MAY 13:

  • Happy birthday Stephen Messer (Windblowne) and Bernadette Watts (Ugly Duckling).
  • It’s the birth date of Norma Klein (1938-1989), Mom, the Wolfman and Me.
  • In 1958, Velcro is trademarked. Read Mistakes that Worked by Charlotte Foltz Jones, illustrated by John O’Brien.
  • It’s Friday the 13th, considered a day of bad luck by the superstitious. Read The Bad Beginning: Book the First in a Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket and The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine.
  • It’s Leprechaun Day. Read That’s What Leprechauns Do by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully.

This week  Reading Is Fundamental celebrates an important concept: Reading Is Fun Week. Nothing will guarantee the reading success of children more than if they find enjoyment in reading. Today I’m going to look at a picture book that is sure to delight young readers.

In Kevin Henkes’s Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, a young mouse absolutely loves everything about school—pointy pencils, squeaky chalk, her own desk, and her teacher Mr. Slinger. At home Lilly pretends to be Mr. Slinger, giving instruction to her baby brother Julius. Every class has a student like Lilly—one with lots of ideas, always raising his or her hand, and even staying after school to help. But even in this idealized universe, conflict arises. One day, when Lilly comes to school for show-and-tell, she brings a noisy plastic purple purse that plays a jaunty tune. Mr. Slinger is not amused. In this picture book where every piece of art is accompanied by a funny, spot-on aside, Lilly and Mr. Slinger finally reconcile. In the end Lilly still wants to be a teacher, “That is, when she didn’t want to be a dancer or a surgeon or an ambulance driver or a dive or a pilot or a hairdresser or a scuba diver.”

From the age of ten, Kevin Henkes knew that he wanted to draw and write picture books. At nineteen, while still a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he took his art portfolio to New York City. In preparation for the trip, he had studied all the picture books published recently in the United States and made a list of his favorite publishers, setting up appointments in the order of his preference. At his first event, Susan Hirschman of Greenwillow, quite impressed by what she saw, asked why he had come to the Greenwillow offices. After he told her about his systematic approach, she asked “Where is your next appointment?” Then she assured Henkes that he did not need to go to this rival house—he would be a Greenwillow author. But Susan did hope that he would call his mother, as he looked so young.

Many years later, Kevin Henkes won a Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon. Appropriately, his mentor and friend, Susan Hirschman, now retired from the industry, had traveled to Madison to be with him when he received the news. People often ask the question: What do great editors do? They spot talent, nuture it, and support it—just as Susan did.

With just the right balance of pictures and text, humor and insight, emotion and intellect, Lilly’s Plastic Purple Purse provides reading pleasure for all who pick it up. It always sends young readers in search of another book, or specifically another book by Kevin Henkes, the greatest tribute that can be paid to an author of children’s books. Because Kevin has produced such a wide variety of books over the years, I’d love to hear today about your favorite Kevin Henkes book — and any story you can tell me about sharing  it.

Here’s a page from Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse:


Originally posted May 13, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Humor, School
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Lilly’s Plastic Purple Purse


  1. Oh, my word…my VERY FAVORITE picture book! I love Lilly, I love her spunk…those red boots and purple purse are the best. I even have a braille copy of the book I treasure. Thank you for the kind words about RIF as well!

  2. There are so many. Jessica has a special place in my heart. So does that worrier Wemberly. And we copied Julius’ cupcakes from Julius’ candy corn when my daughter turned two. It is really hard to pick an actual favorite. It’s more like most-admired-author-illustrator-understander-of-children-&-parents award should go to Kevin Henkes.

  3. Wendi Gratz says:

    I love them all (the novels too!) but if I had to choose just one favorite it would be Chrysanthemum. Chrysanthemum. . . Chrysanthemum. . . Chrysanthemum.

  4. Ginny Marie says:

    Our favorite quote from Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is from Mr. Slinger’s note to Lilly, “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” We also love Chester’s Way, the book where we first discovered Lilly. Chester and his best friend Wilson are hysterical!

  5. Lisa says:

    There are so many wonderful books by Kevin. How does one choose? Chrysanthemum is simply classic, but Kitten’s Full Moon is rich with imagery. It’s a toss! I love them all!

  6. John says:

    It is difficult to pick a favorite but I’m going with Old Bear.

