“Waiting,” a picture book by Madison children’s author Kevin Henkes, received two of the highest honors in children’s literature Monday when it was named both a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and a Geisel Honor Book — only the second time any author has won that combination of awards.
The accolades are the latest in a long line for Henkes, who received the 2005 Caldecott Medal for his book “Kitten’s First Full Moon.” He also won a Caldecott honor for his picture book “Owen,” Newbery honors for his youth novels “Olive’s Ocean” and “The Year of Billy Miller,” and a 2014 Geisel honor, named for the famed “Dr. Seuss” author, for “Penny and Her Marble.”
Young readers also know Henkes as the creator of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” and “Chrysanthemum.”
As he does with most of his books, Henkes both wrote and illustrated “Waiting,” about the surprises that can happen with a little patience. The picture book, published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, came out in September and has spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
“His book is just a beautiful example of a picture book. The words and pictures just work so well together,” said Rachel Tayne, chair of this year’s Caldecott committee and the coordinator of early childhood services at the Brooklyn Public Library.
“It’s a book that many of us found children really respond to,” she said. “It has a beautiful sense of design, a beautiful sense of the page and white space. It’s just a lovely book.”
Henkes’ 2016 wins are also historic, Tayne said: They make him the only author/illustrator to have won across the categories of Caldecott honors and Caldecott Medal, awarded annually for most distinguished picture book for children; Geisel honors, for distinguished beginning reader books; and Newbery honors, for outstanding contributions to children’s literature.
Henkes learned of his latest awards when he got a call at 5:30 a.m. Monday from the American Library Association‘s Midwinter Meeting in Boston.
His reaction was “great joy,” he said.
“The nice thing is — I’ve been done with the book for a long time, and it’s out and about in the world and my heart and soul are thinking about what’s next,” he said. “So when something like this happens, it’s a nice bit of frosting on the cake.”
“Waiting” begins with five small figures sitting on a window ledge in the magical world of a child’s bedroom: an owl with spots, waiting for the moon; a pig with an umbrella, waiting for the rain; a bear with a kite, waiting for the wind; a puppy on a sled, waiting for the snow; and a rabbit who, Henkes writes, “wasn’t waiting for anything in particular.”
The characters were inspired by small animal sculptures Henkes started making in 2006 during open studio hours at Higher Fire clay studio on Regent Street.
In all, Henkes made more than 100 figures.
“Most of them just sit on the windowsill and bookshelves of my studio,” he said. “I see them every day. The ones that were on the windowsill looked as if they were waiting for something — and that was the spark.
“And I thought ‘waiting’ would be a good idea for a book for a kid — because it seems to me that kids wait all the time,” he said. “They wait in line. They wait for the end of the school day. They have to wait their turn.”
In “Waiting,” Henkes also wanted “to include the seasons, the passing of time, the whole idea that when one is waiting for something, often life throws unexpected joys and sadnesses one’s way,” he said. “I wanted to include everything from birth to death, but still have it filtered through the eyes of a child.”
Henkes, who grew up in Racine, first moved to Madison to attend UW-Madison. At age 19, he headed to New York and was signed by Greenwillow Books.
Henkes, 55, has close to 50 books to his credit and regularly appears at Madison literary events and the Wisconsin Book Festival. He and his wife, artist Laura Dronzek, live on Madison’s Near West Side and have two children.
“Kevin is just one of the most genuine, kind people that you’ll ever meet,” said Krissy Wick, youth services supervisor for Madison Public Library.
“He gets kids — all ages of kids,” she said. “He can speak to so many different fears and worries and excitements in a kid’s life. Any time he gets honored for that work is just wonderful. We’re really lucky to have an author like him in Madison.”
Out in February will be “When Spring Comes,” a book written by Henkes and illustrated by Dronzek. “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” which Henkes finished illustrating just days before the couple’s first child was born, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Henkes will publish another picture book he wrote and illustrated, titled “Egg,” in 2017.
In June, he’ll travel to Orlando for the official Caldecott awards dinner. Still, “I love being home working,” he said. “The tour I did for ‘Waiting’ is, I think, the biggest tour I’ve done in 19 years. I think the publisher would like me to tour more, but I like being home. I’m a homebody, I think.”