Review of Owen by Kevin Henkes

This article reviews the content, artwork, etc. of Kevin Henkes’ book: Owen. It also shows why this book is especially suitable for children ages 5-6.

Writing a story is a bit like being a puppeteer. There are many parts to your puppet, but only by controlling them cohesively and fluidly, can you create the illusion of life from an inanimate marionette. In a book, the various parts are not arms or legs, but rather five criteria, which must be tweaked to their utmost potential. These criteria are: plot, characterization, setting, theme and style (Norton, 79). Each must work in beautiful tandem if you wish to have “a good book”. Owen, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, is just that– “a good book”. The plot revolves around a common scenario in life, one that many children will be able to relate with. Owen is a young mouse who lives with his parents in apparently a suburb, next to a nosy neighbor named Mrs. Tweezers. Owen’s best friend since babyhood is a yellow blanket name Fuzzy. He loves Fuzzy with all of his heart, and they do everything together. Sadly, Owen is growing up, and like social customs dictate, it is time for him to relinquish Fuzzy and move on–something Owen does not wish to do at all. Mrs. Tweezers then steps in and offers Owen’s parents advice on how to get Owen to kick the “blankie habit”. This leads us to our conflict, as Owen foils all of his parent’s and Mrs. Tweezer’s schemes. It seems that Owen and Fuzzy will be together forever. Sadly, an ultimatum appears in the form of school, forcing Owen’s parents to take “extreme” measures thus creating the climax. Using the advice of Mrs. Tweezers, they tell Owen “no”; he simply cannot take Fuzzy to school with him. Owen is terribly distraught, and begins to cry. His parents are sympathetic, but there seems to be nothing they can do. That is, until Owen’s mom has a brilliant idea. She takes Fuzzy, cuts and sews, cuts and sews, and voila–a lot of little, yellow, fuzzy handkerchiefs! Now Owen can take Fuzzy to school! A brilliant compromise has been achieved, the problem is solved! There you have it, an expertly crafted story. Henkes introduces his characters and settings–which coincide perfectly, and then the problem/conflict appears. The characters themselves are not terribly deep or multi-dimensional but then again this is forgivable due to the simplicity of the story itself. Then from this conflict we flow easily into the climax, whose outcome allows the characters to grow. Owen is able to take a step forward in his development without having to totally relinquish the blanket he loves. Owen’s parents learn how to be even better parents than before by compelling their son to do something uncomfortable yet necessary, all while making it as painless as possible. Mrs. Tweezers finally comes to accept Owen and Fuzzy, the ex-blanket turned handkerchief. In addition, even though each character learns a different lesson, there is a common one they all learn.  They discover that a compromise can be the best way to solve a confrontation and make everyone happy. This is the theme (or at least one of the themes) Kevin Henkes is able to craft using his very calm, sincere, simplistic yet descriptive style. Like a master puppeteer he danced his marionette across the stage with all the grace and charm that one seeks in a children’s book.

                Owen seems to be a story aimed at the five through six year old, kindergarten age demographic. It is a read-aloud book, because even though the subject matter fits like a glove, it is a bit too advanced for readers at this age without adult help. However, children should have no trouble understanding the message, and they will no doubt see it as a pleasant introduction to books they one day will be reading on their own. That is what makes it very appropriate; it is sure to assist with the language, cognitive, personal, and social development of all children at this age (Norton, 4, 11, 20, 29). First, we will look at the ways Owen helps the development of language. The parts where Owen interacts with Fuzzy, introduces children to various aspects of the English language. At one time, we see everywhere Fuzzy goes with Owen: Upstairs, downstairs, in-between, inside, outside, and upside down (Henkes, 265). Mr. Henkes has essentially created a valuable list of positional phrases otherwise know as adverbs. Adverbs are probably one of the least know denizens of the word kingdom, so it’s great that children are able to see so many blatant examples and have that concept ingrained in their mind. In that same vein there is another incident where Owen does various things with and to Fuzzy: He carries Fuzzy, wears Fuzzy, drags Fuzzy, sucks on Fuzzy, hugs Fuzzy, and twists Fuzzy (273). This, is a list of verbs, or as children know them, action words. Verbs and adverbs work together frequently in literature so it’s great that the author provided such extensive examples of both in Owen. Interspersed throughout the tale as well, are some adjectives children in kindergarten probably haven’t had much exposure to. “Terrific”, “ratty”, and “essential” (267, 269) are but a few of them. Adverbs, verbs, and adjectives, are some of the building blocks of stories. It is “essential” that children learn these.

