Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Wednesday, January 9, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Sweeping Up the Heart

HarperCollins: Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

HarperCollins: Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

HarperCollins: Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

HarperCollins: Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart

by Kevin Henkes

Although readers may know the Caldecott Medalist best for his gifts as a picture book author and illustrator, children's favorite Kevin Henkes (Egg) also creates novels with as much grace and quiet power as his masterfully simple illustrations. In the family drama Sweeping Up the Heart, Henkes charts a tender emotional journey across the divide that opens when grief rewrites the language of each affected heart, bringing the same clear-eyed, warm-spirited view of everyday struggles and triumphs that captured our hearts in his Newbery Honor-winning The Year of Billy Miller.

"Poor Amelia Albright"--12-year-old Amelia has heard that phrase almost every day for as long as she can remember. The words of pity are about a tragedy she can't remember: when she was just two years old, her mother died of cancer. Since then, her "moody, remote" father, Professor Gordon Albright, has spent more time with his work than with Amelia, leaving most of her care to their elderly housekeeper, Mrs. O'Brien, whose "loving watchfulness" is "like a protective cloak." Now, during spring break of her seventh-grade year, Amelia wants to go to the beach in Florida like her classmates, but her father has opted for a nice, quiet time at home--"minus the nice," Amelia complains. Soon the year will turn from 1999 to 2000, and Amelia wonders if this is "when her real life... [will] finally begin."

At least Amelia has the entire week to spend at the local clay studio during her vacation-free vacation. Since her first ceramics class at age six, Amelia has loved sculpting tiny clay animals, filling the house with her creations. This spring break, though, she finds the studio already occupied by Casey Kirkwood-Cole, the owner's 12-year-old nephew. Unsure of the interloper at first, Amelia soon warms to Casey, who loves to draw, has a "thick dark tumble" of curls and wears T-shirts decorated with slogans protesting the dissolution of his parents' troubled marriage. Casey introduces Amelia to his favorite game, imagining silly names and outlandish histories for strangers or the occasional mean-spirited peer. When his imagination settles on a woman who resembles Amelia's deceased mother, Amelia becomes absorbed in a whirlwind of magical thinking, stumbling into surprising truths about her family.

Henkes puts the "lit" in "kid lit," his minimalist prose style evincing the meticulous attention to detail seen in his picture book illustrations. Just as he knows how to use a single stroke of ink to convey surprising depth of meaning, Henkes can coax a bloom of emotion from the simplest and fewest words. The discernible care and deliberation surrounding every paragraph shows how seriously Henkes takes his young audience and how much respect he affords their taste and intelligence. His spare wisps of sentences capture the turbulent waters at the cusp of adolescence, that moment at the end of childhood when independence beckons, tempting and terrifying.

In one instance, Amelia articulates her fear of life as "so big that I don't know what will happen," a phrase at once abstract and completely relatable at any age. Her bravery in longing for the future in the face of uncertainty gives Amelia a heroic quality that beautifully balances out her introspective personality. Like many 12-year-olds, Amelia is still planted deeply enough in the naiveté of childhood to hold the occasional imagined conversation with her favorite plush toy, even as she develops glimmers of adult insight. When she stumbles across the Emily Dickinson poem from which the novel takes its title, bookmarked by Mrs. O'Brien, Amelia begins to understand for the first time that her mother's death may have broken some vital, irreparable part of her father.

As her relationship with her father goes through a watershed moment, Amelia's interactions with her peers reflect the mercurial nature of middle school friendships. At one point, consumed with her own thoughts, Amelia reminds herself, "Casey is real.... Focus on that." She also frets in the back of her mind that her best friend Natalie, abroad with her family, might forget or abandon her, like her former best friend, Lindy. Henkes seamlessly integrates the solace and stability art can bring in times of upheaval, showing Amelia entering a "bubble" of concentration as she makes the first in a series of ceramic rabbits. She also finds comfort in Mrs. O'Brien, who offers unwavering love and wisdom through their touching intergenerational rapport.

For readers ages nine to 12 who love to find meaning between the lines, Amelia's journey of self-discovery provides plenty of gems to mine. Middle school students who struggle with reading will likely also find comfort in the short, easily digestible chapters and the largely unadorned language. However, as Henkes says, "The older I get, the more I love things that are spare," and older readers who appreciate the clean perfection of stripped-down prose will relish this deceptively simple slice of life from the pre-digital age. Resonant and life-affirming, Sweeping Up the Heart serves as a reminder that love and courage don't need an epic setting to show their beauty. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Greenwillow Books, $16.99, hardcover, 192p., ages 8-12, 9780062852540, March 19, 2019

Greenwillow Books: More unforgettable books by Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes: Everything Happened

photo: Michelle Corpora

Bestselling author Kevin Henkes has received two Newbery Honors, one for The Year of Billy Miller and the other for Olive's Ocean. His other novels for older readers include Junonia, Bird Lake Moon, The Birthday Room and Sun & Spoon. Henkes lives in Madison, Wis., with his wife and fellow illustrator, Laura Dronzek, and has two college-aged children. Henkes recently spoke with Shelf Awareness about craft, serendipity and his newest title from Greenwillow Books, Sweeping Up the Heart, available March 19, 2019.

