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Waiting by Kevin Henkes

There are so many things I love about Waiting by Kevin Henkes. For someone who has been an avid reader and admirer of Henkes's books, from the picture books to the novels, for over twenty years now, Waiting feels like the culmination and perfection of all that is wonderful, special and definitive about Henkes's work as an illustrator and author. Kevin Henkes seems to have a deep understanding and remembrance of childhood that he is able to translate to the page with a genuine, untarnished simplicity that I find very meaningful and memorable.

My advance copy of Waiting came with a letter from Henkes about his new book that I would reprint in its entirety here if it wasn't so lazy. So I'll just quote it a lot. Henkes begins his letter by pointing out something I realized shortly after my first born reached toddlerhood - "children have to wait all the time. They wait for birthdays and holidays and weekends. Waiting is part of their daily lives. 'Wait' is a word like 'yes' or 'no' - something they hear a lot." This is so obviously true and yet something that I don't feel has ever been positively addressed in a picture book, which is exactly what Henkes intended to do with Waiting. In addition to "casting a favorable light" on the concept of waiting, Henkes wanted to put a "slightly different spin" on it by having his characters who are all waiting for different things, including one who "wasn't waiting for anything in particular" at all.

Waiting begins, "There were five of them. And they were waiting . . . " The five figurines, clearly a child's playthings, are inspired by the "small, hand-built animal sculptures" that Henkes has been creating at his local clay studio once a week since 2006. The figurines wait on a windowsill for things outside - snow, wind, rain, the moon - and are happy. The windowsill, the figurines and their view outside are all that readers see in the gentle brown ink, watercolor and colored pencil illustrations. There is no child depicted in the illustrations, but the presence of one is felt when the figurines "sleep" and receive presents. Henkes wanted Waiting to be "simple in its design and universal in its scope." The effect of this draws you into the book, making you feel like you are there with the figurines, waiting, looking out that window as the world changes. The "changing of the seasons, the wonder of nature, sudden sadness and disappointment, unexpected moments of joy, birth, death. All of these things - these aspects of human experience - were filtered through the lens of a child's imaginative play" as Henkes thought about the five figurines and the story that would become Waiting. Surprisingly, this all comes through in this simple, magical book. To excel at it the way Henkes does, and to imbue his books with an authentic childhood perspective is truly a gift.

My daughter, now twenty-two, grew up with Lily, Chrysanthemum, Chester and Wendell from Henkes's Mouse Books. I adore those books, both because of how much she loved them and how much I enjoyed reading them to her. They are rich in humor, character and vocabulary and the parents and adults in the stories are never two-dimensional buffoons or straight men, as in so many picture books. That said, my favorite book by Henkes, now second to Waiting, is the uncomplicated A Good Day, which begins, "It was a bad day . . . " Like Waiting, Henkes takes a simple but powerful childhood emotional experience and looks at it from a new perspective - through a new window - and turns it around. While I love all of Henkes's books, I treasure books like Waiting and A Good Day most because I know how hard it is to write a (meaningful) picture book, especially one that is so economical with words and ideas.

If you aren't familiar with the superlative Kevin Henkes, take a look at his website or my review of his Newbery Honor winning novel, The Year of Billy Miller, which includes an overview of all of his books.

Source: Review Copy


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