Archives for posts with tag: Kevin Henkes

Picture Books, Pacing & The Vital Tease


In PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION Sam Smiley explores three vital elements in revealing a story. The first, exposition or back-story, is more important and useful in plays and novels than brief picture books. However, the second and third, planting and pointing have much to offer the picture book writer.


Smiley explores eight forms of planting, but to simplify we’ll say planting is an item of information that turns out to be significant later in the story.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza includes a plant that’s sly as a fox. Or should we say pig? When a pig knocks on Fox’s door, Fox declares “My lucky day!” Pig attempts to stall his demise by suggesting a bath, getting fattened up, and tenderized with a massage. After Fox collapses from exhaustion from all his related chores Pig runs home declaring, “This must be my lucky day!”  Lucky? Not so fast. Kasza’s clever twist of an ending makes perfect sense thanks to her plant. Pig schemed the entire day. Pig made his lucky day by creating the situation. Next up, Wolf.

Kevin Henkes’ deliciously distilled SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK includes a line that is at once planting and pointing.

“If I had two, I’d give you one,” said Sheila Rae…” as she balances on stool, pillows, and books to keep her candy out of reach.

The fall of the arrogant occurs on the next page when Sheila Rae literary falls to the floor and her peppermint stick breaks in half. She is now forced to keep her to keep her promise. “If I had two” serves as a plant and gives reason for the sharing at the conclusion. It also (with Sheila Rae perched so high) serves as pointer that makes the reader hope for a case of prophecy fulfilled.


 Where a “plant” makes the reader think back through the story, a “pointer” sparks the reader to look ahead. It whispers something of interest and related is coming ahead. In other words, anticipation and suspense.

Examples of “pointing” can be found through a manuscript. Marie Bradby’s third and fourth sentence in MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE is a pointer that immediately creates anticipation of an answer.

My stomach rumbles, for we had no morning meal. But it isn’t really a meal I want, though I would not turn one down.

Pointers appear much later in SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. But they still pull the audience forward with concern and anticipation. After Little Goose is chastised for waking the farmer with a story about a giant sky fox eating the moon:

Little Goose waddled away

   With her head hanging low for shame.

Up the lane

Across the meadow

Back to the pond

With her head hanging low for shame

And she never once looked at the sky.

Preston’s emphasis on not looking up sets the stage for something Little Goose will miss seeing. After “not looking up” ends badly, Little Goose heads home with her head held back and never taking her eye off the moon. Once again, such an absolute can only bring a problem, and the reader senses it coming. Little Goose doesn’t see the Fox till he’s caught her.

Plants and Pointers serve the reader like a classic English butler—indispensable, but rarely noticed. Let’s write like a butler’s butler!

 Books Discussed

MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE by Marie Bradby. Illus. by Chris Soentpiet. Scholastic, 1995.

MY LUCKY DAY by Keiko Kasza. Scholastic, 2003.

PLAYWRITING: THE STRUCTURE OF ACTION by Sam Smiley. Prentice-Hall, 1971.

SHEILA RAE’S PEPPERMINT STICK by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2001.

SQUAWK TO THE MOON, LITTLE GOOSE by Edna Mitchell Preston. Illus. by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1974.


Ignorance Is Bliss:

 Sometimes Sweet, Sometimes Dangerous,


Often Good for a Laugh!

from ARE YOU A HORSE by Andy Rash

As picture book writers who do not illustrate, it doesn’t take much some days to leave us feeling powerless. Us? Think about our young audience that is literally at the mercy of the adult world. Any time a young child experiences a moment of mastery it is a time of delight.

One source of this delight is found in picture books that feature nitwits or naïve characters in peril. The young reader celebrates because she truly knows more than the character. She gets the joke and experiences compassion for the less aware character.

If you’re interested in writing stories that share humor and delight and give children a chance to celebrate their growing wisdom, explore these wonderful examples of classic nitwits and blissfully unaware characters.

