A baby brother gets all the attention. A weekend visitor acts conniving and rude. A little girl gets lost. Kevin Henkes’ picture books and novels are a celebration of the ordinary, written and illustrated with extraordinary aplomb.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Wisconsin native and resident describes his childhood and adult life as ordinary, saying: "It’s amazing how certain things in everyday life can turn into a book, and the people who inspired it never know it."
Such is the case with Henkes’ latest creation, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse in which Lilly, one of his indomitable mouse heroines, receives a spectacular present from her Grammy: a purse that plays music when opened, along with "movie-star sunglasses" studded with rhinestones and hung on a chain. The accessories are the perfect complement to Lilly’s trademark red cowboy boots and a crown.
Inspiration for the story struck several years ago when Henkes was on a book tour, waiting in an airport. He believes he was in Boise, Idaho, when he spotted a girl with a pocketbook just like Lilly’s.
"She was driving her father crazy," Henkes says. "It was one of those moments when the light bulb really goes off. I thought the pocketbook would be perfect for Lilly. So I got on the airplane and began writing."
In the plot that evolved, life is pretty wonderful for Lilly. In addition to her new purse, she loves school and idolizes her hip teacher, Mr. Slinger, who greets the class with "howdy," not hello, wears "artistic" shirts, and believes rows of desks are boring. Instead of rows, Lilly’s offbeat instructor suggests: "Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?"
Mr. Slinger is definitely cool. That is, until he is forced to take Lilly’s purse away, after she refuses to stop showing it off and disturbing the class. And thus a new mouse predicament is born. Lilly doesn’t take any challenge lightly, as readers discovered in Julius, the Baby of the World, in which she torments her baby brother by proclaiming him the "germ of the world." (Henkes was inspired for this one when his niece didn’t like her new role as an older sister.)
Lilly is part of an entire Henkes Mousedom, whose inhabitants can also be found in the Caldecott Honor winner Owen; Chrysanthemum; Chester’s Way; Sheila Rae, the Brave; and A Weekend with Wendell. None of Henkes’s mice, by the way — even the quieter ones — could ever be described as meek. While some characters reappear in several books, Lilly has yet to cross paths with the fearless Sheila Rae, who would definitely be a worthy match.
"They haven’t officially met," Henkes says, "but I think about [such an encounter] a lot. It seems like there’s a lot of possibility there. And I get letters from kids asking when they’ll meet."
Henkes’ fondness for rodents doesn’t stem from personal experience. He has never had a pet mouse, only uninvited house mice. In fact, his first four books featured people. As his writing became more humorous, he decided animals would help tap into this fun, so he used rabbit characters in Bailey Goes Camping, in which a young rabbit is left behind when his older siblings go camping. Next, he switched to mice in A Weekend with Wendell, and also in Chester’s Way, in which Lilly makes her debut.
"I liked Lilly in a way that I had never liked a character of mine before," he says. "I thought there was more about her to tell, so I stuck with it."
Older readers know yet another side of the creator, whose novels include Protecting Marie (just published in September), Two Under Par, Words of Stone, and The Zebra Wall — books that Henkes says feel like "very separate worlds" from his picture books.
"I’ve always thought of myself as an artist," he says, "but now I’m beginning to like the writing more — although it’s nice to go back and forth."
Henkes describes his novels in terms that apply to all of his books: "quiet family stories that mirror my life as a child pretty closely."
Henkes was the fourth of five children, for six years the baby. No, he didn’t torment his youngest sibling as Lilly does Julius, but says he clearly remembers feeling jealous.
The Henkes clan made regular visits to the library, where Henkes fell in love with many works, chief among them the illustrations of Crockett Johnson, Garth Williams, the works of William Steig, and a book called Rain Makes Applesauce, by Julian Scheer, illustrated by Marvin Bileck.
He and the other kids in his family also took art lessons at a nearby museum. But it was Kevin’s older brother, not Kevin, who was considered the artist of the family.
"I was frustrated," Henkes says, "because he is six years older than I am and could always draw and paint more realistically. And he always took the nice, fine brushes, while I got stuck with the fat, scraggly ones."
Their paths eventually diverged, however. The older brother now owns a print shop. Kevin continued to draw and paint. And lest you wonder where his characters get their confidence and tenacity, listen to how his career began: At age 19, Kevin gathered "his life savings" and spent a week in New York City, showing his portfolio to his favorite children’s publishers.
"I was convinced," he says, "I would come home with a book contract." He started making the rounds on a Monday, and by Tuesday morning had a contract with Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, his first choice of a publisher. Yes, even ordinary lives are not without their crowning moments.
"I was excited," he says, "in a way that maybe I haven’t been since in my book life. It is still a very big deal when Susan calls."
Now, however, the person most likely to call is his 14-month-old Will — Henkes’ and his wife’s very own baby of the world. Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is dedicated to Will. Henkes shares child care shifts with his wife, a painter, each working about four hours a day in separate studios, both in spare bedrooms. Although Henkes works fewer hours than he did before becoming a father, the books keep coming. When we spoke, he had just finished a novel, Sun and Spoon, to be published in the fall of 1997. For his next project, he’s mulling several ideas, including another Lilly book, another Owen book, and a novel.
"I need to just let things simmer for a while," he says, "and see what’s going to come to the surface."
Alice Cary is a writer in Groton, Mass.