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Kevin Henkes was born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1960 and he has vivid, often sensory images of his childhood. His home was a place of comfort and safety and, although the outside world sometimes brought problems and frustrations, they tended to be transitory. This security is reflected in his picture books which usually deal with a childhood problem but the touch is light and the ending hopeful. His characters are usually mice -- ourselves with fur, tail and ears. Watch those ears and tails, incidentally, for they often convey more reaction and emotion than do the facial expressions of his characters. The characters ring true as being terribly and understandably human in spite of their disguises and the humor is delicious. The illustrations are cartoon like and tightly controlled.
A continuing character in several of his books is Lilly, an outrageous and delightful non-conformist. Children might like to compare the qualities of such characters as Chester, Victor, and Lilly, decide which of them they'd like with them on various occasions. Many of the situations in Henkes' books: having a security blanket, an invisible friend, being afraid of unfamiliar situations, being different from or exactly like another, are familiar to most children and they might like to talk about a time they felt that way. Planning a party in which all the Henkes' characters could participate might be fun to do together. You could even hold such a party and role play the various characters.
Older readers might like to look at Henkes' cartoonish illustrations and compare them to those of James Stevenson or Steven Kellogg. Also, looking at the way Henkes' art and writing has evolved since his first book All Alone might be a way to involve older readers in his picture books. Henkes has, however, written two very fine novels for older readers. (See Words of Stone and Protecting Marie below.)
Chester's Way (Puffin, 1989 ISBN 0 14 054053 9)
Chester and Wilson take pride in the many ways in which they are alike but are both very threatened when Lilly moves into the neighborhood and proclaims herself queen.
Chrysanthemum (Greenwillow, 1991 ISBN 0 688 09699 9)
Chrysanthemum likes her name just fine until she gets to school and the kids make her life miserable because of it. However, there's a teacher who understands and defends because her own name is.....Delphinium.
Julius, the Baby of the World (Greenwillow, 1990 ISBN 0 688 08943 7)
Lilly is not at all appreciative of her new baby brother. In fact, her dislike is palpable and loud. Then, a cousin makes disparaging remarks and Lilly's fur rises.
Protecting Marie (Greenwillow, 1995 ISBN 0 688 13958 2)
This novel explores the relationship between a child and her parents which, while loving, is at this point, fraught with danger and the focus is on Dinner, a dog.
A Weekend with Wendell (Puffin, 1987 ISBN 0 14 050728 0)
Wendell is Sophie's guest for the weekend and he's not very nice to play with -- hogging all the major roles in whatever they do. Sophie, however, is only meek and subservient for a while. Watch out, Wendell!
Words of Stone (Greenwillow, 1992 ISBN 0 688 11356 7)
This is a novel about friendship and about misunderstanding. Blaze is a fearful child whose world is peopled by imaginary friends and his father. His mother is dead. Joselle's mother is very much alive but off on her own pursuits and she needs Blaze as much as he needs her. A lie springs up between them and neither of them handles it well.
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