Reflections on Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Some of my favorite mice are heading back to school!
Stuart Little. Despereaux Tilling. Ralph S. Mouse. Geronimo Stilton. Soon, they will all be kicking off a new school year: performing in class read-alouds, starring as the subjects of thousands of book reports and projects, and being the correct answers on pop quizzes and standardized tests and in literature bees. They will inspire. Delight. Motivate. Teach young people about respecting others and being your best self.
And many of them, including Chrysanthemum—Kevin Henkes’s beloved-by-me-and-millions-of-others adorable mouse—will remind us all how exciting (and daunting) actually heading back to school can be.
In real life, I don’t love mice.
I do appreciate their tiny bodies and ferocious metabolisms, and I am impressed that they can sneak under cracks in doors, somehow collapsing their skulls to fit through small spaces.
And I do admire—from a distance—their ingenuity, even when each autumn, when the weather gets chilly, some of them torture my husband, Jeff, by making a home under the hood, in the toasty engine, of his beloved car.
But I definitely do not love meeting mice “in person.” Or feeling (or imagining that I am feeling) mice tickle my toes as they try to get warm under my covers on a chilly night.
I don’t want to see mice in my line of vision. And I definitely, emphatically, don’t want to come in contact with their seemingly more sinister cousins, rats.
There are a few rats—Templeton (from Charlotte’s Web), Roscuro (from The Tale of Despereaux), and Nicodemus and his fellow rats (from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH)—who are fantastic characters in their stories, and I appreciate them. But while I respect their literary value, I don’t want to meet them—or any of their relatives—in real life.
Kevin Henkes, a Caldecott and Newbery Medal–winning children’s book author and illustrator, doesn’t share my aversion. He often uses mice as the characters in his brilliant and timeless bestselling books. In an interview, Kevin was asked why that is, and this is what he said:
“My early books have realistically rendered humans as the protagonists. As my stories became more humorous, I thought that I could better match my texts by drawing more loosely and using animals as my main characters. Bailey Goes Camping was my first book in which I did this; Bailey and his family are rabbits. For my next book, A Weekend with Wendell, I chose to use animals again, but I wanted to draw something other than rabbits. I made sketches—a dog, a cat, an elephant, and a mouse. I liked the mouse sketch, and so, Wendell was a mouse. I enjoyed doing that book so much, I continued to use mice as the protagonists in many of my picture books. I have no particular affinity for mice, nor was using them repeatedly in my books something I planned to do. It just happened.”
In one of my all-time favorite back-to-school stories, Kevin’s adorable main mouse character, Chrysanthemum (who loves her name), is so excited to go to school. That is, until more plainly named mean girls Jo, Rita, and Victoria pick on her for being named after a flower and having a name that is too long and won’t fit on a name tag.
Chrysanthemum is deflated and miserable—in school and at home—until she meets the wonderful new music teacher, Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle. Just like thousands of teachers do every day, Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle navigates her students’ behavior, solves the problem at hand, and makes all the other kids wish they too were named after flowers.
You don’t need a long, polysyllabic flower name to be tortured by other kids. Long ago, for one very long year, my nemesis, Chucky P., reversed the letters of my own fairly pedestrian, name-tag-fitting name, Judy Newman, into the humiliating “Nudy Jewman.”
Just like Jo, Rita, and Victoria did to Chrysanthemum, Chucky made me hate my name.
I didn’t have an aware Delphinium Twinkle in my life at the time, and it took me quite a while not to feel embarrassed by that nickname.
(My pseudonymous alter ego with a snappier name—Pepper Springfield—did create a character in the Bobs and Tweets series named Chucky P. I had every intention of getting some long-overdue revenge on Chucky P. through this character, but I find I am having a hard time turning him into too much of a jerk or being mean to him. He actually saves the day in Bobs and Tweets: Scout Camp. I do know this about myself: I never want anyone to feel embarrassed or self-conscious about their name or about anything else. Even decades later. Even if maybe they deserve a little bit of their own medicine.)
I think everyone should celebrate their name!
We were so inspired by the power of names, we asked the Scholastic Book Clubs 2019 summer interns (who were Chrysanthemum’s age not that long ago) to join the Scholastic Book Clubs Book Boys to share a little bit about their own names. Before they headed back to school, they did so in this video. I think you’ll enjoy it.
David Vozar also took some time to think about his own name and what it means to him:
“Reading Chrysanthemum got me thinking how my own name affected my life at school. With the last name Vozar, I was always put toward the end of lines and the back of the classroom, until my third grade teacher completely turned my world around when she started with Z when arranging her classroom.
“The other good thing was getting to know my friend Howard Walters really well.”
Heading back to school can feel exciting or daunting—and often both! We all have the power to make others in our lives feel more excited or more daunted. And wonderful teachers—like Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle—often have the most power of all.
As always, we at Scholastic Book Clubs celebrate teachers, the incredible work they do every day, and their collective belief in the power of connecting their students to the best children’s books. All of us—mice lovers and mice avoiders alike—believe firmly that children’s books are among the best ways to help students and families feel more excited, fuel imagination, develop vocabulary, express themselves, learn about the world, and be inspired. Books about all kinds of subjects in which kids with all kinds of names can see themselves and others provide real help and perspective with daunting situations kids encounter every day.
To kick off a brand-new school year filled with the very best books, we are pleased to offer Kevin Henkes’s Chrysanthemum as the Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week.
“Henkes’s language and humor are impeccably fresh, his cozy illustrations sensitive and funny, his little asides to adults an unobtrusive delight. Another winner from this perceptive artist.” —Kirkus Reviews
To enhance students’ enjoyment and appreciation of Chrysanthemum, please take a look at the Book Boys’ first video of the school year, Ms. Melanie Healey’s teacher book review, an interview with Kevin Henkes, and a fun back-to-school icebreaker activity.
I would love to hear about your—and your students’—names! Please share them with me on social media using the hashtag #ScholasticBookClubs or email me directly at JNBlog@scholastic.com.
Best wishes for a brand-new school year. Happy reading!
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs