Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, I shared the beginning of an essay about the apparent lapse Kevin Henkes had in keeping to the cardinal rule of letting the protagonist solve his or her own problem. I was perplexed by the emotional resonance of his stories, and wondered how this was achieved. Here’s the last part of my essay:

 

Robert McKee identifies a variation of the typical protagonist structure that he calls the plural-protagonist.  Here, “all individuals in the group share the same desire, [and] in the struggle to achieve this desire, they mutually suffer and benefit.  If one has a success, all benefit.  If one has a setback, all suffer . . . motivation, action, and consequence are communal” (McKee 136).  It appears that Owen and his parents may be plural-protagonists – they both have the desire for the happiness and security of Owen, and this can be achieved when Owen gets to keep his blanket.  We see through the pictures that the parents are just as distressed as Owen at each of the attempts to rid him of the blanket, thus the suffering is communal.  And when the mother solves the problem, they all benefit.  The story is empowering, and resonates with the reader because of this plural-protagonist set-up.

In Sheila Rae, The Brave, Louise and Sheila Rae may act as plural-protagonists.  While Louise does not appear in the text for six pages, we see from the way Henkes draws her eyes and positions her body that she is truly frightened while Sheila Rae performs her brave feats.  We can tell right away that Sheila Rae’s desire is to always be brave.  But when Sheila Rae calls Louise a scaredy cat, Louise whispered, “Am not,” thereby showing the reader that her desire, too, is to be brave.  What is not so clear is how success and setbacks are communal in this work.  It almost seems that when Sheila Rae is brave, Louise doesn’t have to be, but when Sheila Rae can’t be brave, Louise can be.  At the end Louise states that they are both brave and fearless, and they fearlessly walk backward into their home together.  It’s as though at first there is not room enough for both to be brave, but in the end there is.

While initially all three of Henkes stories appeared to have protagonists who were short-changed of their own empowering ending, it is clear that Henkes tweaked the typical protagonist norms to achieve reader satisfaction in both Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave.  He did this by linking two sets of characters together in a way that allowed them all to benefit.  The beauty of this technique comes from the fact that Henkes eludes to an interconnectedness and sense of community in his work – and this resonates with the reader.

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There you have it – my essay in three parts. To me, the idea of plural-protagonists opens up a world of possibilities. I believe in community and connectedness, and am excited to explore how emotional resonance can be achieved when characters work in tandem rather than alone. What thoughts, questions, or possibilities has it opened up to you?

BTW – check out Ingrid’s Notes on the idea of working with connection – it’s a great post!

 

Essay References:

Henkes, Kevin. Chrysanthemum. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1991. Print.

Henkes, Kevin. Owen. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1993. Print.

Henkes, Kevin. Sheila Rae, the Brave. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1987. Print.

Lamb, Nancy. The Writers Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: ItBooks, 1997. Print.

Paul, Ann W. Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 1

Owen

Owen

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

I’ve been looking at picture books again lately, and I dug up this essay I wrote while at VCFA. As it’s somewhat long, I thought it best to split it up into instalments posted throughout the week (I’ll provide references at the end). Part 1 looks at the way in which Henkes appears to break one of the cardinal rules of writing for children:

One of the cardinal rules of children’s literature is that in order for our stories to have satisfying endings, the protagonist must solve his or her own problems.  Unfortunately, as Ann Whitford Paul explains,  “Too often in writing for children, a wise and well-meaning adult steps in to show the way ” (Paul 111).  Kevin Henkes appears to break this rule in his books Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave, yet Chrysanthemum is the only of the three that truly falls flat in terms of a satisfying, empowering ending.  How does Henkes pull it off in the other two stories?  He does it with a twist: the protagonist is not who you think they are.  This essay will first closely examine the breaking of the above rule, and then pinpoint the way in which Henkes managed to deliver a satisfying ending in both Owen and Sheila Rae, The Brave.

The story of Chrysanthemum is about a young mouse who is given the perfect name by her parents.  She fully believes this until she goes to school where she is teased and taunted because her name is too long and too flowery.  Each day she comes home, downtrodden.  Her parents build her up with hugs, kisses, food, and Parcheesi, but each night she has a dream that shows she isn’t quite over it.  Finally a new, beloved, pregnant teacher comes to the school and reveals that she has a flower name, too.  In fact, if she has a girl she is considering naming her Chrysanthemum.  Suddenly, everyone wants a long flower name too, and Chrysanthemum’s problem goes away.  Chrysanthemum is a passive observer in this story and does nothing at all to solve the problem of the teasing and taunting.  The only thing that can be said is that Chrysanthemum simply “was” Chrysanthemum, and everything turned out all right in the end.  Although this speaks to empowering children to be who they are, Mrs. Twinkles still came in and saved the day.  Without her, the taunting would have continued.

In the story, Owen, Owen has a blanket that he loves and carries around with him everywhere.  No one seems to think this is a problem until the neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, alerts the parents that this isn’t appropriate.  The parents try three strategies to get the blanket away from Owen.  First, Owen reacts overtly:  he stuffs the blanket under his shirt at night when the “Blanket Fairy” is supposed to come and replace it with a big boy toy.  His parents could not get rid of the blanket as a result.  Then, he ignores the vinegar-dousing trick by sticking the corner of his blanket in the garden and in his sandbox.  But in the end, when Owen’s parents say “no,” Owen just cries.  He has no other way around the problem.  Who takes over?  The mother does.  She cuts up the blanket into handkerchief-like pieces, and Owen continues to carry the blanket around thanks to her great idea.  Mrs. Tweezers thinks this is an acceptable alternative.  Perhaps one could argue that Owen’s crying was an active way to get what he wanted, but this is not the case.  Henkes is extremely gifted at showing the reader the underlying emotions with cleverly drawn eyes and mouths, and the eyes Owen has when comforted by his parents are sad, not sneaky or triumphant.  Here, crying equates to giving up, not manipulation.  And so, the mother solved the problem for Owen in this story.  For some reason, though, we don’t care.

Finally, in the story Sheila Rae, The Brave, Sheila Rae is depicted as extremely brave and not frightened of anything.  Her little sister Louise is shown in the pictures following Sheila Rae around but she is only introduced to the reader in the text on the sixth page of the book.  Sheila Rae does not encounter any problem until she decides to take a different route home and gets lost.  Then, she has three responses to the problem:  first she tries to convince herself that she is brave.  Next, she tries to call for help, and then, she cries.  Enter Louise, who knows the way home and leads her there, doing all the things Sheila Rae used to do to show her bravery along the way.  When they get home, Sheila Rae tells Louise that she is brave and fearless, and Louise says that they both are.  Here, Sheila Rae encounters a situation in which she is frightened, and after two attempts to solve her own problem, she gives up, cries, and is saved by Louise.  Not an empowering ending, but somehow this book makes the reader feel good.

To reiterate, “the hero must be the instrument of his own salvation” (Lamb 140).  This is not the case with any of these books, yet still we find satisfaction in two of them.  Henkes must have done something different that flew in the face of “norms” in order to achieve this.  What he did appears to relate to the identity of the protagonist.

More to follow…

(illustrations from http://www.kevinhenkes.com/)