(This is a joint post by Jen and Lisa).
Tucked in the basement, the conference room was nevertheless filled to capacity for children’s book writer and illustrator Kevin Henkes’ visit to the Cambridge Public Library last week. Part storytime, part talk, Henkes read from his latest book, Little White Rabbit, and explained his writing process using a previous picture book, My Garden, as a guide. The kids in the audience (ranging from preschool to late elementary school age) were rapt with attention, and quiet except to cheer when Henkes read that in My Garden, “carrots would be invisible because I don’t like carrots!”
Henkes read his books aloud while the illustrations were projected on a 5-ft tall screen. It was great seeing the pictures blown up to life size, like a movie theater version of storytime.
A page from My Garden.
One of the best things about visiting authors is when they share writerly quirks, and Henkes has many. He never uses a computer, preferring instead an old typewriter. When he paints, he washes his paintbrushes in a red plastic cup, which is actually a decades-old Imperial margarine tub. These objects have taken on superstitious import—it’s gotten to the point where he can’t imagine painting without that red tub. (To his mounting horror, the typewriter has only five ribbons left).
Henkes has penned dozens of books, but he still suffers from that universal fear of running out of ideas. I slow down when I come close to completing a book, said Henkes, because I’m afraid I’ll have nothing to write next. And without a project to work on, he feels adrift.
He’s certainly kept busy. Little White Rabbit was released in January, but his next book, Junonia, comes out in May. It has a stunning cover, and reminds me (Lisa) of Keeper. (There’s a young girl, the ocean, a beach house and lots of seashells…) Definitely something to look forward to.
Henkes ended with a Q & A. The first child he called on proudly announced, “we made a book at school.” Henkes replied with complete sincerity, “That’s wonderful.” When the next child raised his hand and said, “I’m writing a chapter book,” I (Jen) wanted to roll my eyes, but again Henkes was very supportive. Just as I was starting to fear that these announcements would become a trend, one kid asked, “where do you get your ideas from?” Although Henkes had already addressed this during his talk, his response was thoughtful, simple, and not a bit patronizing. And he was funny: “sometimes an idea will come to me in the shower. Or when I was at the airport and this girl was playing with her purse, which played music every time she opened it. It drove her father crazy…” and that became an idea for Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. I even got to ask a question: why is Lilly a mouse? (Answer: it wasn’t a conscious choice. It just worked).
After the end, parents and kids swarmed into a caterpillar queue for the book signing. As we left the library, we overheard one mom ask her kid what he thought of Henkes’ visit. He was quiet for a long time; finally he said very seriously, “I don’t think you can get ideas in the shower.”