                As far as cognitive development goes, Owen is great for teaching three operations out of the eight basic operations commonly associated with it. These three operations are Organization, Observation, and Applying (Norton, 11, 18, 19). Each is very important to children at the kindergarten level and at all the other levels. Kevin Henkes appears to have organized Owen to follow a similar pattern. Owen interacts with his blanket, then Owen’s parent’s speak with Mrs. Tweezers, then Owen’s parents interact with Owen himself and the process repeats itself. By finding this pattern it gives children a greater grasp of the individual pieces that went together to create the story. Organizing things into smaller groups and parts can often give us a greater understanding and appreciation of the whole itself. Along with the text there are many illustrations that help the story. Each illustration is full of actions and emotions, just begging for the reader to investigate them and observe certain things that may not have been stated. Or, they could observe whether the illustration does in fact compliment the text. For instance, when Owen’s parents speak with Mrs. Tweezers are they happy or sad? What is Owen’s reaction to the “Vinegar trick”? How does he and his dad react when Owen’s mom turns Fuzzy into handkerchiefs? Owen is absolutely fraught with opportunities for observation. At the end of Owen, the valuable lesson of compromise is learned. This is a lesson that can be easily applied by kindergarten aged children. They could be asked to tell ideas for how they can use compromise to alter everyday dilemmas. Instead of fighting for a toy, children could compromise and set time limits for having the toy. If children can’t decide who will stand at the front of the line in class, a compromise could be made where each child draws a number and then lines up in that order. The sky is the limit when it comes to this story’s application. Problems are guaranteed to arise in our lives, finding another way to deal with them is a welcome prospect indeed.

                While Kevin Henkes’ Owen contributes immensely to the fields of Language and Cognitive development, we would be short-changing ourselves if we downplayed the valuable role it plays in personal development. Like the story, many children who have just turned five (the accepted age to begin their school attendance) will have to leave behind their very own blankets or items of security. As shown from Owen’s reaction, this can be a very stressful and uncomfortable time for children because not only does it mean separation with an item that is dear to them, but it signals the start of maturity. Maturing can be a very frightening thing if not looked at logically and objectively. Thankfully, by reading Owen, children are able to see that their feelings are not unnatural, and that many children go through what they themselves are going through. It is just a normal aspect of development, nothing to be scared by. Children will ultimately be encouraged by the fact that even though everyone must grow up and leave childish things behind, it is okay to bring some things along with you. That is, as long as they do not impede your growth. Its fine to cherish childhood belongings, but do not let yourself become dependent on them. In such an unsettling time, kindergarteners can find personal support by reading Owen.

                Finally, we see how the story of the hour can help children when it comes to social development. This feature coincides greatly with personal development. From birth to about four years old, owning something like a security blanket is still acceptable. This applies to a lot of other related things such as thumb-sucking, pacifiers, or an obsession with a certain article of clothing. Basically, anything that makes a child feel safe and comfortable. By age five however, social norms dictate that children be ready to forgo such aids, and learn how to become confident individuals. As stated before, this can be a most unpleasant predicament. Let me stop here and say that I am not endorsing mindless social integration that deprives one of their very individuality. What I am merely suggesting is that children develop enough social competence in order for them to lead healthy, happy lives in their family, community, and nation. Something impossible if one still leans upon a security item as a metaphorical crutch. With a crutch, one can never learn to walk on their own. In the story, Mrs. Tweezers more or less embodies the social view of past-age blanket owners. While some may call her nosy, her concern is far from ungrounded. Only when Owen and his parents discovered the socially acceptable alternative of turning Fuzzy into handkerchiefs did Mrs. Tweezers become accepting. This shows children that conforming to societal rules can sometimes have beneficial results. At last surrendering the blanket form of Fuzzy was better for Owen in the long run. However, parents and teachers should also use the book to make the point that even though society may dictate something as good, that alone does not make it so. Everything people say should be judged and weighed before we decide upon its truth. There you have it, reasons upon reasons why Owen written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, is a good book. The only question that remains is, “what are you waiting for?” find this book and share it with a child you care about. With your help, this book could very well help make sense out of the ancient enigma we call…life.

 Works Cited:

Henkes, Kevin. Owen. The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury. Selected by Janet Schulman.

                New York: Alfred A Knopf. 2007. 256-276.

Norton, Donna E.  Through the Eyes of a Child, An Introduction to Children’s Literature.                

                7th Ed. Columbus: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall, 2007.

 Billy Greer Copyright 2010

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