Let me start out by telling you that I love Kevin Henkes. Truthfully, while I don't know anyone who is a Kevin Henkes hater, I'm a little over the moon about him. I have met him several times at conferences, have signed books, and even asked him to come to my library when I worked on Nantucket (he really was interested, but couldn't). I have loved all of his books (even Kitten's First Full Moon grew on me after a few readings). And when I found out that he had written a reader, called Penny and Her Song, and that he had featured a new mouse character, I begged my HarperCollins connection for one. And I mean BEGGED. When I received it in the mail, I was thrilled. I'd already heard some pre-pub buzz, and it was all positive.
But instead of sitting right down and reading it right there, I let it sit. I didn't even open the cover. I couldn't figure out why for a long time, and told myself that I was letting the anticipation build. That I had received my ARC so far ahead of time that I didn't want to read it and write about it immediately, since it wouldn't be published yet. But the real truth was, I was afraid. I was afraid Penny wouldn't live up to his other fabulous mouse characters, who have helped guide children through all of their growing up. I was afraid Henkes, who has capably handled multiple other formats, wouldn't be a strong beginning reader author. I didn't want there to be a conditional book for me "Well, I love Kevin Henkes, except for that one..."
These were all silly worries. Kevin Henkes is an award-winning author for a reason, and his first beginning reader is definitely not a mis-step. But now that I've reassured you, I'll go back and tell you a little about the text.
Penny comes skipping home from school with a song to sing. She wants to share it with her parents, but they both tell her the song will have to wait - that the babies are asleep. Penny is dejected, and goes off to sing in her room. Singing to herself in her room doesn't work either - this special song needs an audience. Penny moves on to other activities, and her song is temporarily forgotten. When the family is together at dinnertime, Penny tries to share this song again. Her parents remind her that the dinner table is also not an appropriate place for this song.
Just when the reader is beginning to feel that Penny will never get to sing her song, dinner is finished. Penny begins her production, singing proudly to her beaming audience. Her song is so infectious that the whole family is singing along. They dance, they sing, even the babies "sang along in their own baby way" (p. 23). It's a true family hootenanny, including funny costumes and more songs. This impromptu performance has the added benefit of wearing everyone out and getting them ready for bed. The book ends peacefully, with a reassurance that Penny will not forget her special song.
A few words now about the format - this reader is unleveled, but should be fairly easy for a strong first grade reader to read with a little help. Most words are easy to decipher, and there are only a couple that young readers might struggle with - "beautifully" and "flopped" and a couple of others. The story is broken up into two chapters, with dinner being the dividing event. Most pages have four or five lines of text on them, with plenty of white space to rest readers' eyes. The text is repetitive, but there is a natural energy to the story. It keeps moving ahead and readers want to continue to find out more about Penny's song. Henkes has also included plenty of illustrations in a variety of sizes. These help both with context for unfamiliar words, and also to give more information about the characters than the brief text allows.
There are several things going on in this text. Penny's story reminds me a little of the Frances books (Hoban) with the story including Penny's song. Her song is a perfect creation - it includes rhymes and its simple counting theme also suits young children, who will want to continue singing it (so a word to the wise, when you sing it as you read, pick a familiar tune). The coziness and structure of Penny's family also reminds me of the Frances stories. While there are clear expectations set out for Penny (she may not sing during dinner or while the babies are napping), she is clearly cherished. Her creativity is appreciated, and when it is finally the right time, her song is the star of the show. The needs of the entire family come first, but Penny's individuality is also recognized.
While this is a new format and new character for Henkes, there are definitely some familiar characteristics. Penny is shown strutting around, just like Lilly does. While Penny's parents are reminiscent of Frances, they also have the coziness and loving reassurance that Chrysanthemum's parents exhibit. Musical notes break the planes of the illustrations, a technique Henkes uses in several other stories. The pastel colors are Henkes hallmarks as well.
Penny and Her Song is a terrific addition to both any beginning reader collection and to a collection of Henkes' works. The story is simple and sweet, with a conflict that many children can relate to. I shouldn't have worried - Henkes has produced another great story. I can't wait to read more stories about Penny and her family.
Penny and Her Song. Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow Press, 2012.
ARC sent by publisher for review