Kevin Henkes was born in 1960 in Racine, Wisconsin, and during his childhood often visited the local art museum - the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts. Henkes was greatly inspired by these visits and by reading his favorite books.
Henkes began college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, choosing to go there in large part because of the School of Education's Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC). At the CCBC, Henkes learned about the history and future trajectory of children's literature. The summer after his freshman year Henkes set off for New York, a list of his favorite publishers in hand. His first and only stop was Greenwillow Books, signed on the spot. He took the fall semester off to work on a dummy book. The result was Henke's first published picture book, All Alone (1981).
Q: When Lilly's at school, she knows she wants to be a teacher. When you were at school, did you know you wanted to be a writer and illustrator?
I grew up desperately wanting to be an artist. That desire was a huge part of my identity for as far back as I can remember. It wasn't until I was in high school that writing became as important to me. During my junior year of high school I decided I wanted to write and illustrate children's books for a career.
What he's known for...
In 1986, Henke's picture book profile grew a bit larger, thanks to the birth of some little mice in A Weekend with Wendell. Thirteen books featuring these mouse characters would follow, including the 1994 Caldecott Honor Book Owen, but the most famous of them is Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. With the release of that book in 1996, Henkes gave the world of children's literature a memorable new addition to its roster of cherished characters; Lilly returned ten years later in Lilly's Big Day. With the introduction of Lilly, another star was born: Henkes himself.
Q: How did you come to use the mice as the characters in so many of your books? Did you consider other animals as well?
My early books have realistically rendered humans as the protagonists. As my stories became more humorous, I thought that I could better match my texts by drawing more loosely and using animals as my main characters. For my next book, A Weekend with Wendell, I chose to use animals. I made sketches - a dog, a cat, an elephant, and a mouse. I liked the mouse sketch, and so, Wendell was a mouse. I enjoyed doing that book so much, I continued to use mice as the protagonists in many of my picture books. I have not particular affinity for mice, nor was using them repeatedly in my books something I planned to do. It just happened.
My favorite book...
A young mouse, Chrysanthemum loves her long name, but when she goes to school, the other children giggle. However, a pregnant music teacher named Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle defends her, say how a lot of people have long names. Chrysanthemum’s family comforts her as well. At the end of the story, Mrs. Twinkle gives birth to a girl and decides to name her Chrysanthemum, too.
Although my name isn't long, it is different compared to a lot of the names of my classmates, like Chrysanthemum. When I was younger I didn't like my name. I didn't think it was beautiful; I thought it was the opposite of beautiful. I wanted to change my name to Ashley. However, as I grew older I had a teacher, a lot like Mrs. Twinkle, that showed me the beauty of my name.
This is an ideal break-the-ice book for the first week of school. Not only does it get children thinking about and bonding with their own names and the names of everyone else in the class, but its a fine vehicle for starting a discussion about treating classmates with tolerance, kindness, and compassion
questions for discussion
- Why do Jo, Rita, and Victoria make fun of Chrysanthemum's name? Why doesn't Chrysanthemum stand up to the three mean girls?
- How do you her parents help her feel better each day when she comes home from school?
- Chrysanthemum dreams that her name is Jane. Do you like your name? Why or why not? If you could change your name to any name in the world, what name would you choose?
- Celebrate names by making decorative name cards. Children can write their names with colored markers on strips of cardstock paper and decorate it with beads, buttons, glitter, etc. Make a class bulletin board of names where their fancy name cards are displayed.
- Victoria says to Chrysanthemum, "I'm named after my grandmother. You're names after a flower!" As a homework assignment, children can ask their parents to tell and write down the stories of how they got their perfectly perfect names.
How to use this in the classroom...
Kitten's first full moon
This book tells the story of a kitten who thinks the moon is a bowl of milk. It first takes place on a porch and on the field. The kitten sees a full moon and thinks it’s a bowl of milk. At first she tries to lick the moon but a bug ends up on her tongue. Then she tries to catches the moon but falls down. So she decides to chase it and run, she goes through the field, into the garden and by the pond. She sees a tree and decides to climb it to the top so she can reach the moon. Then she notices a bigger bowl of milk in the pond but then realizes it’s just the moon shining down. She feels sad and tired; she decides to go back home. Waiting for her was a nice bowl of milk. Kitten was happy and felt better.
Kitten is a role model for all ages - taking chances, picking herself up when she fails, trying out new ways to get what she wants, and figuring out when enough is enough.
Introduce the book through its pictures by taking a Picture Walk, a fun pre-reading strategy. First, read the title aloud and ask children to look at the cover and predict what might happen in the story. Then, start at the beginning again and read the story aloud. Ask them to pay close attention to Kitten's facial expressions. How do they show what Kitten is thinking or feeling? Have the children try out those expressions too.
questions for discussion
- Why do you think Kevin Henkes decided to illustrate the book in shades of black, silvery gray, and white? Why are there no colors?
All along I saw the book in my mind as a black-and-white book. I'd long wanted to do a book with limited or no color, and for the first time, I 'd written a story that seemed just right for this approach. The text is simple and young, and so I wanted the art to be simple, too. I liked the idea of having a white cat, a white moon, and a white bowl of milk surrounded by the night.
- Look at Kitten's face. Can you tell me what she is thinking or feeling from her expressions?
- Think about what the story is about, way down deep. What is the story telling us about life?
- Act it out. Have your class find an unoccupied space near you, and, as you read the story again, they can each become Kitten as she tries doggedly for that elusive bowl of milk. They can lick, jump, tumble, run, climb, leap, lap up milk, and, finally, fall asleep.
- Find out facts about the moon and why it waxes and wanes. Introduce general moon vocabulary, including: new moon, crescent moon, quarter and half moon, etc. Have parents and children go outside together each night to observe the moon and draw what they see. Make a class chart of their observations, including their pictures, labeled and dated, to see how long each phase of the moon lasts.