40 years & 60 books later, this Madison-based bestselling author has no plans to retire

A conversation with Kevin Henkes: The man behind some of your children's favorite books

MADISON, Wis.– When Kevin Henkes first heard he earned the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the literary world’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement Oscar, he was surprised. Not that he won, but that he was even eligible.

“I guess I thought I was too young,” Henkes joked, followed by a humble chuckle.

The 60-year-old Madison-based writer joined the ranks of Dr. Seuss, Beverly Cleary, and E.B. White as the latest children’s author to receive the honor, usually awarded near the end of one’s career. That is not the case for Henkes, who just celebrated the release of his latest book, Billy Miller Makes a Wish, his fourth title published in the past year.

Henkes has been writing and illustrating since he was a student at the UW-Madison.  The summer between Henkes’ freshman and sophomore years, he flew to New York in search of a publisher. He returned to Madison, deal in hand.

“I think I was more brave at 19 than I was at 60,” Henkes recalled.

40 years and 60 books later, the best-selling author still calls Madison home and draws inspiration from the world around him. For example, in his 1996 book Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse, Lily’s younger brother is named Julius; Henkes decided upon that name while walking past Orange Julius at West Towne Mall.

In Billy Miller Makes a Wish, the title character’s family eats at an eclectic, diner-like restaurant. That establishment was based on Ella’s Deli.

“We took our kids there,” Henkes explained. “It was a place they loved. So I put it in the book.”

Although the pandemic has prevented Henkes from going on the road to promote his latest release, it has allowed him more time in his home studio, writing.

Henkes has three more books scheduled for release in the next year and is currently working on a third ‘Billy Miller’ novel. When asked whether he’d consider writing a book for adults, Henkes said he has thought about it, but there’s something uniquely endearing about writing for children.

“It’s a time in life when one is still very open to the world and the world is full of possibilities. The road ahead is very broad.”