Does it feel strange to tell a story with no pictures?

No, I think because I am an artist. I love setting the stage, and it's a great break from having to use paint and ink. To be able to do it with words can be really challenging and rewarding.

Then I have to ask: novels or picture books?

That's a hard question. Often when I write a novel, I get to a point where I might be stuck and I think, "Oh, I wish I were doing a picture book. They're so much easier." And often when I'm working on a picture book, and I'm not able to master a particular illustration that I've tried three or four times, I think, "Oh, I wish I were doing a novel because then I could just write!"

Did you draw the rabbits on the title page?

I did, yes. I made the ceramic rabbits that are on the jacket of the book as well.

Since 2006, I've tried to go to my local clay studio every week--I love making very small, hand-built sculptures. I was inspired by the setting, and then I needed a character. I love writing about young artists because I was one, so I wrote about a character who's an artist at age 12. I like writing about that time of life because it is complicated and wonderful and horrible, and being an artist is a great way to have a certain anchor. Being creative can help one make it through a difficult time of life.

Like it is for Casey, Amelia's friend who struggles with his parents' divorce?

I know a couple of kids who were affected very strongly by divorce. They both have siblings, and the siblings were affected differently. That intrigued me, and so that's how he came to be. I thought it might be interesting if he had something in his life that he's worried about and consumed by.

Amelia and Casey support each other but are wrapped up in their own issues, which feels authentic for their age.

I think it's true for everybody. As an adult, if there's something I'm worried about, I tend to see it everywhere, to be reminded of it everyplace I look and I'm sure no one else sees it or notices. I think that's probably human nature.

Do young artists ask you for advice?

The advice that I always give to anyone who wants to write is to read. I think that's the best way to learn how to write. I always have a notebook at the ready for jotting down something that might occur to me or writing down something that I see. If I meet a kid who likes to draw or paint, I think the best thing I can say is, "Try to not worry about creating a masterpiece. Try to have fun, try to experiment, try to not worry about it being perfect and to enjoy the process if that's possible." That comes from someone who is a perfectionist who has a hard time doing those things, too.

I write very slowly, and I revise as I go, so it might take me a week to write one paragraph. My books reveal themselves as I work. They unfold at their own deliberate speed, and it's sentence by sentence, word by word. Sometimes things happen when I'm working that are wonderful and serendipitous. When I discovered the Emily Dickinson poem used in the book, I got goosebumps. I thought, "This not only will be a big part of the book, the title is here!" It was one of those moments where one feels grateful to who-knows-what because this thing has landed in one's lap.

The poem is essential because it helps Amelia and the reader understand her father.

For all her father's faults, I didn't want him to be a pure villain. I've known people who seem forever changed by grief. In a family, what one person does affects someone else and can alter a life.

Does your writing change depending on its target age group?

I never think about where the book will be marketed or how the book will suit a certain age group. I just begin, and I write, and whatever happens, happens.

When I wrote The Year of Billy Miller, I remember being very conscious that it was for a younger reader. Although I love elegant writing, I was mindful about keeping it pretty spare because I thought, "Billy's a seven-year-old boy. Seven-year-old boys may read this, so I should just stick to the facts and move on." With this book, I wanted to make it spare again, because the older I get, the more I love things that are spare. But because my protagonist is older, I thought I might have a little more wiggle room in terms of the way I describe things or play with language.

Why did you set the book in 1999?

Amelia thinks she's on the verge of change, and she's waiting for her real life to begin. I thought, "What more perfect setting could there be than the year 1999?" In one of the first chapters she thinks that when the year changes, every single number in the year is going to change, and maybe that symbolizes the change that will happen in her life.

I wanted it to be interesting how Y2K worried Casey but didn't worry her. Different people can be affected differently by the same thing, and what might frighten one person might not frighten another.

The Y2K references made me feel nostalgic.

There was an early review of Sweeping Up the Heart that called it "historical fiction," and I just burst out laughing. It's funny to me, but I guess to a young one reading it, it would be historical.

In a time when the market is saturated with stories of young teens with magical powers saving the world, what inspired you to write this grounded, realistic story?

I like to take something very small and, hopefully, through my storytelling and the details that I create, it becomes something larger. I've always been drawn to realistic fiction, small stories, very domestic, I guess the kind of stories where some people would say "Nothing happens." That's what I love, because when people say that, I think, "No, everything happened!"

I love subtlety in books, and I love to leave space between scenes, between lines, between paragraphs, where there can be some figuring out on one's own. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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