Penny and Her Marble by Kevin Henkes

I reviewed Penny and Her Song, Kevin Henkes's first foray into beginning readers,  a year ago. Henkes's pictures books have been special to me because his career was really taking off with the publication of Owen, his 1994 Caldecott honor winner, Chrysanthemum and Lily's Purple Plastic Purse at the time when my firstborn was old enough to appreciate picture books, which was also when I started working as a children's bookseller. His books feel like something my daughter and I discovered together, and his sweet, honest stories still capture those meaningful (for good or bad reasons) moments of childhood in ways that remain relevant. Henkes's characters are not perfect, but they don't need to be told, "You get what you get and you don't get upset," and they don't need gimmicks like sparkles, feather boas, French vocabulary words or ladybug wings to be interesting. This is why, even though I usually don't review books beyond the first in a series, and, even though I did not review the second book in this series, I am reviewing Penny and Her Marble, Henkes's third book about Penny. His books are so wonderful, especially in the genre of beginning to read books that can often be dry and meaningless, that they are worth calling to your attention again and again.

Four chapters long, Penny and Her Marble follows Penny as she enjoys a morning pushing her doll Rose in a stroller on the sidewalk in front of her house. Watching out the window, her mother tells her to only go as far as Mrs. Goodwin's house. Walking back and forth, Penny imagines she and Rose are in a big city, a forest and even in an airplane looking down at the tiny world below. When Penny sees a big, shiny blue marble in the grass near Mrs. Goodwin's birth bath, she picks it up and studies it, wondering who it could belong to. The marble seems to say to her, "Take me home." And she does, but not without a touch of anxiety about what she has done. And here is what Henkes does best in his writing: he conveys, in a childlike, but not childish way, the emotional arc that Penny experiences, from her exuberance over the wonder of her find to the growing fear that maybe it really DOES belong to Mrs. Goodwin and she wants it back. Penny hides the marble and spends a fretful day worrying and a sleepless night dreaming about the marble growing so large that it bursts out of its hiding place. The next day, Penny puts Rose in her stroller and the marble in her pocket and walks back to Mrs. Goodwin's to return it. Just as she is tucking it back in the grass by the birdbath she gets a very nice surprise.

Henkes never uses the world "steal" and no one ever gets upset with Penny. Her experience is completely her own and he focuses on her emotions as she works through the experience of finding something wonderful, wondering who owns it and ultimately deciding what to do with it all on her own. Henkes subtly explores a child's first (independent) experience with morality and ethics AND in a beginning reader! Rather than the didactic, pedantry of books like The Berenstain Bears (which have their place, I will admit) and the two-dimensional stereotypical characters, Henkes does not talk down to his readers but assumes that they are capable of the same kind of independent thinking and decision making that his characters express.

Penny and Her Song and Penny and Her Doll are BOTH available in paperback!!

Source: Review Copy

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