Endearing Nitwits & Those Sweetly Naive

ARE YOU A HORSE? by Andy Rash. Arthur Levine Books, 2009.

MINERVA LOUISE by Janet Morgan Stoeke. Dutton, 1988.

A NEW HOUSE FOR MOUSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2004.

THE RAIN PUDDLE by Adelaide Holl. Illus. by Roger Duvoisin. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1965.

Blissfully (Albeit Dangerously) Unaware

This basic plot has much in common with Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Think of REAR WINDOW when we know that Jimmy Stewart is in far more danger than he knows. The murderer is coming! However, in picture books humor prevails because it is quickly established that the villain is even more naïve than the intended victim. Hitchcock meets Wily Coyote.

LOOK OUT, SUZY GOOSE by Petr Horacek. Candlewick, 2008.

SUDDENLY! by Colin McNaughton. Harcourt, 1995.

 A Bit of Fun

Try taking one of these plots as the thread to a story and see what new beads you can string. For example, ARE YOU A HORSE is a parallel to ARE YOU MY MOTHER? (Eastman). In THE RAIN PUDDLE when naïve animals see their reflection in a puddle they assume they are looking at a real hen etc that has fallen into the puddle. KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON (Henkes) features a kitten that “sees” a bowl of milk in the pond. And, many folktales feature characters that assume a mirror is actually a painting of someone else.

Your next manuscript could already be sneaking up behind you!

Talking Animals in a Parallel World – I

Some of the most popular characters in picture books are talking animals living in a universe parallel to ours: Frog & Toad, George & Martha, Zelda & Ivy, Angelina, Olivia with her porcine family, and Lily with her purple plastic purse. But not all parallel worlds are alike. The author’s tone and topics shape their parallel world, and also reveal why he’s chosen talking animals instead of people.

A key decision is the age of the talking animal. As we’ll explore in a later post, many characters like Frog & Toad have no age that can be determined. They are child substitutes living on their own like adults, yet naïve and innocent like children. In contrast, Zelda & Ivy, Olivia, Angelina, and Lilly (and friends) live in “almost, but not quite” contemporary worlds and portray children with parents and siblings.

One might imagine Zelda, Ivy, Angelina, and Lilly as human girls. Their respective stories would still work, but by making them specific girls the sense of their universality would not be as strong.  Their settings barely in the past allow a miniature version of “once upon a time.” Such settings can also give a book a longer life. Just as too much slang can make a novel feel quickly dated, giving talking animals cutting edge technology will quickly make them appear out of date and out of touch. Yet, settings only slightly in the past provide a sense of timelessness.

Olivia’s environment is more urban, and her behavior would make it hard to depict her as a human child. Her behavior and stories are too intense and over the top to succeed as realism. Like the animals in Aesop’s fable, Olivia’s pig-ness provides just enough distance for us to enjoy her behavior. Her pig-ness helps her remain larger than life and yet charming instead of becoming a brat we want to avoid.

Time and again, the question comes down to this: Will using talking animals as our characters help us tell our story and connect with readers. If our answer is “yes” then we should be able to articulate those reasons. If our answer is “not sure” then we would be wise enough to write a draft featuring real children. If the story no longer seems to work ask why? This process could reveal we need a stronger story. Or, help us understand why our story, like the ones above truly work best with talking animals.


P.S. Make note of these popular characters’ names. Just as their world echoes ours, so do their names. There’s not a single Rachel Raccoon, Iggy Iguana or Wilma Wombat in the group. Why?  Cute alliterative names do not contribute to the story. Nor do they do anything to support the sense of a parallel world. When’s the last time you encountered a human character named Gertie Girl or Bruce Boy?


Talking Animals in a Parallel World – II

When Animals Can Tell a Story That People Can’t


Books Discussed

ANGELINA BALLERINA by Katharine Holabird. Illus. by Helen Craig. Viking, 1983.

LILLY’S PURPLE PLASTIC PURSE by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 1996.

OLIVIA by Ian Falconer. Simon & Schuster, 2000.