  7. Cheryl Wolf says:

    Not a picture book–but I just finished the “novella” Junonia–an only child, summering at the beach with her family–and thought it was a very special book in that “small moments” kind of way

  8. Kevin Henkes holds a special place in my heart as a teacher. He was not an author I read as a kid, so they were a joy to discover in my Children’s Lit. class! Chrysanthemum is my favorite and I begin each year reading it out loud from a big book. It allows me to tell the students that my name is spelled a little funny and it allows each of us to enjoy our own name. My second favorite is Wemberly Worried. This year we used Kevin Henkes as our mentor to write stories and Wemberly Worried allowed my students to address their own concerns in the world.

  9. Teresa Rolfe Kravtin says:

    My favorite is Sheila Rae the Brave. My son and I “read” this many times on my computer as an animated story when he was a toddler. We sang the songs and loved the interactive elements. It is a great story about facing fears. I love Sheila Rae!

  10. Mary Anne says:

    Thanks for reminding us of the joy found in Kevin Henke’s books…Love Lily’s Plastic Purse. Really, love them all. But Sheila Rae, The Brave is my favorite!

  11. Marcela says:

    Kevin Henkes’ books have been a big part of my life as a teacher and a mom. I think I have the tightest bond with Chrysanthemum, though, because it reminds me how much a connection with a special teacher can turn around the school experience a child. It was my favorite present to a student teacher for that reason.

  12. Sarah says:

    Chrysanthemum! (my secret name is Delphinium)

  13. Sharon H. says:

    I enjoy Henkes novels as much as his picture books. He’s sort of a trifecta of children’s authors: picture book text and pictures and novels.

    But Julius Baby of the World is my favorite: if he were a number he’d be zero and a raisin: because they taste like dirt. That is funny. And true to Lilly who is a delightful character. Just thinking about her makes me smile.

  14. Tabitha (@tabletj) says:

    The first day of my education cohort in college, our program head read Wemberly Worried to all of us. I still love it!

  15. G.Perry says:

    When I first saw this book recommendation in Anita’s book, 100 Best Books for Children, (I was reading all the books she listed) I had a negative reaction to the tile, and was not eager to read it. I thought, “Oh great. A purple plastic purse! How good can that be?”

    Well, it was a great book! I laughed and smiled all the way through it, and came to love the title.

    To top it off, the story behind the story for this book’s author, is one of my favorite background stories told by Anita.

    I would love to have been in that office when Susan Hirschman told that boy he had a publisher.

  16. Michelle M. says:

    In honor of Kevin Henkes Appreciation Day..my absolute fave is the book Chrysthanemum. The great and cute story about being unique and while you feel like an outsider, you can later become cool.

  17. mambooks says:

    Oh, Chesster’s Way. Where we first met Lillly. And for all the sensitive children out there

  18. Erika says:

    I go with those who say “all of them.” His portrayal of so many different personality types–the quirky kid, the free-wheeling romantic, the kids who like things to be exactly right, the shy kids, the mean girls–spot on. I think I need to go collect them all again, and read them with my 8-yr-old.

  19. Jean says:

    Chrysanthemum! But there are so mny favorites of his!

  20. Jessica says:

    I LOVE Kevin Henkes! He’s been one of my favorites ever since I discovered his book “Jessica” when I was in 1st grade. Lily is fabulous!

  21. Shirley says:

    Very interesting and informative post. The artwork is extremely good. Makes you want to pick it up and read.

  22. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    Kevin Henkes’ mouse books are tiny bits of creative genius wrapped up in the delicious smell of paper and ink. They contain just as much humor for adults as they do for kids, and it’s sophisticated humor. I love them all, but Lilly is my favorite Henkes character, and Julius the Baby of the World is my very favorite Henkes book. Who can resist a line like, “You will live to regret that bump under your dress!”? Lilly is a classic, one of the all-time great characters in children’s literature. She has moxie and spunk and big dreams and a loyal heart. I’m always amazed at the vocabulary words Henkes throws into his picture books. Winsome? Jaundiced? How many elementary kids know those words? Certainly more, now, thanks for Kevin Henkes.

    Chrysanthemum and Sheila Rae are bumping each other around, crowding in to try to take that second spot in my heart, though. Chrysanthemum is beautiful and lovely and spirited, and reminds us that though there will always be mean girls, no matter if we’re 8 or 88, there will also always be someone else who understands. And if she happens to be named Delphinium Twinkle, well, that’s just a big bonus. Sheila Rae is just funny, and as a little sister myself, I adore Louise’s bravery.

    Let’s not forget Wemberley, who is as big a worrier as I was as a child, and Owen, who cannot part with that beloved yellow blanket despite the warnings of cranky Mrs. Tweezers. My younger child is 14 and carries the ragged remains of a blankee she would still take to school today if she thought she could get away with it.

