Surprise! It’s already time for another Simply 7 interview. I meant to publish this one on the book’s birthday, but I got a bit sidetracked with the wedding (now done) and somehow missed the fact that the book’s release date got bumped up and has already come out!
Today’s picture book author, Henry Herz, has written several picture books and has a couple coming out this year. He loves to write fantasy and science fiction, and has participated in literature panels at a variety of conventions. His active resume is not quite what you’d expect from a fellow picture book author, which makes him all the more intriguing! You can learn more about him at his website here: http://www.henryherz.com/
Henry joins us today to discuss his latest book (illustrated by Lisa Woods), “Mabel and the Queen of Dreams,” which cleverly takes a passage out of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and turns it into a bedtime story!
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Henry: I’m drawn to picture books by a couple of factors. First, picture books offer kids their first exposure to reading. It’s a magical time when you first discover WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and realize that books and your imagination can take you anywhere. Second, I enjoy the heavily illustrated nature of picture books. Given that most authors and illustrators don’t communicate directly during the production of a picture book, this is a serial collaboration. But that approach can offer readers two complementary interpretations of a story, the written word and the illustration.
Me: You seem to be fond of literary adaptations. What inspired you to use Shakespeare for a picture book?
Henry: I can see how you might draw that conclusion given my first four traditionally published picture books are adaptations. But that doesn’t mean I only WRITE adaptations. It’s just turned out the adaptations are what sold first. My fifth picture book, DINOSAUR PIRATES (Sterling, 2017) is not an adaptation, nor are the stories I have out on submission.
That said, there is something that tickles my funny bone about taking a familiar folk tale and tweaking it. Fractured fairy tales are quite popular – consider INTERSTELLER CINDERELLA by Deborah Underwood or NINJA RED RIDING HOOD by Corey Rosen Schwartz. And anyway, who better to adapt than the Bard himself? It is to be hoped that MABEL AND THE QUEEN OF DREAMS may spark in young readers some interest in reading more Shakespeare.
Me: I see that you list your two sons as co-writers. How does that work? Do they give you the ideas and you fill in the details? Or do all 3 of you sit down and write the story together?
Henry: This is a tradition we began years ago, when we first collaborated on our self-published high fantasy early chapter book, NIMPENTOAD. I draft the story and they review it, giving me feedback from a young reader’s perspective. They have also been instrumental in selling the book at book fairs, farmers markets, etc. They’re even better salesmen than they are writers.
Me: Did your own children have a hard time going to sleep? Were they an inspiration for Mabel?
Henry: No, our kids were pretty good about going to sleep. We established a familiar pattern of reading to them, giving them some milk, and letting them watch a soothing video. That seemed to establish a habit for them.
Initially, my thought was simply to write a picture book on Shakespeare. As I scanned through some of his works, I came across Mercutio’s soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet. Since the fairy queen influences sleepers’ dreams, it struck me that this could serve as the basis for a bedtime picture book.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Henry: Bedtime picture books are really different animals than “normal” picture books. In the latter, writers are expect to create a story arc with rising tension as the protagonist struggles to surmount obstacles on the way to victory. With a bedtime picture book, writers must sooth the reader. Instead of a triumphant finish, my approach was to offer the promise of vivid dreams if the child closes his or her eyes and goes to sleep.
Toward that end, the illustrator, Lisa Woods, did a great job linking the imagined scenes with bedroom elements. For example, notice the subtle presence of the bed cover’s checkerboard pattern in many of the illustrations.
Three things surprised me in writing MABEL. First was how well-suited Mercutio’s soliloquy was for a bedtime picture book. Second, I didn’t anticipate how the story would morph during the writing. In the final version, Mabel’s mom tells her a story, so this is a story about telling a story. Part-way through, the narration subtly shifts so that it sounds like it is the Fae queen speaking rather than Mom. As the story progresses, little Mabel gradually gets in bed, lies down, then puts her feet under the covers. She eases into the world of dreams.
The third surprise for me was the ability of a single word to convey tone. In MABEL, the Fae Queen’s chariot driver is an ant in a worn grey coat. Almost magically, the word ‘worn’ conveys decline and sadness. It’s subconscious, but a subtle mental shorthand occurs. This is the queen’s chariot driver, so he should be dressed meticulously. The use of a worn coat implies a decline in fortunes of the Fae Queen. Her ancient rule and power have faded with age, like Tolkien’s elves departing Middle Earth for Valinor.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Henry: The shorter version is to be tenacious. Never stop honing your craft. Never let rejections stop you from moving forward with your writing.
The longer version is a post I did for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo at https://taralazar.com/2014/11/20/piboidmo-day-20-henry-herz/
Me: I have to ask, what is your favorite quote from Shakespeare?
Henry: Henry V’s St. Crispin Day monologue. It chokes me up every time.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Ohhhh! That is a really great quote. It is incredibly moving, whether Kenneth Branaugh says it, or it’s just referred to (like in the “Band of Brothers” tv miniseries). Though I admit I watched a spoof of it just recently in the first season of Black Adder that had me giggling.
And this book is joining the ranks of other Shakespeare books of note this year like “Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk” written by Jane Sutcliffe and illustrated by John Shelley. Though honestly, Shakespeare has been and will continue to be adapted for many years to come as the Bard knew what emotional notes to strike. Just as Henry did here! It’s such a unique twist on such a great section of Shakespeare’s writing that I’m just floored at its brilliance. Hie thee hence to a bookstore dear reader and see just how amazing it is!