FLR: The scale of the plot in Junonia is very small, much of it ultimately coming to hinge on the location of a single plastic spoon. Was this a conscious reaction against all the huge life events in kid novels today, a choice to tell a smaller story?
KH: Junonia was not a conscious reaction against anything. I’m drawn to small, interior stories. And I think that for a particular kind of kid, at a particular stage of development, small things are huge.
FLR: Do the gelato spoons that are so central to the plot of Junonia come from life? It seems like there must be a story behind those…
KH: Two summers ago my family took a trip to Italy. I’d been thinking about Junonia for a while and had just begun writing it. I never work with an outline, so I wasn’t sure where the book would be going. We ate a lot of gelato on our trip. (My wife and I would use gelato to bribe our son and daughter to visit yet another church or museum.) I started saving my gelato spoons, thinking I’d somehow use them in my book–or in a subsequent one. Serendipitously, they fell into my life and worked themselves into Junonia.
FLR: There seems to be a very clear split between the earnestness and relative seriousness of your novels (very quiet, interior, thought–driven novels) and the whimsicality of your picture books. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is? Do you find one of these moods easier to get to?
KH: Each book is a new entity. I don’t know why some are more quiet or more humorous than others. If I’m working on a funny book, I’ll tend to think that humor is the most difficult thing to write. And if I’m working on a more serious novel, I’ll think that it is more difficult.
FLR: Do you think the picture book market is declining in sales for other reasons beyond a tough economy? Do you see any merit to the theory that parents and teachers, motivated by standardized test scores and reading quizzes, are pushing kids prematurely toward chapter books instead?
KH: I assume that the decline in picture book sales is due to the economy, period. I think that abandoning picture books and pushing kids toward books for beginning readers or chapter books is a huge mistake. A picture book is an entirely different art form. Picture books are often a child’s first exposure to visual art. The vocabulary in picture books is often more sophisticated than that in books for beginning readers. And even when a child is ready to enjoy chapter books, there’s no reason to stop reading picture books. The personal bond – the human connection – that takes place when sharing a picture book one–on–one with a child is invaluable. Who’d want to give that up prematurely?
FLR: Do you think picture books will become commonly used on e–reader devices? How do you feel about the devices?
KH: Two of the great and beautiful aspects of picture books are size and shape. To a large degree these will be lost on e–reader devices. It’s often difficult to take an already established art form and try to shoehorn it into another. The picture book seems to be a perfect art form as it is. But I try to keep an open mind.
FLR: Do you find digital tools helpful with any of your illustrations? If yes, which ones, and how so?
KH: I use common, old–fashioned tools – pencils, pens, brushes, ink, watercolor paints, paper. I write in longhand in notebooks. I type on a typewriter. I don’t have email.
FLR: Little White Rabbit seems to consciously reference both The Runaway Bunny and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Any other classic kid lit references that we missed?
KH: More than anything else, Little White Rabbit is a retelling of my first book, All Alone. I hadn’t realized this until I had finished the art. I was surprised by my discovery.
FLR: What are some of your favorite classic picture books and how many of them date back to your own childhood?
KH: Oh, there are so many. When I was a boy I loved Is This You? by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and Marvin Bileck, and The Little Fish That Got Away by Bernadine Cook and Crockett Johnson. Other favorites include:Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham, A Child’s Good Night Book by Margaret Wise Brown and Jean Charlot, Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban and Garth Williams, and Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey.
FLR: Beyond Junonia and Little White Rabbit, what’s next? Can we expect any new Lilly picture books in the near future?
KH: I’m working on a few books for beginning readers. The first is called Penny and Her Song. Penny is a new mouse, and she is currently big in my world. And Lilly? I hope she resurfaces. I’ve got a few ideas…
Browse our list of Kevin Henkes titles.