Distinctly versatile Kevin Henkes, who received the Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s Full Moon and Newbery Honors for Olive’s Ocean, targets a slightly different audience in The Year of Billy Miller (Greenwillow, Sept.). “I decided it would be fun to do a book about one school year in a kid’s life,” he says, “and I thought second grade would be a good year.” Thus Billy Miller, who navigates the challenges of school and of life with his younger sister, was born.
For inspiration, Henkes tapped into his memories of his own children—a son now 17 and a daughter 15—when they were second graders. “I was looking through the scrapbooks that my wife and I kept for them at that age,” he says. “That was a starting point, but every book really does take on a life of its own, which is good. When I look back, all of my books are kind of photo albums of that time in my life when I created them. It almost always happens with the novels, which of course take longer to write, that things that happen in my everyday life slip into the stories, so they become a kind of marker of what went on in my life at the time.”
Henkes also lent his artistic skills to The Year of Billy Miller, which is illustrated throughout with black-and-white drawings. “I like young novels that have pictures, and in my other novels I’d done only spots at the beginning of chapters,” he says. “For this novel, I wanted to do something more than that, and adding illustrations was great fun.”
Asked about having received both Caldecott and Newbery nods, Henkes replies, “I really do love both writing and illustrating, so I am grateful to have been honored for both. The best award of all, really, is when one is working and it really is working—there is nothing better than that. If I’m writing and hit a dead end and don’t think I’m ever going to get turned around, and then I do, that’s wonderful. And if I’m doing a picture book and get stuck on a picture and finally make it work, that’s really rewarding.”
Henkes, who will sign ARCs of The Year of Billy Miller today, 10–11 a.m., at Table 9 in the Autographing Area, is happy to be back at BEA. “I still feel like a new kid on the block in a certain way,” he says. “The excitement of BEA is still so high, and I love that. And I love that about my job, too. Even though it’s been over 30 years, it still seems so exciting.”