ZELDA AND IVY by Laura Kvasnosky. Candlewick, 1998.


Most popular songs—traditional ballad to pop—share the same pattern.  Verse-Chorus.  Verse-Chorus.  The verses may share a single narrative or be individual pieces that share a link with the chorus.  Like the cumulative narrative, this format creates a blend of expansion balanced with familiarity.  It is the soon familiar chorus that gives children a sense of inclusion and mastery.

Picture book choruses may be as short as one line.  I CAN DO IT TOO by Karen Baicker is a list of what other family members are able to do followed by the young narrator’s proclamation, “I can do it too!” Like the best of songs, Baicker’s final verse expands on the accumulated and reveals a sense of change.  Followed, of course, with the satisfaction of a final round of the chorus.

Liz Garton Scanlon’s ALL THE WORLD is another fine example of the verse-chorus pattern.  But here is the chorus is woven into the final line of each verse.

“Body, shoulder, arm, hand

A moat to dig,

A shell to keep

All the world is wide and deep”

Scanlon’s verses are truly in verse.  Yet, by beginning each verse’s final line with “all the world is” she is able to maintain the sounds of her rhythm and rhyme AND share a sense of chorus.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes follows a more traditional story pattern of BEGINNING-MIDDLE-END.  But he uses a repetitive chorus to deepen Kitten’s dilemma and frustration.  After each of Kitten’s failed attempts to consume the milky moon Henkes writes:

“Poor Kitten! Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.”

After two more tries at the moon and the chorus, the mission shifts to the bigger bowl of milk reflecting in the pond.  Even though the story is no longer concerned with the “little bowl of milk, just waiting” in the sky, a portion of the familiar chorus returns:

“Poor Kitten!”

Henkes establishes the pattern of chorus so well that he is able to reduce his chorus to a single word.  Then give it a twist, and we still feel the satisfaction of a chorus and its final chord.

“Lucky Kitten!”

The picture books by Charlotte Pomerantz reveal her sense of poetry, language, and play. THE PIGGY IN THE PUDDLE demonstrates even wider variations in the way writers can use verse-chorus in picture books. The typical chorus always contains the same words each time it is song or read.  Pomerantz isn’t as concerned for repetition of specific words as for the similarity of rhythm and style.  Her choruses are not identical, yet deeply related.

The story focuses on family members trying to coax a pig to get out of the muddy puddle.  To no surprise, the little pig will have nothing of it.

“Squishy-squashing, squishy-squash—NOPE!”

“Moosy-squooshy, mooshy-squooshy—NOPE!”

“Oofy-poofy, oofy-poofy—NOPE!”

The second half of the story shifts to the theme “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” which develops a new chorus that follows each family members’ action.

She said, “I bet my feet get wet.”


He said, “I bet my tail gets wet.”


He held his nose and yelled, “Here goes!”


The text could have ended there, but Pomerantz knows the visceral satisfaction of pulling the rhythms of the story back to its beginning.  When the little piggy proposes soap and getting clean the rest of her family now happily in the muddy puddle proclaim: “Oofy-poofy—NOPE!”

Children have no need to be able to identity the writing terms for this awareness and use of pattern.  But they feel it.  It IS part of the story.  Our use of sound and pattern enhance and enrich our stories.

Sample Picture Books

ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illus. by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009.

I CAN DO IT TOO! by Karen Baicker.  Illus. by Ken Wilson-Max.  Handprint, 2003.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2004.

OVERBOARD by Sarah Weeks. Illus. by Sam Williams, Harcourt, 2006.

THE PIGGY IN THE PUDDLE by Charlotte Pomerantz. James Marshall, Simon & Schuster, 1974.

PILOT PUPS by Michelle Meadows. Illus. by Dan Andreasen.  Simon & Schuster, 2008.

RAIN MAKES APPLESAUCE by Julian Scheer.  Illus. by Marvin Bileck.  Holiday, 1964.

SAKES ALIVE! A CATTLE DRIVE by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Karla Firehammer. Little Brown, 2005.