This interview was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, September 20, 2015
Kevin Henkes has published more than 30 picture books, many of them award-winning, most of them loved by children and their parents. Ironically, he’s never had to wait so long all the pieces to come together as he did for his newest, Waiting (Greenwillow, children ages 4-adult). The idea for the book began in 2006 when he made 150 small clay sculptures, “many of which sat on a window sill where I saw them every day.” Then he thought he’d photograph, but “I draw better than I sculpt.”
The book’s illustrations shows small animal figurines who sit on the ledge of an expansive window. The text begins, “There were five of them. And they were waiting.” Four of these are waiting for something—the moon, the rain, the wind, snow. The fifth, Henkes’ favorite, a zen-like accordion-bodied rabbit “wasn’t waiting for anything in particular. He just liked to look out of the window and wait.”
“Waiting” embraces layers of complexity which it shows these with simple words and nuanced illustrations. The changing postures and small expressions of the characters register changes that occur in their world. As they sleep, owl-stares up with wide-open eyes while a bit of rabbit’s accordion body hangs over the side of the ledge.
Henkes wanted to shine “some favorable lights” on his subject including “sudden sadness and disappointment and unexpected moments of joy and birth that happen to us while we are waiting for something else.” Suddenly in the book, an exotic elephant appears “from far away. He stayed a while…” say the words on one page. Across from them, the text continues “then he left and never returned.” The rabbit’s accordion neck stretches downward regarding elephant-recognizable shards. Nearing the end of the book a round cat arrives who “didn’t seem to be waiting for anything in particular.” “Oh, but she was!” declares the next page as she “births” five nested smaller cats.
Henkes also thought about interior and exterior waiting and used different mediums to show what was inside and outside the window. He wondered “Are windows portals, or protective, or are they barriers?”
In his childhood, Henkes found windows “a perfect place to wait.” At the living room window he waited for older siblings to come home from school and his father’s return from work. “I have memories of breathing on the glass of my bedroom window and then drawing, or scraping patterns into frost.”
Most of Henkes’ books are character and plot driven. “Waiting,” the book created from years of his pondering, is a wondering book that makes room for all kinds of discussion. He imagined a child sitting on an adult’s lap asking questions like “Where do you think the toys came from? Who put them by the window?”
“Waiting” is a book for adults as well. This pleases Henkes who loves a story “that is open enough for readers to have the book become their own.” He’s read it a few times with groups of adults and when the elephant falls “there’s a collective gasp, then with the cat’s birthing, there’s a collective sigh.”
That’s the kind of response worth waiting for. Kevin Henkes will be at Flyleaf Books on Wednesday, September 23rd at 6p.m.