Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 2

In part 1 I introduced Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae – three of Henkes’ creations. It appears as though, in each of these stories, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing for children: that the protagonist should solve his or her own problem. But there is still emotional resonance in them – how did he do this? Perhaps the protagonist is not who we think they are…

Conventionally, the protagonist of the story is introduced first.  His or her desire is shown to us upfront along with a concrete

Owen

Owen

problem they have to solve.  They overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and they resolve the problem.  In Owen, the reader sees how important the blanket is to him through text and pictures.  We see that the parents don’t mind that he carries around this blanket, judging by their neutral expressions on the third page.  The parents are introduced into the text on the fourth page, along with Mrs. Tweezers, and suddenly Owen has a problem, but so do the parents.  Could they be the protagonists of this story?

Like typical protagonists, the parents try to resolve the problem, and each attempt fails.  Then the mother gets the idea to cut up the blanket.  She solves the problem.  And so it seems that two possibilities exist:  1) Owen is not the true protagonist.  This story is about the adults and how they are influenced by Mrs. Tweezers, but how they care enough for Owen to find a creative solution to the problem, or 2) there are two protagonists, and as long as one of them solves the problem the ending is satisfying.

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Sheila Rae, The Brave

It seems that Henkes did a similar thing with the story of Sheila Rae.  The sister, Louise, isn’t mentioned in the text until the sixth page, but the reader can see her astonishment at the bravery of Sheila Rae in the illustrations from the first page.  Louise has her own story that is only visible from the pictures – she wishes she could be as brave as Sheila Rae.  When Sheila Rae needs her, she’s there, and she shows that she really is brave by leading the way home.  Again, the possibilities are that 1) Sheila Rae is not the true protagonist, Louise is, or 2) there are two protagonists and the resolution by one of them results in a satisfying ending.  As Owen and Sheila Rae both have their own set of desires and are introduced early in the story, as is the norm for the protagonist, the second possibility deserves further investigation.

In tomorrow’s final instalment, we’ll look more closely at that second possibility, and at what Robert McKee calls “plural protagonists.

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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/)