New York from Wisconsin the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I made of list of my 10 favorite publishers. I'd studied them and I knew who I wanted to be published by. And I was so lucky my first choice - Greenwillow Books - Susan Hirschman, editor in chief - accepted my book while I was in New York. And it was one of the most memorable days of my life. But it's interesting. Looking back, I think at 19 I had a certain confidence that I don't know if I have at 54.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

HENKES: I really thought I'll fly to New York and I will come home with a contract for a book. I really, truly believed it.

MCEVERS: I mean, your characters since then, you know, with that publisher and going forward all these years, have been, you know, hugely popular. The - you know, "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse" and "Lilly's Big Day" were these big hits. Kids line up at book stores to meet you. And yet, you know, we don't see these characters out there on purses and clothes and movies and comic books. You know, you have not franchised your characters. In fact, you don't - you haven't done that many "Lilly" books, you know? You take a long time to write your books. Why is that?

HENKES: Well, there are a lot of things that I've said no to just to keep it pure. And also, you know, after "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse," which was very successful for me, I wrote another Lilly book right away. And Susan Hirschman, my editor at the time, rejected it, saying anyone would publish this, but I don't think it's good enough for you. And I think if we published it, you would probably be unhappy down the road. And I think that that was true. I really want everything that's out there with my name on it to be as good as I think it can be. So they do take time and I do - there is a lot of waiting in this job. But I do want anything out there to be, you know, really, really good and the best that it can be. And so I'll keep waiting until it's right - till something seems exactly like.

MCEVERS: Did you ever read your books to your kids?

HENKES: A little bit, not a lot. I did because I wanted them to know what I, you know, did every day up in the attic room. The thing that I started doing was reading to them at breakfast, reading novels, which was a great thing because I would read to both of them and my wife would be making the lunches. So all four of us, over the course of weeks, we'd have this shared experience where we discuss it and talk about it. My daughter said she didn't want old-fashioned books, but we raced through the "Little House" books. My son decided he didn't want any books in which the protagonists were girls. But I said, let's just try "Ramona" and he, of course, loved it. So it was, I think, a good experience for them. I think it opened their eyes. And it was a great, great thing to do. And we kept track. We made a list in the back hall of every book that we had read together, and I think - now they're 20 and 18 and I think the list was, you know, 120-some books.

MCEVERS: Wow, nice.

HENKES: Not novels.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Did your writing change as the kids grew up? I mean, did you get a different perspective on things?

HENKES: I don't think so. People used to assume that I had kids long before I did. And then when my wife was pregnant with our first child, people would say, oh, now you're going to have so many more ideas, and it didn't really happen. And I think some of the greats in this field were not parents. And I think it probably comes from some other place deep inside. I don't think you have to have children to write for them.

MCEVERS: You were born to do this from the beginning.

HENKES: I think so. I kind of feel that. I sense that.

MCEVERS: Well, Kevin Henkes, thank you so much for talking to us.

HENKES: You're welcome.

MCEVERS: Kevin Henkes - his new book is called "Waiting."

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