Children’s authors are like any artists: They are as incredibly varied as musicians or poets. Ursula Vernon’s Harriet is a rough-and-tumble, sarcastic hero-princess, while many of Kevin Henkes’ stories are told in gentle, accessible prose geared toward young kids.We spoke with both authors, who will appear at local bookstores this month, to learn more about their inspirations, their processes and how they write so well for children.
Ursula Vernon, ‘Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible’ (Dial, $12.99)
First thing in the morning, Ursula Vernon has her coffee. After checking email and fooling around on the Internet, she concedes she has to get some work done. So she drives the short distance from her home to downtown Pittsboro, sits down at a little side street coffee shop, and writes.
“I have to do 1,000 words on something or the whole thing collapses,” says the prolific author and illustrator. “Then, in the evening, I sit and I draw dragons or I draw hamsters. I have to get at least two or three of those done a day. I just do that over and over again.”
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Dragons and hamsters are at the core of “Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible,” the most recent in Vernon’s string of middle-grade illustrated novels. The title character is both a hamster and a princess, but Harriet is no delicate flower; she is a confident and tough action princess.
“There’s been a trend lately toward self-rescuing princesses and I liked that idea, but I wanted to do a story where she rescued everybody, not just herself,” Vernon says. To that end, “Harriet the Invincible” is a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”: When Harriet turns 12, as an evil rat-fairy’s curse goes, she will prick her finger on a hamster wheel and fall into a deep sleep.
Instead of hiding from her fate, though, Harriet celebrates it. “She’s invincible and basically immortal until she’s 12 years old, and then the curse comes true,” Vernon says. “Well, if I knew that I was going to live no matter what I did, I would take up cliff diving.” Harriet spends her childhood saving maidens from dragons (and dragons from maidens, too) and taking full advantage of her invincibility. After several years of this, word of her fearless exploits has spread to neighboring kingdoms (though Harriet does her best to keep her parents in the dark).
This kind of hero-princess is written to fit the way many young girls play. As the inescapability of Disney Princess attests, there’s a definite appeal to princess stories. Yet, as Vernon has observed, real-world kids don’t necessarily let the idea of the prim-and-proper Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty limit their play.
“You get little girls who say, ‘I am a princess,’ and they’re wearing combat boots and a tutu,” Vernon says with admiration. “They want to be a princess, but they don’t want to be bound by what we think of as the traditional, ethereal roles. It’s like, being a princess makes them powerful and they want to go do powerful things.”
Kevin Henkes, ‘Waiting’ (Greenwillow, $17.99)
With his direct, uncluttered storytelling and easy pacing, Kevin Henkes seems to understand exactly how kids think.
He has won awards for both his writing and his art, such as the gentle, sweet “Kitten’s First Full Moon,” which won the Caldecott Medal in 2005. His new picture book, “Waiting,” follows a similar narrative path: Its spacious, purposefully simple story and reliance on familiar household imagery – the entire tale takes place on a windowsill – allows pre-K and early elementary kids to fill in much of the story’s details and emotions themselves.
“I try very hard to do that – to not have anything that’s excess or not needed,” Henkes says. “For me, that’s part of what makes a good picture book.”
Indeed, it took the Madison, Wis., children’s author a long time to write “Waiting.” He can’t remember when the initial idea came to him, but he knows he would work on the book, hit a wall, and put it down. He’d pick it back up later, try a different approach, then hit a wall. The art had to fit and the words had to be pared down just right.
It took a long time, but the wait for this celebrated children’s author’s 48th book is over.
“With ‘Waiting,’ I wanted to take something larger and have larger ideas, but make it small enough that it could be filtered through the eyes of a child,” Henkes says. “I wanted to include the seasons and I wanted to include everything, I guess, from birth to death, but not have it hit you over the head.” This takes finesse, and Henkes communicates the changing seasons indirectly and gently. On one page, the characters – all toys – somberly mourn a broken elephant statue; on another, they celebrate the birth of kittens.
“I wanted to leave enough room for the reader or the listener to have space,” Henkes says. “I wanted it to elicit a dialogue between the reader and the listener, and maybe it would just be a place to stop and think and wait before one turns the page.”
Henkes comes across as just as direct, unguarded and sensitive as his work: He’s easygoing, with a soft, gentle voice, and he conscientiously separates work and family time. With one child, in college and the other in her last year of high school, Henkes is aware that there soon will be no kids in his house. So he works only while his daughter is at school. Or, if he’s working on a novel, he brings his notebook to the kitchen table and writes in longhand, among his family.
“That’s nice,” he says. “I can sit at the dining room table and work and people can be around me doing homework or whatever, but I feel like I’m still part of family life.”
Meet the authors
▪ Kevin Henkes will appear at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 and at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill at 6 p.m. Sept. 23. More info at quailridgebooks.com and flyleafbooks.com, or at KevinHenkes.com.