If there's a secret to writing a great children's book that is breezy and substantive enough for adults to enjoy, Madison author Kevin Henkes has found it. And it may be that less truly is more.
On Sept. 17, Greenwillow Books will release Henkes' The Year of Billy Miller. It's a 200-page novel for the 8-12 age group, but with a heart and depth that will appeal to older readers.
"I love spare but elegant prose," Henkes says. "I like clarity, but I also like subtlety, and I try not to talk down. And I like there to be meaning between the lines. I wanted it to flow nicely, but I also wanted it to have more. And I think kids are smart. I do want to treat them as the smart people they are."
The Year of Billy Miller chronicles the second-grade experience of the title character through four vignettes that take place during the school year.
Henkes, an award-winning author and artist, has written almost 50 picture books and novels for children of all ages. Since his last novel, Junonia, focused on a 10-year-old girl, he wanted to write about a boy. Thinking about his own children's experiences, he decided second grade would be a good time period to explore.
Then, Henkes had to get into the mindset of a 7-year-old.
"That part isn't hard," he says. "I always worry I won't have another idea -- that part is hard. But once I have the character in my head and I feel that he or she is clear in my mind's eye, writing from his or her point of view isn't so difficult. That's the fun part."
The book features Henkes' black-and-white illustrations. He says he didn't really think about what images he'd use to complement his story until after the words were down on paper. He then tried to find places where the illustrations would accent the narrative.
"It was fun to do, and I'm glad I did it," Henkes says. "Perhaps it makes it more appealing for a young reader."
On the day Billy Miller is released, Henkes will participate in a video chat from New York, something he has mixed emotions about.
"I'm very anxious about that," he says. "But I'll be doing it in front of a group of second- and third-graders, so hopefully that will take my mind off anyone else who may be watching."
Henkes says he would much rather be in his office at home reading, living in his head and working on books, but he does enjoy getting out. He will read from Billy Miller at the new Central Library on Oct. 5.
"When I do go out and share my books with kids, it's very rewarding. Once I get myself to it, I have a good time."