    Another Henkes title that doesn’t get as much recognition but is really just as fun is A Weekend with Wendell (who makes a brief and uncomfortable appearance on the school playground in Sheila Rae, the Brave). Wendell has turned into one of my favorite read-alouds for school, because every kid listening knows a Wendell. They love it when kindhearted Sophie turns the tables on him, even if it’s only briefly.

    Although My Garden, Kitten’s First Full Moon and Henkes’ other new books are pretty to look at, the snarky, sophisticated humor of his mouse books will always be my favorites…all of them.

  23. Deb Tyo says:

    My daughter Tori is four years old. She has grown up with Kevin’s books. She has had Kitten’s First Full Moon memorized since the age of three! How adorable it is to hear your three-year-old say, “Kitten’s First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes” and then ‘read’ the story.

    I recently introduced her to Little White Rabbit. And yes, this one is now memorized as well. I know Tori will be a reader in part because of Kevin Henkes. If Tori ever meets Kevin in person, that will truly be a special event!

    Thank you, Anita, for spotlighting Lilly. Thank you, Kevin, for sharing your talent with us all.

  24. Anita says:

    What can I say besides WOW! Thanks everyone for the love for Kevin Henkes today. The comments will be sent on to him. I’m glad people had so many different choices.

  25. Kim says:

    My favorite Keven Henkes’ book is Owen. My son who just turned 25 had a favorite blanket.

  26. Kelly says:

    Reading all these comments I realize I like a lot of Henkes’ books, but a few stuck out in my head. I remember Chrysanthemum because I could spell that word in 2nd grade. But in my education classes in college my teacher read us Wemberly Worried, so I love that one, and my group read and reenacted Owen, so I love that one, too.

  27. Star says:

    I grew up in Kevin Henkes’ hometown, and have fond memories of seeing him at the library. He always had time to talk to us, and we have always been proud to say that we knew him way back when! My sisters and I spent a lot of time volunteering in the local library, and helping to raise funds to build a new one. He was involved in that, too. We were in awe that we could walk right up and talk to “a famous author.” My own children now read his books (A Good Day is their current favorite), and I have several autographed copies of his early books that I won through the summer library reading program when I was a kid. LOVE his books…he’s truly a treasure to his community and the literary world!

  28. Robin says:

    Chrysanthemum is my favorite, perhaps because it was the first one I heard. I remember clearly the voice of a fellow graduate student reading it aloud to a small group in our children’s literature class in library school. It is warm and funny and moving and charming. Such wonderful vocabulary (winsome, jaundiced, etc). And I appreciate the supportive, loving parents and the details of what psychology/parenting books they are reading to try to help (A Rose by any other name) and the fine art connections of the paintings in the background (the mice Picasso). So much in this one book . . . I’m also a fan of his longer works, like Olive’s Ocean and now Junonia.

  29. Jennifer Geringer says:

    Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse was the touchstone book in my dissertation a few years back. I fell head over heels with Lilly, and with Kevin’s work overall. Ever since, I’ve used Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse as a read aloud with my college students enrolled in children’s literature or language & literacy development. It’s a joy to introduce them to such a vibrant character and fabulous illustrations. Wow! That’s just about all I can say. Wow! :)

  30. How can I pick a favorite book from one of my all-time favorite illustrators… Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse is undoubtedly the one I have read the most times (and the most joyously) over the years in story times at my bookshop. I am pretty shy, but I can’t help getting very animated when I’m reading this book, especially when those quarters are so shiny, and the tension is building… and Lilly just can’t stay quiet any longer! Mr. Henkes has an uncanny way of remembering exactly what it feels like to be a child, in a way that speaks to both kids and adults.

    Another favorite is Circle Dogs. This is one of those books that you cannot truly appreciate until you read it out loud. When I started carrying it, I read it silently to myself and thought, “That’s a nice book” and then put it on the shelf. But when I plucked it off the shelf for story time one day, when we had an audience that skewed very young, I discovered that it’s an absolutely *amazing* book! The rhythm and the sounds are positively hypnotizing.

    My sentimental favorite, though, will always be Owen–the book that introduced me to the wonderful world of Kevin Henkes. I’m so excited to have the chance see him at BEA this year; he deserves all the praise, awards, and love he gets from readers. One of my favorite bookstore memories is when his aunt, who moved to our town, casually mentioned one time, “Oh, I have a nephew who writes children’s books… there’s one about a purple plastic purse or something… have you ever heard of it?” I nearly fainted! =)

  31. Kim Yaris says:

    My favorite Kevin Henkes book is Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, hands down. I’ve read it aloud so many times that the phrase, “Wow, that just about all he could say, wow,” has become as common a phrase as “Even in Australia” from Judith Viorst’s Alexander and “How’s it goin Blossom?” from Mem Fox’s Koala Lou. Every time I read Lilly, I find something new to love. Interestingly, I have fallen in love with Mr. Slinger. He’s the epitome of what a good teacher is: innovative, understanding, and kind.

