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Children's writer owes it all to mom

HARRODSBURG — Heather Henson remembers going to bed each night with Little Bear. Not a teddy bear, but the Little Bear series of books by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak.

"It was just a book and the simple, beautiful black-and-white illustrations," Henson, 42, says. "But the stories — I just remember how I felt when Mom would read me the stories and I would look at those pictures.

"I still get this warm, fuzzy feeling when I see Little Bear and he puts a box over his head and says to his mom, 'I'm an astronaut,' and it's not the over-sweet, sickly little things; she says, 'You are not an astronaut, you're a fat, little baby bear.'

She also remembers Frances of the classic Bedtime for Frances and other books — "I was always confused by what Frances was, whether she was a badger or something else" — and concludes, "I'm sure that is why I became a children's book writer: because my mom read to me every night."

In the past year, Henson has taken strides toward becoming a successful children's book writer, both in picture books and novels for preteens and early teens.

The big success has been That Book Woman (Atheneum, $17.99), a picture book with illustrations by David Small. She also has just published a novel, Here's How I See It, Here's How It Is (Atheneum, $16.99), drawn from her childhood growing up in Danville's Pioneer Playhouse.

That Book Woman is about packhorse librarians who delivered books to rural areas in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

Henson discovered the program while researching another picture book, Angel Coming (Atheneum, $15.95), which she started after reading a Herald-Leader article about the Frontier Nursing Service.

"I found the photographs of the women on horseback bringing books up the mountain roads, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, that is an amazing idea for a story,'" Henson says.

But figuring out how to tell it took a while. She finally settled on Cal, a farm boy who has no use for books — and doesn't know how to read — until a packhorse librarian starts coming around.

The book was mentioned as a candidate for the Caldecott Medal, one of the highest honors in children's literature.

"We didn't win, but just to have it listed in Publisher's Weekly saying, 'This book has a buzz that it might win the Caldecott,' was an amazing feeling," Henson says.

That Book Woman made numerous best-of lists, was a finalist for several awards and won a Christopher Medal, an honor for media that "affirm the highest values of the human spirit," according to the award Web site.

Henson says she never heard of the award until she won it. But when she went to New York to accept it, numerous people who had won honors including Oscars told her how deeply meaningful their Christopher Medals were to them. Henson experienced the same thing.

Rewarding reactions

The most meaningful experiences to her, though, have been touring around the country to support the book.

Henson was excited "to bring Kentucky history to the rest of the country ... they've been fascinated in Detroit, and I went to really low-income schools in Houston and the kids just responded so well," she says.

She recently had another meaningful experience at Joseph-Beth Booksellers introducing Here's How I See It, Here's How It Is.

It would be easy to see it as autobiographical: It's the story of a 13-year-old girl at her father's summer stock theater.

Henson's father, Eben Henson, was the founder of Pioneer Playhouse in Danville, and her summers were spent watching actors come in for the season to participate in shows. The Henson family still owns the theater, and Heather and her brother Robby helped run it last summer while their sister Holly, the theater's artistic director, was undergoing treatments for breast cancer. Eben Henson died in 2004. His widow, Charlotte, still plays an active role in the theater.

The girl in Here's How I See It dreams the theater will be her launching pad to stardom, but she ends up stuck backstage and in bit parts.

"This is not totally autobiographical, because I don't write non-fiction, I don't write memoirs," Henson says. "But definitely I couldn't have written this if I hadn't grown up in a theater. I was constantly around actors and directors and artists my whole life."

At the Joseph-Beth event, she got to share those memories with students from Lexington Children's Theatre's Company B, who also shared their experiences.

"They were amazing," Henson says. "These girls from Company B came, and I read the story, and then they had written little pieces about what theater means to them and how they had found their passion and their community."

They found commonalities among themselves and the book's main character, Junebug, who "is an outsider, and the funny thing about actors is they grow up kind of being the quiet ones or outsiders in their class," Henson says. "What theater gives them is a place to find themselves.

"It was phenomenal. They just seemed like an amazing group of girls."

Planted in the book are loving references to playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Anton Chekov that Henson hopes will inspire young readers to pick up the masters.

Coming into her own

After her freshman year in college, Henson moved a world away from Danville, to New York, where she first studied filmmaking before discovering that creative writing was her forte. She spent the next several years rising from a temporary position in the children's books division of HarperCollins to becoming a free-lance editor and ghost writer for numerous books, including The Caroline Years, a spinoff of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series.

The latest round of books represents Henson coming into her own as an author; the titles keep coming. July sees the release of Grumpy Grandpa (Atheneum, $16.99), a book she says her dad was proud to say was based on him.

"Dad knew he was a grumpy grandpa," Henson says, laughing. "Dad did not have a lot of patience for children. So this is how grandpas can be kind of scary because they yell a lot."

But, she says, kids need to know that grumpy grandpas love their kids.

Asked what sort of book she might write about her mother, Henson says, "I dedicated That Book Woman to my mom, and in some ways it is about her, because she was my first book woman."

And now, as she goes on tours, Henson gets to be a book woman.

"Kids still like to be read to," Henson says. "They're fascinated by being read to, and they're not being read to at home. So, for an author to come into the schools and actually read a book and talk about writing a book ... kids just eat it up."

She recalls a specific visit to a Houston school, where she read the book, talked about it "and at the end of the session, I said, 'Now you each get a free copy,' and man, their faces just lit up.

"Except for the library, they didn't have books at home, so to take a hardcover book home, they were just thrilled. They want this, but we have computers and TV, and parents just don't have time to sit and read with kids anymore."

But when Henson gives kids a book, she finds they aren't much different than she was, when her mom would come and read to her at night.