Tuesday, May 7, 2019

2020 Contenders: Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

For the first time since 2014 Newbery Honor book The Year of Billy Miller, we have another chapter book from The Henk. In Sweeping Up the Heart, we follow a week in the life of 12-year-old Amelia Albright, an aspiring clay artist with a dead mother, a grieving and emotionally unavailable father, and a new friend named Casey, the nephew of the owner of her favorite art studio. Adventures ensue when Casey claims to see a "sign" from Amelia's mother -- which may or may not be the mother herself. This being a Kevin Henkes book, however, the important adventures are interior, taking place within Amelia's heart and mind.

Sweeping Up the Heart reminded me a lot of Junonia, Henkes' 2011 novel. Both novels have female protagonists who don't feel like their vacations are going exactly as they would have wished; both deal with themes of growing up and change; and both feel hushed and subdued even during the most "action-packed" moments. If you liked Junonia, you'll almost certainly enjoy Sweeping; if you found Junonia to be a low-stakes exercise in self-pity...then I don't really agree with you, but I can definitely say that, while you might like Sweeping better, you probably won't love it.

Kevin Henkes' work has always felt strangely out of time to me, as if it were being written from a close-but-not-quite parallel universe, or being sent forward from my own childhood. Henkes legendarily writes all of his books on a typewriter that his wife owned as a teenager (and does the illustrations for his picture books on a light box that he got for Christmas as a child), and his work has a sort of "vintage" feel to it. Sweeping Up the Heart is set in 1999, and while the temporal setting does allow Casey to express his fears about Y2K, it also felt to me like it allowed Henkes to tell his story without the background distractions of cell phones, social media, and omnipresent digital cameras, all of which would have complicated the atmospheric, whisper-quiet story.

Henkes is famous for his incisive, pitch-perfect characterization; I do not believe there is another author currently working who is as capable of actually getting inside the head of a child and understanding her hopes, dreams, and fears. Amelia certainly is one of Henkes' triumphs, but every other character in the story also comes across as someone you'd recognize if you met them in the street.

It's hard for me to evaluate the Newbery chances of Sweeping Up the Heart. It's a gem of a book with perfect craftsmanship evident in every line; it's also a deeply inward-looking book in a year in which I'm not sure that will be rewarded, one that takes few risks, and doesn't break any new ground for Henkes. The Henk's legions of fans will love this one, and every library should buy a copy. The competition may be too stiff for it to take the gold medal, however.

Published March 19, 2019 by Greenwillow/HarperCollins

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