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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