I had the pleasure this past weekend of accompanying an energetic eight-year-old boy down Washington Avenue on the University of Minnesota campus. We were on foot — his feet faster than the rest in our party, but we easily caught up at each of the pedestrian intersections because he stopped at the light at each and every one.
Before Sunday, I’d never realized there were so many crosswalks on this stretch. The stoplights “talk” in this busy urban area — there are buses, bikes, and light rail trains — and when you push the button to cross the street, whether once or seventy-two times, a disembodied voice with great authority says “WAIT.”
There’s no exclamation point to the word as vocalized by the stoplight, but it does sound like it’s in all caps and has a definitive period — its own declaration. “WAIT.” Our young charge repeated the word perfectly matching the pitch, volume, and authority of the mechanized voice.
“WAIT.” said the light.
“WAIT.” he repeated. Then he hit the button again.
“WAIT.” it said.
“WAIT.” he told us as he hit the button again.
“WAIT.” the light responded.
“WAIT.” he said. And then…well, you can probably guess how it continued.
When we finally actually needed to cross Washington Avenue, he pushed the button a bazillion times while we stood awaiting the instruction to cross safely. (I’m not sure I’ve ever waited so long to cross a street, actually.) As we stood there I thought: this is what so much of childhood is. WAITING. You’re forever waiting — on others, for everything to be ready, for some great thing, for your next birthday, for whatever will happen next, for “just a minute”.… Life, at some level, is a long series of WAITS. Maybe especially when you’re a kid, because when you’re a kid you are also waiting to grow up.
On Tuesday I was back at the U of M to hear Kevin Henkes, one of my picture book writing heros. The title of his talk was 3 Kinds of Waiting: A Picture Book Trilogy. I thought of my young friend as I listened to Mr. Henkes talk about this theme of waiting present in so many of his books. He has thought deeply about waiting — from a child’s point of view, but any age’s point of view, really. We wait for good things and hard things, he said. We do both wistful and serious waiting. He talked about windows and waiting, treating us to illustrations from his books and others that included someone looking out a window, waiting for the next thing.
I was in picture book heaven — Kevin Henkes is a master.
I thought of my new friend who so loved pushing the walk buttons on Washington Avenue. He waited a long time to be adopted, to come to his new home with his little sister, to have a Mama and a Papa, to be part of a family. He’s a sponge for language and music and his new culture — he’s learned so much in the last couple of months. He loves books and stories, and I think it might be time to introduce him to Lilly and her Purple Plastic Purse…to Wilson and Chester…to Chrysanthemum and Penny.…and Owen and Wendell and Julius and Wemberly and Sheila Ray, too.
Henkes’ books are spare in their text, but you read them slowly, because so much of the story is told in the illustrations. They’re good books for language learners, which is every kid, of course. And I like this theme that’s going on in all of his mice books (and his other books, too), this theme of waiting. Waiting to show-and-tell, waiting for the new baby, waiting for new friends, waiting to learn how, waiting for an appropriate time, waiting to grow up.… It’s pretty universal, this WAIT.
I never thought of Henkes “mouse books” as falling under this theme of waiting until he pointed it out. But when I got home, I looked at my (substantial) collection of his books and realize that they all have something to do with waiting. And I can’t wait to introduce them to my new friend who so solidly says and understands the word WAIT. I think he’s going to love them.