Tuesday, January 31, 2012: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Penny and Her Song

Greenwillow Books: Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books: Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books: Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes

More great books from Kevin Henkes!

Editors' Note

Penny and Her Song

In this edition of Kids' Maximum Shelf--the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere--we present Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes, which goes on sale on February 28, 2012. The review and interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, has helped support the issue.



Greenwillow Books: Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes

Books & Authors

Children's Review: Penny and Her Song

Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, $12.99 hardcover, 9780062081957, 32p., ages 4-8, February 28, 2012)

Kevin Henkes, whose picture books provide an emotional documentation of childhood (Wemberly Worried; Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse) introduces a new mouse character named Penny for a spot-on beginning reader series.

Sporting a pink jumper, orange polka-dot blouse and a matching flower headband, Penny comes home from school with a song she can't wait to share. But she only gets as far as the first phrase before her mother asks her to wait until her twin baby siblings wake up. Papa, too, after hearing two phrases, asks Penny to hold off while the babies sleep. So Penny sings the first three phrases to herself in her room. But that's no fun. "She wanted someone to listen to her." Henkes taps into the resourcefulness of newly independent children as he pictures Penny singing to herself in the mirror ("that didn't work") and to her glass animals ("that didn't work, either"). Each vignette portrays Penny starting with high hopes, then registering disappointment. The author-artist conveys the passage of time in four windowpane illustrations of Penny making faces at herself in the mirror, then moving her glass animals around. "She almost forgot about her song," he writes.

But at the dinner table, Penny remembers her song. This is the first time we see the babies, who are now wide awake in a cozy woven basket. Mama and Papa ask Penny to be patient until after dinner, but afterward, Penny sings her entire song for the whole family. Her song counts up to 10 and rhymes beautifully. She even curtsies at the end. Mama and Papa praise her, and "the babies made baby noises," their tiny faces filled with glee. Penny's parents do not just shower her with praise, they get dressed up and perform the song with her. Papa wears a silly hat and holds the salad fork as if it were a baton, while Mama sports sunglasses, groovy beads and sandals ("The babies wore what they were wearing"), and "they all sang and sang and sang." Even the babies lift their heads and open their mouths to make their baby noises. Penny has the last laugh when all the excitement tuckers out her infant siblings. (Mama and Papa appreciate the irony, too.) The babies fall asleep, and Penny has a song that's hers to keep.

Henkes's deceptively simple text and illustrations convey a great deal about Penny and her family. Even though his young heroine must wait for nearly half the book to sing her song from start to finish, the author-artist shows that her parents love her. The first thing we see are Penny's mother's outstretched arms when her daughter arrives home from school. While she waits patiently to perform, Penny occupies herself with other activities. Henkes conveys a child's boundless imagination and rich emotional life. He gives newly independent readers two chapters to encourage a sense of accomplishment, and the last line of the first chapter resonates with the final line of the book. Each time Penny tries to sing her song, she gets one phrase further. These are the kinds of details children will notice with repeated readings, and they will feel rewarded with each new connection they make on their own. Just as Penny feels a sense of accomplishment and joy in the creation and performance of her very own song, so will newly independent readers feel a sense of accomplishment and joy in the completion of this exuberant picture book. Luckily, there are two more in store for them: Penny and Her Doll (due out in August) and Penny and Her Marble (to be published in February 2013). Children will welcome Penny as the latest addition to Kevin Henkes's beloved cast of characters.


Get a sneek peek of Penny and Her Song by Kevin Henkes!

The Penny Books as Crossword Puzzles

Kevin Henkes began his career with Susan Hirschman, the founder of Greenwillow Books, who bought his first picture book, All Alone, in 1980. The author-artist was just 19 years old. Since then he has won the 2005 Caldecott Medal for Kitten's First Full Moon, a Caldecott Honor for Owen and a Newbery Honor for his novel Olive's Ocean. When Hirschman brought Virginia Duncan on board in 1997, they all worked together, along with art director Ava Weiss, until Hirschman retired in 2001. Henkes has worked with the same team his entire career--a rarity--and he has always wanted to work on a beginning reader.

It's unusual to find someone who can so easily move from picture books aimed at preschoolers, such as Wemberly Worried and Julius, the Baby of the World, to novels, such as Olive's Ocean and Junonia. Is the process similar for you?

It's different. With a novel, it's often an image or an object that spurs the idea. Junonia began with the setting. I had wanted to write about Sanibel Island for years. I'd written Bird Lake Moon about two boys, so I wanted to write about a girl. She became an only child. Then an island seemed perfect for a setting, and it all began to fall into place. It was building without my knowing it.

Usually with a picture book, I'll have a more complete image of how I see the book when I begin. With a novel, I know where I want to end up but am not sure how I'll get there. With picture books, I might not know everything, but I know more. What's interesting are the things that develop as I'm working. They sometimes seem exactly right, as if I'd known them all along.

In preparation for the Penny books, did you immerse yourself in other books for beginning readers?

I'd been thinking about this form since my first trip to Greenwillow. I had copies of Eve Rice's Papa's Lemonade and Other Stories, and her Once in a Wood, and of course I knew Frog and Toad and Uncle Elephant. When my kids were little we loved Little Bear and Henry and Mudge. Beginning readers can have emotional depth, and can be a great example of artistic excellence. I didn't use rules or vocabulary lists, but I was thinking about a kid who was just trying to read on his or her own. As when I work on picture books, rhythm and repetition and clarity are important to me. But beginning readers are a different art form. I was thinking about providing all the information that the beginning reader needed, both in words and illustrations. And to be rich and dense and textured, the way I like picture books to be. Some days it felt like I was working on a crossword puzzle.

Did you approach the three books separately or as a group?

