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/)