I love discovering a book that tackles a subject in such a fresh way that I cannot wait to read it in my classroom. That is today’s picture book!
Henry Herz has visited my blog several times in the past. He has written numerous picture books and short stories, as well as edited several anthologies. He has a BS in Engineering from Cornell U., an MS in Engineering from George Washington U., and an MA in Political Science from Georgetown U. And the latest hat he is now wearing is editor for Running Wild Press. You can learn more about him at his website.
His latest picture book, I AM SMOKE, is an amazingly creative approach to a STEM topic: smoke. In first person point of view, smoke tells of how it can help and harm in numerous ways that show a wide range of research. It gives the young reader just enough of a taste that I’m sure they will want to know more about many different aspects. There is back matter to fill in some of those gaps and references to find out more. This is a nonfiction picture book that absolutely must not be missed.
Welcome back Henry!
Me: What a fantastic concept! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. And it’s based on fact! How long did it take you to research all the different facts that went into your story? Can you tell us a bit about your research process?
Henry: Thanks! I researched wood smoke and discovered it’s primarily carbon dioxide, ash, and water vapor. That got me thinking about the water cycle. Then it hit me that trees sequester carbon they extract from breathing in carbon dioxide. Eureka! Smoke has a “cycle” too. Fire releases wood’s molecules. Water eventually rains down and trees extract the carbon from the air to grow more wood. The “smoke cycle” became the framework within which I shared some of the many ways smoke has been used to fumigate homes, communicate over distances, cover unpleasant smells, aid beekeepers, flavor and preserve foods, participate in religious ceremonies, and heal.
Me: I love that! Having smoke tell the story and use the first person point of view is so incredibly creative, as well as a fresh take on the nonfiction matter here. What gave you the idea?
Henry: Previously, I wrote a creative nonfiction picture book narrated by a flea. But that was done for the sake of humor. In this case, since smoke has been harnessed by people for millennia, I thought letting it tell its own tale, like a supernatural being, would grant gravitas to the narrator’s voice.
Me: And it does! The writing seems deceptively simple. It’s incredibly tight. It just flows so quickly from one page to the next. How many revisions did it take to make the text of this story this concise?
Henry: Thank you for the kind words. That’s the craft of writing a picture book, isn’t it? Tell a story and/or convey facts in as few words as possible.
The manuscript was reviewed by multiple critique groups. I revised the manuscript seven times before submitting to Tilbury House. It was tweaked slightly thereafter.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Henry: Where there’s fire, there’s smoke. Both are dangerous. But both can be beneficial, too. The helpful uses of fire are more obvious, like providing light and heat, cooking food, making ceramics, and keeping predator animals away. Controlled fires clean forest floors, nourish the soil, promote the growth of established trees, and reduce the frequency of huge fires.
Smoke, on the other hand, was trickier. Smoke from a building fire can be deadly. Smoking cigarettes is bad for you. What surprised me most in researching the story was the many applications of smoke to help people through the millennia and across the globe. Smoke has been used to coax seeds to sprout, to drive out pests from homes, to send signals over long distances, to cover foul smells, to calm bees when harvesting honey, to flavor and preserve food, as part of religious ceremonies, and even to heal.
Me: The illustrations by Merce Lopez are wonderfully creative. I especially love how she used real smoke as a base of the art, as well as a spark to create how the art would interact on every page. That’s fascinating! Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Henry: The biggest surprise was just how well her art complimented the text. I was blown away. Many of the spreads are just breathtaking: the downward view into the flames with the stylized molecules, the smoke floating in the night sky with birds, the bees and honeycomb, the falling rain, and the kids dancing around the fire. One little surprise is that she snuck a glass of scotch on the food page. Another was her use of actual Chinese and Greek characters on the smoke signals page.
Me: Was there something you found out in your research that you couldn’t include in the book? What is your favorite aspect of smoke that IS included in this story?
Henry: Just the homage to Cheech and Chong? Seriously, though, I didn’t have to discard much. I left out tobacco and marijuana/hashish/opium smoking for obvious reasons. And I didn’t mention how ash fertilizes the ground. But I have no complaints. Tilbury House even gave me extra room—this is a 36-page picture book rather than 32.
It tickles my sense of humor that I now have a picture book that includes an image with lox and scotch. But my favorite aspect of the book is how Merce’s artwork brought the words to life. How clever she was to capture actual smoke on paper as the starting point of her illustrations. Her images took my breath away when I first viewed them. She raised my text to the next level, as all good illustrators should.
Me: I agree. They are quite breath taking illustrations. What’s next for you?
Henry: I have a sci-fi/humor middle grade novel on submission and am revising a fantasy middle grade novel. I just joined as an editor the staff of small publisher Running Wild Press, so that should yield some interesting projects. I AM SMOKE launches September 7, 2021. My forthcoming books and stories include:
- Denver Horror Collective’s adult horror anthology, THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR, will include my short story, Demon Hunter Vashti.
- Launching in 2022 my contemporary magical realism early chapter book, THE MAGIC SPATULA from Month9 Books with co-author Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien.
- Launching in 2022 the middle-grade #ownvoices anthology from Albert Whitman & Co., COMING OF AGE, including my sci-fi/humor short story, Bar Mitzvah on Planet Latke.
- Launching in 2022, the young adult horror anthology from Blackstone Publishing, THE HITHERTO SECRET EXPERIMENTS OF MARIE CURIE, including my short story, Cheating Death.
- Highlights for Children has purchased two more of my stories, but I don’t know when those will come out.
Thanks for having me!
Wow! That’s great news. Good luck and thank you again for visiting my blog.
Dear readers, if you love a good nonfiction picture book that will captivate you from beginning to end, you won’t want to let this book pass you by. It’s deceptively simple but stunningly complex. It’s both enchanting and educational. It will appeal to young readers, as well as adults. This is a book you will want to study for its many successes.