Friday, July 15, 2011

Growing Pains

It’s hard to think of any author-artist who captures the pains of growing up at the various stages in a child’s life as well as Kevin Henkes does.

We meet Alice Rice in Henkes’s Junonia on her way to her family’s annual winter vacation to Sanibel Island. She is about to turn 10. That is a big deal. She wants it to be special. She wants to share it with the “family” she has formed in Florida, as she has each February through years of winter retreats. But things are not going according to plan.

Some of the “family” members can’t get there due to weather, others due to conflicts. And Alice’s favorite, Kate, her mother’s college classmate who usually stays with them in their house, is bringing her boyfriend and his 6-year-old child, and they’re staying in their own cottage. It’s as if she’s throwing a birthday party and half the people can’t come, and then her best friend asks if she can bring a friend she’s never met!

Henkes knows how to get inside the skin of a child as he or she experiences deep emotional pain and joy. Think of the anxious hero of Wemberly Worried or Lilly’s fit of jealousy when Julius, the Baby of the World moves into her house. And then there are the joys of acquiring a purple plastic purse and the horrors of the teacher kidnapping it for the schoolday in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.

The emotional journeys of Henkes’s characters get subtler as they grow older. Kids feel like they have to be mature about these changes as their birthdays add up, or they feel that their parents expect them to be more mature about worries and new babies and a teacher’s confiscation of your prize possession because you’ve flaunted it a bit too much and a bit too long. “You’re a big boy/girl now.” “Set an example.” “You should know better.” These are the phrases a child hears as he or she gains experience. The expectations others have for them have changed, but the children still feel like children. And they are. Henkes conveys all of those complexities over the course of one spring break as Alice Rice goes from nine to 10 years old.

For a child, sometimes the small shifts can feel like tectonic plates realigning their world. That’s certainly the case for Alice. And with Alice as a companion, children know that if she can survive all these changes, they can, too.

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