| Kevin Henkes. |
Photo: Laura Dronzek.
Kevin Henkes talked to Bookshelf about his new novel, Bird Lake Moon, and about how writing novels differs from creating picture books.
You’ve said that “bits and pieces” of your life and family’s life “are embedded in all of your books.” How is this true with Bird Lake Moon?
When I was a boy, one of my uncles had a cabin on a lake in Wisconsin. My family went there for parts of three summers, and I loved it! My memories being there helped create some of the images in Bird Lake Moon. Whenever I’m writing a book, small details from my life always creep in. For example, Molly [a minor character in Bird Lake Moon] is based on my daughter at age five or six when she went through a phase of speaking in a British accent.
In the author’s note found in Bird Lake Moon, you mention that the character of Spencer, whose family is rebounding from the loss of a child, came to you before the character of Mitch, who is coping with his parents’ divorce. Do most of your stories begin with a character or a different kind of image?
When I work on a novel, I usually have one character and a setting in mind. At first the book was going to be all about Spencer. I wanted to write about how a death can—or cannot—affect a family. Spencer can’t even remember when his brother died, so the death affects him differently than it does his parents. At the book’s genesis, I considered Mitch to be a “throw-away” character, then I decided, “No, he’s important,” and I ended up alternating his point of view with Mitch’s.
But some ideas for the book came much earlier. While cleaning out my studio, I found my first notes for Bird Lake Moon, dated June 2003. Back then, when I was working on Sun and Spoon, the idea of using the moon as a symbol came to me. I remembered how, as a boy, I believed that the moon actually changed shape, growing and receding. It was a real revelation when I learned that it was always round. Then I had the idea of the situation in which a kid envies another kid’s family because he perceives them differently from how they really are. I thought the changing moon would be a perfect symbol for different perceptions.
Did you consciously use other symbols in the book?
At the time I was working on Bird Lake Moon. I was also doing a lot of thinking about houses, a subject I was going to talk about in my Arbuthnot lecture [delivered in 2007]. I thought about how a book is like a house. Then I thought about how a house is a symbol for family, and that idea found its way into the book.
What discoveries did you make about your characters as you wrote the book?
That everyone is complex—deeper than they may first appear to be. For example, Mitch is a troubled character, but he’s a calm, sweet soul as well.
Is writing a novel more challenging than creating a picture book?
The hardest part of writing novels is that they take so much longer. With picture books, I know the beginning, middle and end right away. Even if I don’t know details, I have an overall idea of what’s going to happen.
In what ways is writing a novel pleasurable for you?
Writing a novel takes longer, I’m living with the book for a longer time, and I like that. Also, with a novel, I’m just using words, so I can write in a coffee shop or anywhere. When I’m working on a picture book, I only work in my studio at my table.
Any other differences between the two formats?
I have more decisions to make when I begin work on a picture book: Should I use pen and ink or paint? Should there be color? What colors? On the other hand, the decisions aren’t as complex as the ones I make while digging into a character as I write a novel. Picture books are more “bare bones.” I don’t have to worry so much about description. For example, in a picture book, I don’t have to say a character is wearing red boots because the picture shows it. It takes a different kind of thinking to write novels and picture books. When I’m writing a novel and I get stuck, I wish I was working on a picture book. When I’m working on a picture book and I can’t get a picture to turn out right, I wish I was writing a novel.
When you were beginning your career, did you envision yourself more as an author or an illustrator?
Definitely an illustrator. But now I feel just as much a writer if not more so.
Do you feel that your style and focus as an artist has changed over the years?
I think that because I began my career so young, my style was bound to change. It’s fun to try new things. For example, after I’d used pen and ink for a number of years, I switched to using a fat brush when I did Kitten's First Full Moon. It was thrilling to do something new! Then, I went on to use brush and color when I started A Good Day.
What are you working on now?
I just finished work on Old Bear, a picture book that will come out this fall. I also wrote the text for Birds, which my wife is illustrating. Now I’m thinking of another novel.
Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, $15.99, 978-0-06-147076-9 ages 10-14