“It should be said: Kevin Henkes is a genius,” wrote Bruce Handy in 2007 at the New York Times. I feel a bit like Handy in writing about Penny and Her Song, Henkes’ upcoming book, to be released by Greenwillow Books at the end of February.

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And that’s because Handy went on to admit—and here he was talking about Henkes’ 2007 picture book, A Good Day—that it took him a while to get around to writing about the book, since he didn’t have anything new to add, except that it was a “masterpiece, an almost perfect picture book…Like a great Japanese meal, it is a marvel of deceptive simplicity.”

Isn’t that the way with Henkes’ picture books? In his upcoming title, he brings us his beginning-reader debut (the first in what the publisher promises will be a series), and it’s no less exceptional than his exquisite picture books, which are at turns soft (2008’s Old Bear and 2010’s My Garden) and spunky (the enduring Lilly).

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Penny, an endearing new mouse for Henkes’ growing collection of good-natured but strong-willed rodents, comes home with a new song. It’s her very own song, you see, and she’s eager to sing it, yet her mother immediately shushes her, given that the babies are sleeping. Her father tells her the same, so she goes to her room to serenade herself. She stops. “She wanted someone to listen to her.” She tries singing to her reflection in the mirror and singing to her glass animal collection, and then just gives up to play, almost forgetting about her original ditty altogether.

In the book’s second and last chapter, however, she finally gets her turn. And in true Henkes style, she’s bold and proud and entirely aware that she is, indeed, a singing sensation, worthy of attention and praise.

And herein lies just one of Henkes’ many “genius” strokes: He understands young children well and that they crave parental validation. (Even one’s very confident inner diva needs it.) The children of today behave as if they’re entitled, you hear people complain. But Henkes is depicting child protagonists—even if they have long, thin tails and pink ears—with the best possible kind of parenting, the kind that establishes boundaries and nips rudeness in the bud, but also allows for self-expression. Cut it out, because we have to consider others, her parents essentially tell her (but with a Henkes softness). Later, we’ll let you take the stage—and perhaps even cut the rug with you.

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In Leonard Marcus’ Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators, to be released in April from Candlewick, Henkes notes in a 2009 interview that he strives for economy in his picture books. “J. M. Barrie said something like, ‘Cut it down by half and leave nothing out,’ ” he told Marcus. Though Penny and Her Song is a beginning reader with, therefore, fewer illustrations than a picture book, he succeeds in this, what Handy called his “deceptive simplicity.”  And, as always, both text, geared for those emerging readers, and art are filled with emotion and humor.

Highly recommended. Penny’s tale sings.

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. 

Courtesy of Penny and Her Song, copyright 2012 by Kevin Henkes. Image reproduced by permission of the publisher, Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York.