  32. Beth Redford says:

    I love all the mouse books, but A Good Day is my new favorite. Hard to believe someone so talented with illustrations could be even better at writing.

  33. A Good Day is our favorite! My 20 month old loves the simple illustrations with their thick, solid outlines and bright colors, and my 4 year old likes the repetition of the plot and the happy resolution. I love the message about how a shift in perspective or the slightest turn of events can change the outcome of an entire day. I love all of Henkes’ work, but I fell in love with A Good Day the first time I read it, and I still smile every time my daughter says, “Mama! What a good day!”

  34. Beth Redford says:

    May I add…I’m an elementary school librarian and Kevin Henkes is one of the author/illustrators I NEVER get to read to students in the library because my classroom teachers have claimed his books for their own! They share his picture books with students for their fine writing; for their appealing illustrations; and most of all for their sympathetic, accurate portraits of young children’s concerns and pleasures.

  35. Megan Lambert says:

    I was a double major in political science and African American studies at Smith College in the mid ’90s, attempting to complete my degree in 3 years on a fast track to law school. This meant I had to take a heavy course load in my final semester, and I decided on a lark to take a survey of children’s literature, thinking it’d be a light, easy course. Well. Not only was it quite rigorous, it changed the course of my career and sent me spinning. I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I wasn’t going to go keep my LSAT appointment after all: my professor, Anna Pearce, read Chrysanthemum aloud to us. I was floored by the perfection of the narrative arc, the trueness of the emotions, the personality and charm of the illustration, and just how plain real this story about a little mouse girl felt to me. I didn’t know what I’d end up pursuing in the field, but I knew that I wanted to get to know Chrysanthemum and her ilk a lot better. Fifteen years later, I’m teaching at Simmons College (having earned my MA in Childrne’s LIterature there in January 2002) and it all feels “absolutely perfect.”

  36. Lisa Sunbury says:

    Couldn’t miss commenting on this one! Kevin Henkes is one of my favorite author/illustrators of all time! He writes books that I enjoy sharing with children as much as they delight in having them read to them. His books are gently humorous, and so sympathetic to children- he really understands and captures the way they think and feel. It’s so hard to choose just one favorite; Wemberly Worried, Owen, and Lilly’s Big Day are three that I love.

  37. Anita says:

    Megan: Thank you for this story, one that really demonstrates the power of a single book. And I might add that it feels “absolutely perfect” to have you teaching at Simmons as well.

  38. Darcie says:

    My family loves them all, a love affair that started with “Bailey Goes Camping,” which one doesn’t hear about but certainly hints at all the charm to come in the mouse books.

  39. Erica S. says:

    Kristi – ditto on A Weekend with Wendell! This was one of my absolute favorite books (not just favorite Kevin Henkes’ books) as a kid, and I’m always shocked that it’s one of his lesser-known titles. The story is absolutely hilarious, and I love all the pranks Wendell gets away with. Kevin Henkes, you are a true genius.

  40. Rebecca says:

    How do you choose? They are all so wonderful in different ways. The mouse books, I agree, are “absolutely perfect.” I also adore A Good Day and My Garden, and Kitten’s First Full Moon is stunning. These stories are always quietly amazing with the strong and subtle narratives to match Henkes’ strong lines and gentle color palettes. He’s a master at composition as well. His books are perfectly balanced. I always read Wemberly Worried to my second grade students on the first day of school and it never failed to put them at ease. Now I read it to my kids the night before the first day. What is there NOT to love about Kevin Henkes?!?

  41. suzi w. says:

    Susan is Lily in Hebrew, so it’s one of my mother’s nicknames for me. When I came across Julius, Baby of the World, I knew that Kevin Henkes was a magician. Because, after being an only child for 10 years, I became a sibling to an adopted sister overnight (literally) and then a bouncing baby boy, shortly after my 11th birthday. The fears and joy and sheer PRIDE that Lilly feels is where I was, though I didn’t have a book to express it until I discovered Julius, years down the road.

    When I worked at B&N, I hand sold so many copies of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. And when the cardboard stand was ready for retirement, I took it home. It lives in my foyer. When Kevin Henkes came to Pittsburgh, I took the cardboard stand with me to hear Kevin Henkes speak and afterwards got him to sign it. It is one of my prized possessions.

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