On Monday, January 27, 2020 I was at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference. Even more specifically, I was sitting in the audience for the super-epic Youth Media Awards announcement. Now for those working with children and teen books, this event is sort of like the Oscars, the Super Bowl, and the most rollicking rock concert rolled into one. The suspense, the excitement, and those cheers. It’s a ceremony where the words “the committee chose four honor titles” tingles the spine and prompts a collective “oooh.” We learn which books and authors and children’s literature professionals will be walking away with the gold and the silver. And during this raucous morning, ALSC President Cecilia McGowan announced that the ALSC Legacy winner (given to a legend who has made major impact on children’s literature–past winners include such singular talents as Jerry Pinkney, Donald Crews, Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Maurice Sendak, Tomie dePaola, among other greats) is…drum roll please…Kevin Henkes.
The room erupted in cheers. And for good reason. Kevin Henkes has contributed over 50 books throughout his nearly 40 year career and all of them have been absolutely terrific. He has written novels, easy readers, and picture books, mastering each form. He understands the emotional landscape of children, introducing them to animal characters such as Owen, Jessica, Lilly, Chrysanthemum and Penny, who experience some of the very things human kids experience.
During the past few years, the career and serene wisdom of Fred Rogers have been justly celebrated. Kevin’s work reminds me a lot of Mr. Rogers. For example his recent books even have emphasized the power of waiting (we wait for an egg to crack in Egg and yes, he even called a delightfully surreal Caldecott Honor winning book, wait for it, Waiting). The lovely and profound nature books that he creates with his fabulous illustrator wife Laura Droznek also instruct readers to stop and look at the world around them: watch the birds, embrace the four seasons, wait for change.
I had the pleasure of hosting Kevin at my library once and he is quite simply one of the gentlest, nicest people imaginable. So even though the cheers for his win were loud and almost took the roof off the convention center, I smiled because his works speak such quiet truths.
The book I always try to give my friends who become new parents is his great 2005 Caldecott winner Kitten’s First Full Moon (published by Greenwillow, ISBN: 978-0060588281). When people ask me a list for my favorite all-time Caldecott winners I always include the Kitten. It’s a story I love reading in storytimes–it’s a surefire crowd-pleaser. For those unfamiliar with the book, it tells the story of a little kitten who sees her first full moon, mistakes it for a “little” bowl of milk in the sky, and then does everything in her power to catch it. Every attempt results in catastrophe (the refrain: “poor kitten”). But fear not, kitten ends up with a happy ending in the form of a “great big bowl of milk on the porch, just waiting for her” (lucky kitten!).
What I love most about Kitten (other than his vibrant writing and the visually striking nocturnal world he creates for his beautifully rendered, expressive feline hero) is I can read it DIFFERENT ways to a group. If my storytime group is a bit on the wild side, I can read the story quietly, like a lullaby, in a tender voice. Henkes’ words soothe.
If my storytime group is being goofy and they want the wild rumpus to continue, I can read the story like it’s the wildest thing ever. Kitten accidentally eats a bug (cue the audience to yell “ewwww”), tumbles down the stairs (have the kids act out the movements), chases after the moon (the kids move their legs like they too are running), and jumps into a pond she mistakes for an even BIGGER bowl of milk (I have the kids shake water off their “fur”). It’s a very versatile picture book.
So yay, congratulations Kevin (although I’m not sure if he’ll see this since he doesn’t really do the technology thing) and to the 2020 Legacy committee, fabulous choice. Thanks for your books. And to the 2005 Caldecott committee, you did good, too. : )