I wrote the three books before I did any pictures, and I've never done that before. Each builds on the one before it. Penny and Her Song takes place in Penny's house; Penny and Her Doll takes place in her house and her yard; the third, Penny and Her Marble, takes place in her house, her yard and a bit of the neighborhood as well. The first one is about something that is Penny's--her song. The second is about something she's given--a doll; and the third is about something she takes--a marble. They're very separate, but her world expands with each book. At times it felt like I was working on a picture book, and other times it felt like I was working on a novel.

How much attention do you pay to the balance of words and pictures on the page? For instance, you have that terrific windowpane design of Penny making faces at herself in the mirror. Not only is it funny, but it also conveys the sense of Penny waiting to sing her song.

That [four-panel illustration] was originally one image of her at the mirror, but I thought the four-panel piece was a better way to convey the passage of time. I did that with Julius, the Baby of the World, where Lilly [has a time out and] is changing positions in the uncooperative chair. It's one technique I return to when I think it will work. I figure out these kinds of choices when I'm doing thumbnail sketches.

With your books about feelings--starring Wemberly, Lilly and now Penny--it seems as if you used a more delicate line, even though the palette may be very similar to your more nature-based stories, such as A Good Day, Little White Rabbit, Old Bear and even My Garden, though it's more fanciful.

From the very start I envisioned [these four titles] as bigger, larger books, physically, so it seemed natural that the line would be thicker. It was more of an artistic choice than anything else. I've realized that the mouse books are about life within a family, life with friends, life at school, life in your neighborhood. Kitten and Little White Rabbit are all about self: "Who am I in relationship to the world? How do I fit into this?" Old Bear is by himself, and the animals in Good Day are by themselves, too. These books are more introspective than the mouse books.

Most of your artwork is in watercolor and ink. Is that your preferred way to work?

I'm not a painter. I think of myself as a drawer who colors things in. I've tried oils and acrylic paints but I'm not as comfortable working with them. Typically, I'll do rough sketches first, then refined pencil sketches. Next I ink the drawings. Finally, I go back and paint. Probably my least favorite is the painting part. I feel much more in control when I'm drawing.

And then there's Kitten's First Full Moon (winner of the 2005 Caldecott Medal). Was it challenging to work in black-and-white after the feast of colors you so often use in your work?

More than anything else, the text of Kitten dictated what the art would look like. I'd always wanted to do a black-and-white book, but it never was right. But when I wrote Kitten it seemed as if this this was my chance.

At the Children's Book and Author Breakfast at BEA, you discussed what you love about picture books.

Two of the things I love about picture books are size and shape. How one uses size and shape informs the book and enhances and heightens its meaning.

I still love a physical book. With a book and a kid, it's such a great opportunity to be together, to build a bond, to have a good time, to have a meaningful emotional talk about something. I can't tell you how many times when my kids were little, when something was happening, we'd pick a book from a shelf and we'd read. I'd be waiting for a particular page to open the door to what was happening in their lives.


Virginia Duncan: An Extension of the Family

With the addition of Penny, Kevin Henkes extends the mouse "family" of characters that includes Lilly, Wemberly, Chrysanthemum and Julius in his picture books. Henkes read the first Penny book to editor Virginia Duncan over the phone, and then finished the next two books "in quick succession," she said. Once the manuscript was ready, Henkes sent in a dummy with rough sketches.

Then comes the major difference between working on a novel with Henkes and working on a picture book. "There's a lot of fine-tuning in the dummy stage," Duncan said. "Moving one word or one line to another page, which is so much fun and so rewarding--that doesn't happen with a novel as much." A Good Day is her favorite of Henkes's picture books. "It's everything you need to know to live a happy life," she said. "It's a complex topic reduced to its essence, and he has the ability to do that."

For every book, Henkes works closely with his art director Paul Zakris and the production department and makes sure the paper is right and the colors are printing the way he wants them. "All of those choices are with the reader in mind," Duncan said. "He made those decisions about Penny, too. There are no full-bleed pictures. All of them are boxed or in vignettes. That's a result of Kevin studying that format and deciding what he felt worked the best."

The team at Greenwillow knows Kevin Henkes and his work so well, after three decades, that they are "like an extension of his family, in a way," Duncan said. They know what he likes and what he doesn't like. "The conversations we have and the decisions we make are very specific. We know he doesn't like certain typefaces, for example--that saves time, and it makes what we do talk about very interesting. At least I think so!"

For Penny, they tried a variety of trim sizes, and the one they chose is not the standard beginning reader trim. Duncan explained: "Everything is carefully planned out: where the folio is placed, where the words are on the page, how much space is between the picture and the first line of the text." The same is true of how Henkes developed the series. Each book is a bit longer than the one before. The first has two chapters, the second book has three, and there are four chapters in the third book. "We're having a composer write Penny's song because we're doing an audio version," Duncan said. "Kevin and I talked about it, and we wanted a tune."

Of course, Henkes's readers have also embraced his characters as part of their households. "You get onto the elevator with Kevin at IRA or another conference," Duncan said, "and someone sees his name tag, and they start quoting from Jessica or tell him they've named their child Lilly. It's amazing."


Book Brahmin: Kevin Henkes

On your nightstand now:

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje; The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst; Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Is This You? by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson

Your top five authors:

Alice Munro, William Trevor, William Maxwell, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan

Book you are an evangelist for:

Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Book you've bought for the cover:

Several books with jackets by Chip Kidd, Carol Devine Carson and Peter Mendelsund

The five artists you most admire:

Giorgio Morandi, Pierre Bonnard, Milton Avery, Albert York and Joseph Cornell

Book that changed your life:

American Picturebooks: From Noah's Ark to the Beast Within by Barbara Bader

One of your favorite lines from a book:

"The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world." --from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O'Connor and William Maxwell, edited by Michael Steinman


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