Madison writer and illustrator Kevin Henkes says he enjoys writing about artists. Henkes, an artist himself, who won The Caldecott Medal for his book “Kitten’s First Full Moon,” has a lot of experience on which to draw.
In his latest book, “Sweeping Up the Heart,” his main character, 12-year-old Amelia, loves working with clay and creates ceramics, which proves to be a happy escape in her young, confusing life. The story tells of her relationships with her father, her neighbor/caretaker Mrs. O’Brien and a new friend, Casey. Mixed into the short novel geared toward middle-grade readers is a touch of magic and surrealism.
Henkes has written more than 50 books, including picture books, books for beginning readers and novels.
Q: How would you describe your latest book “Sweeping Up the Heart”?
A: For me it’s about a 12-year-old girl who is an artist ... I like writing about young artists because I was one myself and I think having art in one’s life ... provides a nice anchor. Twelve can be a wonderful, horrible time of life. I think early adolescence is a time when sometimes you feel ready to leave childhood, but fear what lies ahead. I think of her as a fairly shy kid. I imagined that her world would be fairly small, but I wanted this book to at least symbolize that her world was starting to widen.
Q: The book takes place in Madison in 1999. The lack of cell phones was not immediately prevalent, but I realized I was enjoying reading about a time when personal devices weren’t so commonplace. Why set the book 20 years in the past?
A: I began the book thinking it was set now. But I don’t have a smartphone, I have a flip phone. I don’t have a phone on my person in my daily life. It seemed to me that I might not be the best person to write about a world where that’s a dominate force. It struck me that 1999 might be a great year (to set the book). I have this child that is waiting for her real life to begin. That year would be great. When that year changes every number in the year changes and that could be symbolic to her.
Q: The book’s main character, Amelia, has a passion for making ceramics and the week the book takes place she’s focusing on making rabbits. Why rabbits? How did you decide on that detail?
A: I’m an artist and when I’m not working on books I always have to be making something with my hands. Lately I’ve been painting large canvases. In 2006 I started going to Higher Fire Clay Studio on Regent Street in Madison. I would go once a week for studio night and just started making little figurines. I’m not very good at throwing things on the wheel, but I like making things. I had made several rabbits. I’ve made other things, too. But the whole idea of a lot of something, the way rabbits multiply, it fit.
Q: Ceramic rabbits are featured on the book’s cover, is that a photo of your work?
A: Yes, I did make those little sculptures on the cover, and the art on the title page. In the window of Mystery to Me (where he will do a book reading and signing April 7) there are about 25 (of my) little figurines in the window.
Q: How did your love of ceramics inspire the book?
A: That whole idea of (Amelia) sort of being lost to that world of creation is something that I definitely feel, not just with clay, but with painting, writing, drawing. When someone is in it, in that other world, it’s really is transcendent. I often think that people don’t think that children are capable of those feelings, but I remember that as a boy, that creating something was really mysterious and magical.
Q: After I finished reading “Sweeping Up the Heart,” and letting it sink in a little, it seemed there could be an opportunity for a sequel. Any thoughts to that?
A: Right now I think it’s still so close to me that I can’t see beyond. I do, however, love the fact that you think of (Amelia) and her life going on and I think that’s what I try to do with the book. I hope the reader is still thinking about the character and what happens next.
Q: You have written so many books — more than 50? What are the sources of your inspiration?
A: I think this is my 54th (book). I’ve been doing it for a long time. I think my books in general begin with character and they grow from that. I am inspired by daily life. Sometimes some memory of my own life or childhood is the seed from which a book grows. For me the biggest inspirations are movies, other books, art. Whenever I’m stuck I love to go to a museum and that tends to help. I think there is inspiration everywhere, even if I’m in the grocery store, I might see an interaction with a family … that will be all that I needed to get me going. When I talk to kids ... I tell them that writers and artists are really good observers.
Q: I know you live in Madison with your family; how old are your children? Do they influence or inspire your work?
A: I have a 23-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter.
Q: So they’re not likely to inspire your recent picture books.
A: No, but they have in the past. I remember “Kitten’s First Full Moon” really came to be because I became a parent and had a baby in our house. The house was filled with board books … it really got me interested in very young picture books again and that interest really hasn’t flagged. Before that, my picture books, “Owen” and “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” … were more complex, had more of a plot, dialogue and character development.
Q: Do you find yourself shifting from picture books to novels for young readers?
A: What usually happens, is if I’m working on a novel … I think I wish I were working on a picture book. I really do like going back and forth between the two. It really is a different way of thinking. (Since finishing “Sweeping Up the Heart”) I’ve already finished a beginning reader book, a very young picture book and am in the early stages of a novel.
Q: Is one type of book harder to write?
A: They both have their difficulties. I think people tend to think picture books are so much easier because there are so many fewer words, but each word counts in a picture book. On the other hand, a novel is really hard because I don’t use pictures the same way I do in a picture book. Pictures are a nice, easy, effective way to get a message across. (When writing a book) I always write the words first. Even if I know that it’s a book that I’m going to illustrate myself, I don’t do anything … until I have the words. After I have the words to the point I think they’re perfect, I work on the book dummy. That’s often where I will cut a lot. I think a really good picture book is the exact right combination of words and pictures.
Q: What is something that you hope readers will take away after reading “Sweeping Up the Heart?”
A: I think one of my favorite parts of the book was Amelia’s relationship with (neighbor/housekeeper) Mrs. O’Brien. My very favorite scene comes toward the end, where Amelia and Mrs. O’Brien are making a cake together. (Amelia) is asking herself many different questions (“What should I say? Who should I be?”) and Mrs. O’Brien says “Sweetie … If you think any louder I’ll need earplugs. Don’t worry, be yourself.” What I wanted to show was how close these two people were. This person wasn’t her mother. My hope is that it shows two unrelated people can be as important, if not more important, to one another as two people who are. That Amelia was searching for something that was right in front her all the time.