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Encouraging Kids to Be Proud of Who They Are: An Interview with Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes and Chrysanthemum cover

Chrysanthemum thinks her name is absolutely perfect… that is, until her first day of school, when this cheerful little mouse is mercilessly teased for her unique moniker’s length and floral origin. Chrysanthemum wilts. Her classmates have a big impact on our tiny heroine’s budding self-esteem, but with the support of her parents and her fabulous music teacher, Chrysanthemum blooms once again!

Kevin Henkes is the celebrated author and illustrator of Chrysanthemum. He has created many a charming little mouse in books such as Lilly’s Purple Plastic PurseWemberly Worried, and the Caldecott Honor book Owen. Henkes’s playful watercolor illustrations and snappy text make his witty tales about kindness, acceptance, and self-worth a joy for little readers and grownups alike.

How does he do it? Henkes himself shares a bit about making the magic happen:

Q: What themes are important to you?

A: So many of the children (or mice or other animals) who populate my work use imagination—as play, as an escape, as a tool. Imagination is a theme I’ve returned to again and again. It is a theme that has been with me from the very beginning of my career.

Q: In your books, we meet several inspirational teachers, including Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle in Chrysanthemum. Who were the inspirational teachers in your life?

A: I’ve had several teachers who inspired me. Most notable was, perhaps, an English teacher I had during my junior year of high school. All my life I’d been praised and encouraged as an artist. This particular teacher did this, but she also encouraged me as a writer, going so far as to say once, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw your name on a book one day.” The power of these words was enormous. I’ll never forget them. Or her.

Q: Your mouse characters have loving, supportive, understanding teachers, parents and other adults in their lives. What was your own childhood like?

A: I grew up in the 1960s in a working-class neighborhood in Racine, Wisconsin, with my three brothers, my sister, and my parents. There were people of all ages in my neighborhood . . . and many children. As a boy, I drew more than anything. I also read, rode my bike, and played outside a lot. We didn’t own many books, but we went to the public library regularly. This was one of my favorite family activities, and I’m certain it played a role in my becoming a writer and illustrator.

Q: Where do you write?

A: My studio is in the remodeled attic on the third floor of our house. It is a large room filled with books. From the windows I have a great view of our yard. When I’m working, I feel as if I’m up in the trees. My “tools” are old-fashioned, but they suit me well. I use a typewriter that belonged to my wife when she was a teenager. And the light box I use for drawing is a small plastic one I received as a Christmas gift when I was a boy.

Q: What’s your workday like?

A: Now that I’m a parent, I work from the time my kids go to school until they return home. Sometimes, I’ll work again before I go to bed.

Q: How can teachers and parents can help children grow as readers, writers, and artists?

A: Exposure is everything. Read aloud as often as possible. If your child likes to write or draw, make sure that he or she always has paper available. Encourage children to experiment when it comes to art, and remind them to have fun and not be concerned with creating a masterpiece. If, as adults, we value art and books, our children will, too.

Nab your own copy of Chrysanthemum here!

*This interview was adapted from a Kevin Henkes’ teaching guide and an author study published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Discover more ways to explore Henkes’ books with your child here.

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