Back in the 1980s, a mutual friend of Kevin Henkes and Laura Dronzek saw their potential. Not as the celebrated artists they were becoming, but as partners, according to the couple. Today, they’ve been married 32 years and just released the fourth children’s book on which they have collaborated, “In the Middle of Fall.”
Henkes writes the words, while Dronzek brings the story to life with her acrylic paintings. The book, out Sept. 5 from Greenwillow Books, already has three starred reviews as of this writing and is the companion to 2016’s “When Spring Comes.”
The prolific Henkes has earned the highest honors in the children’s publishing world, including 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.”
His picture book “Waiting” was named both a 2016 Caldecott Honor Book and a Geisel Honor Book, marking only the second time any author has won that combination of awards. Young readers also know Henkes as the creator of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” and “Chrysanthemum.”
He and Dronzek, a well known illustrator and painter, also have collaborated on large-scale projects such as a mural at the Madison Children’s Museum.
The couple spoke about their latest work from Dronzek’s art studio on the third floor of their home in Madison, which also houses Henkes’ creative space just across the hall.
How did this book come about?
Henkes: I had finished my book “The Year of Billy Miller” (in 2013) and I wanted to do a picture book for me (to illustrate). Laura hadn’t had a book in awhile and really wanted to do one. She read the text for “When Spring Comes” and said, “I’d love to do that.” Our wedding anniversary was approaching, and I thought that would be a perfect gift. I called my editor, told her my idea, read her the manuscript, and she said “Yes, give it to Laura, it’ll be a great gift.” So I gave it to her for our anniversary.
But then I tried to write a picture book for me, and nothing was working. Weeks passed, and months passed, and I really wanted it back.
Dronzek: Which I was fine with. I told him he could have it back.
Henkes: But then I ended up writing “Waiting,” so I had something to work on. “When Spring Comes” turned out really beautiful; what Laura did is spectacular. There are three other seasons, so I wrote “In the Middle of Fall” and gave it to Laura for her birthday.
So you have two more presents to give?
Henkes: Laura is currently working on “Winter is Here,” and I just finished the manuscript for the summer book.
What’s the age range?
Dronzek: It could go up through third grade. I think it’s something to use in schools to talk about seasons. I think really young kids would also enjoy it.
Henkes: With a picture book, I’ve always been leery of putting an age on it, because for a lot of kids, picture books are their first exposure to art. I hesitate to put them in a box.
When you’re writing, the words come to you before the pictures?
Henkes: Always. I might think about the pictures. What’s different is that when I’m doing a book that I know will be for Laura, I feel very free. There might be things I don’t put in the words because I don’t want to draw them. But if Laura’s doing it she can handle that.
Dronzek: That’s worked out great for me.
Henkes: As I was working on the book, there were certain things I thought Laura would love to paint. There’s one line in the fall book where it says the apples hang like ornaments. I wrote that with her in mind.
Your books usually have an animal as the star. Is there an animal character in “In the Middle of Fall”?
Dronzek: I made the kittens in “When Spring Comes” become the focal characters. With this book, it could have gone in a million directions, but I ended up having a girl and a dog as the main characters. I try to use animals to carry through, even if it’s in the background, so there’s something else for the child to look at.
Henkes: That’s really fun for me as the writer, because they’re very open texts. I love seeing the subtext that Laura brings, a story within a story. Which I think can be really interesting and fun for a child reader and the adult, too. Those layers can add a lot to a book that is apparently simple.
How many books have you collaborated on?
Dronzek: This is the fourth collaboration.
Has the process changed over the years?
Henkes: I don’t think so. I write it and then I really do give it up. I might come over here (to Dronzek’s art studio) and say, “What are you doing?” but I try not to.
Dronzek: I’m the one who breaks up the text, and I figure out how I’m going to go with the story in terms of pictures. I’ll ask Kevin more specific things about proportions and design. We do that all the time, no matter what we’re working on.
Henkes: We run back and forth a lot. It’s always nice to have another person who shares your sensibility but has a clear eye to look at something that I might have been looking at every minute of every day for weeks and weeks and weeks.
Are there any rules with that communication?
Henkes: I try not to say too much, because when I’ve done my part, it’s Laura’s turn to do her part.
Dronzek: We both know when might not be a good time to give a lot of feedback. If you hit a wall, sometimes it’s better not to have someone come in and comment. Sometimes I’ll even say, “I don’t want you to look at this yet” because I know I’m frustrated and I want to wait until I’m in a place where I can take feedback.
So we can expect more collaborations from you two?
Henkes: It’s been really nice for me, because I’ve been working on a novel. They take longer. It’s nice sometimes when I get stuck writing a novel, my heart and soul is still with the novel but I need to do something to get unstuck, and writing a picture book can be a great thing. Often when I’m working on a novel I don’t want to do the picture book myself, so it’s been really great to work with Laura. I love the books that Laura has done. I trust her. I think we share a certain sensibility. There’s something really nice about giving it up and then seeing the finished product. It’s more of a glorious gift that I receive than when I do it myself. I’m there every minute and I know every inch of it. It is great because in both books Laura did create a world that is between the lines, and I love that.