A Hankering for Henkes

Just the cover of this book can put me at ease...

Kevin Henkes was published very young (19!)and has continued to make a major contribution to children’s literature for the past 30 years. When I think of the Harper Collins Imprint Greenwillow Books, it is his name and playful illustrations that come to mind. Perhaps most well known for his picturebooks, it’s Henkes’ middle grade fiction that I love best.

Henke’s middle grade novels are deceptively slim but pack an emotional wallop. They fall on the more literary end of the spectrum, which is perhaps why they aren’t as well known, but they are definitely well loved by those who have been lucky enough to stumble across them. Henkes is a master at capturing the emotional world of a child, a feat that astonishes me every single time I pick up one of his books. His children are not neat, tidy polite characters. They are confused, sad, passionate, jealous, angry, moody, selfish; they are real children. His families are not always functional, but each child is loved by someone.

Henke’s narration is honest and sensitive. Even when his characters are in emotional pain or turmoil, I am never worried about them because I know they are in his caring, capable hands. You can tell that Henkes loves and respects children. His novels feel like they have been crafted by an ominscient parental figure who is understanding and loving, yet it never feels as though the reader is being talked down to. Kevin Henkes is always on your side.

All of his novels are exceptional, but at the top of my list is Olive’s Ocean, which is, in a word, sublime. It is also probably the most accessible of Henkes’ novels- in addition to being the most universally lauded- it was the Newbery Honor book in 2004, losing out to The Tale of Desperaux. It is cleanly written, evocative, almost meditative on the moment when a child comes of age. Of course fiction in general (books, film, tv) has constructed the idea that there is a moment, (usually a summer), when someone “comes of age.”  I personally can’t point to a moment in my life where I “came of age,” but boy do I love reading about it!

At times I will get resistance from parents who worry that the subject matter is “too heavy” or “too sad” for their children. This troubles me. Why are we afraid of giving children books to read that are emotionally honest? When did reading become strictly about soul-less entertainment or vapid escapism? It’s important for children to see themselves reflected in fiction, and children feel all sorts of heavy, messy, unpleasant stuff. In the case of Kevin Henkes work, (which has been banned in some places, naturally), the emotion is worked through and every book ends with a lightening of spirit. When (and if) his work is released as a box set, I will buy it for all of the children in my life and give it to them on their ninth birthdays because I can think of no greater way to say to them, “I understand what you’re going through and it’s going to be okay.”

But this is according to a confessed “coming of age story” junkie- Check him out and see for yourself. I’d start with Olive’s Ocean, but be sure to pick up Protecting Marie, Words of Stone, Bird Lake Moon, and Sun and Spoon. Each one is a pearl of a novel.

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