Kevin Henkes is the well-known author and illustrator of more than 50 books for children, including Kitten’s First Full Moon, for which he won the Caldecott Medal, and his popular picture books featuring mouse characters Lilly, Julius, Sheila Rae, Wendell, Penny, and many others. His latest middle grade book, Billy Miller Makes a Wish, is a follow-up to the Newbery Honor-winning The Year of Billy Miller, released in 2014. In this sequel, Billy celebrates his eighth birthday at the start of the summer before third grade, wishing that “something exciting would happen.” In the pages that follow, Billy’s wish brings both him and his little sister Sal more excitement than either of them anticipated. We spoke with Henkes about why Billy is a character near and dear to him, as well as what he most enjoys writing.
In the author’s note of Billy Miller Makes a Wish, you say that Billy and his family stayed with you long after the first book, enough so that you did something you never thought you’d do, and wrote a second book. What is it about Billy that appealed so much to you?
When I wrote the first Billy Miller book, my own kids were the ages of Billy and Sal, so there’s a lot in that book that is very familiar to me. It just felt easy and comfortable to slip back into that world. This surprised me, though, because part of the joy of writing a novel is getting to create a new world where I get to live for a while. I also love creating a character, their family, and deciding where they live. That was taken away from me when I did this. But I really couldn’t get Billy out of my head. I wanted to go back to his world, and, I have to say, it was very enjoyable.
Though Billy Miller Makes a Wish is written for a young audience, you include a few events—such as the opening scene with the ambulance on Billy’s street—that could be somewhat frightening. How do you approach scenes like this?
Kids are people. People have feelings, fears, anxiety, all of those things. I’m always mindful of dealing with difficult issues in a sensitive way, but I also realize that they are part of every child’s life. So I don’t shy away from them. Sometimes, though, I don’t choose what happens in my stories. I don’t necessarily understand how that works; I suppose the story grows out of the character. As I create the world that exists on the page, I get called in a particular direction. But I’ve never consciously thought, I can’t write about this or I can’t write about that.
You’ve described your books as “small, domestic, ordinary stories” quite often. Can you elaborate on what those stories are and how you make them appeal to young children?
I grew up in the school of thought with the motto: “Write what you know.” That’s what I feel most comfortable doing, and ordinary stories are what I know. But I do think if you take even a small domestic story and tell it with precision and clarity by using details that are telling, then even if it’s an ordinary world, it says something about life in a larger sense. I remember this quote about when Eudora Welty went to visit Jane Austen’s house. She wrote to her friend and editor, William Maxwell, and said this of Austen’s house: “It looks big, but is really small. The opposite of her novels.” I love that. That’s what I strive for and what I feel comfortable doing.
You’ve written more than 50 books for young readers. If someone sat down and read every Kevin Henkes book one after the other, would they see common themes? A similar voice?
I started writing when I was very young. My first book was accepted for publication when I was 19 and I’m 60 now, so I’ve been doing this for a long time. I think I’ve gotten better. I hope I have. As for a common thread, my protagonists are often kids who have interior lives; they are kids who think a lot. Some are artistic in a particular way. I also think imagination is a big part of my books. My very first book, All Alone, is about a little boy who walks by himself and pretends he’s tall enough to touch the sky and small enough to hide behind a stone. Maybe that’s because I was a kid who had an imaginative life. Still, I often think that maybe the author-illustrator isn’t the best one to identify themes in their own books. Every reader looks at a character through their own eyes. For example, when the first Billy Miller book came out, I went on a book tour. I remember a woman who came up to me and said, “Thank you. Finally, a book about an average boy.” Then, someone else said, “I love Billy Miller because I love reading about talented and gifted kids.” And then someone else thanked me for writing a book about a character with generalized anxiety disorder. As readers, we bring so much of ourselves to a book.
Does it get easier or harder to come up with new story ideas?
Definitely not easier. When I was younger, I thought that because I’d written one book then the next one would be easier. It never was and it never has been. Some books are easier than others. But it’s still hard. I’ve also found that the older I get, the more I’m drawn to simple young picture books like Kitten’s First Full Moon and Sun Flower Lion that have fewer words. It’s hard to keep a story simple but also make it rich enough and thickly textured in some way that a child will want to return to it. One of the things I really love about picture books is the magic of the juxtaposition between the words and pictures. Sometimes that combination can be really complex. For example, a picture might represent exactly what the words say. Or it might illuminate the words in a deeper way so that it’s hard to separate the words from the pictures. Sometimes I realize that I can say something in the pictures, and I don’t need the words anymore. For example, Chester’s Way is the first book in which Lilly appears. I originally wrote, “And then Lilly moved into the neighborhood,” and then described what she was wearing: her paper crown and her boots and her cape. But I realized when I was working on the dummy that I didn’t need the words at all. Everything is in the pictures. Just writing, “And then Lilly moved into the neighborhood” is much stronger. So sometimes leaving something out makes a story better and more concise.
What have you discovered about yourself as a writer and an illustrator since began telling stories?
Because I started doing this when I was 19, people always assumed that I was a parent long before I was. And then when I did become a parent, people said, “Oh, now you're going to have so many more ideas.” That didn’t happen. I think that’s because the stories come from within rather than from without. You don’t need to have children to write for children. There are so many people who do this and do it really well who never had children: Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, James Marshall.
Do you have projects you are working on now that you can tell us about? And is Billy Miller still asking you to write more stories about him and his family?
I am working on another Billy Miller book. Hopefully, it will come out in 2022. I also have a very young picture book called A House coming out this fall that I wrote and illustrated. It’s sort of in the vein of Sun Flower Lion. And in spring of 2022, I have a picture book that I wrote called Little Houses and my wife, Laura Dronzek, illustrated it.
What do you love most about writing for children?
I think what makes me most happy is when I run across people who have named their kids Lilly or Owen or when people tell me that Mr. Slinger’s words, “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better,” have become part of their family vernacular. That makes me happiest. I absolutely love writing books for children with all my heart, though. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Billy Miller Makes a Wish. Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, $16.99 Apr. 6 ISBN 978-0-06-304279-7