Children's illustrator draws on experience

You might not have heard of author-illustrator Kevin Henkes, but if there are young children in the family, they probably know the characters he hangs with.

There's Owen, who loves his blankie; Lilly and her purple plastic purse; the very worried Wemberly; and Sophie, with her unwanted weekend guest.

Henkes has more than 30 picture books to his credit and is the author of nine novels for young adults. The latest, "Bird Lake Moon," tells the tale of two boys, Mitch Sinclair and Spencer Stone. When they meet at Bird Lake one summer, each boy is reeling from a personal tragedy. Their friendship has a rocky start, but as it grows, Mitch and Spencer help each other through some hard times.

Henkes has been praised for his ability to capture how kids think and feel.

"It's just part of being a writer, I guess," he says. "As a writer, I am an observer. I do remember my childhood."

The true test for him is how his writing sounds. "I read it aloud to myself, to see if it is right," he says.

Reading aloud is a common occurrence in the Henkes household. He reads books to his son, 12, and daughter, 10, in the morning before school.

"We keep a list of the books," he says. "It's over 100 now."

As a child, Henkes spent hours at the library reading and at home drawing. He kept many of his favorite books, now well worn and dog-eared from readings.

Many of Henkes' novels center on loss, often the death of a loved one. Henkes isn't sure why. "It's the ultimate question, I guess. I think I was a kid who thought about those things. I don't know why."

Henkes got his first book contract as a 19-year-old college freshman. He traveled to New York with a story he had written and illustrated. One of his appointments was with an editor at Greenwillow Books.

She was impressed. "Let's call your mother and tell her your book will be published," Henkes remembers her telling him. "It was a huge thing. I remember walking around Manhattan three feet off the ground."

That first book, "All Alone," was published in 1981 (and reissued in 2003).

Henkes divides his time between novels and picture books.

"They come when they come," he says. "That's the part of work that intrigues me.

"I always write the words first," even when doing a picture book, he says. "I write very slowly, sentence by sentence." For a novel, "if I write three pages in a week, I consider that a good week."

Where does the busy author and illustrator find inspiration?

"Everyday life. Inspiration is everywhere," he says from the hotel room where he is staying during a Midwest book tour. "I'm looking at the wallpaper right now and thinking it's pretty nice."

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