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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Henry Herz

Henry Herz writes fiction and creative nonfiction for children, from picture books to young adult.

He’s the author of Two Pirates + One Robot (Kane Miller, 2019), Good Egg And Bad Apple (Schiffer, 2018), How The Squid Got Two Long Arms (Pelican, 2018), Alice's Magic Garden (Familius, 2018), Cap'n Rex & His Clever Crew (Sterling, 2017), When You Give An Imp A Penny (Pelican, 2016), Mabel And The Queen Of Dreams (Schiffer, 2016), Little Red Cuttlefish (Pelican, 2016), and Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes (Pelican, 2015).

If you missed your earlier interviews check them out (here) and (here).

Henry’s newest picture book, I Am Smoke, released September 14th.

Welcome back Henry! Thank-you so much for stopping back to talk about your newest picture book.

What was the inspiration for I Am Smoke?

I can't recall what caused the concept to pop into my head, other than I enjoy trying to develop unique approaches to storytelling. I will say there was a eurekea moment as I considered the story structure. I researched the chemistry of smoke. It turns out that wood smoke is primarily carbon dioxide, ash, and water vapor. Water vapor got me thinking about the water cycle—water evaporates from rivers, lakes, and oceans to form clouds. Eventually, the water precipitates as rain or snow. Rinse and repeat.

I considered the carbon dioxide given off by wood smoke. Two oxygen atoms and one carbon atom. Carbon... Inspiration struck like lightning splitting a tree. Plants are the lungs of the Earth. They breathe in carbon dioxide through their stomata. They drink up water through their roots. Sunlight provides energy to split those molecules. The plant forms cellulose from carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, sequestering more and more carbon as they grow. Conversely, burning tree branches releases the stored carbon. Eureka! Smoke has a “cycle” just like water does.

That is so cool! I don't think I've ever heard that before. Was it always written from the point of view of the smoke? How difficult was that to do?

Yes, I Am Smoke was originally written from Smoke's point of view. It wasn't hard to do once I a) came up with the idea of Smoke being a narrator, and b) choose a suitable voice for the character. I wanted Smoke to be old, wise, speaking lyrically and a bit in riddles:

I am smoke. I twirl in dark dance from every campfire...

I am gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm.

I lack hands, but I can push out unwanted guests.

I lack a mouth, but I can speak.

I really do love the voice and riddle quality of Smoke's voice. Am I correct that this is an informational fiction? As a bit of a divergence from your typically humorous fiction writing, how much harder was it to write this book? Why?

Indeed, this is a departure from my whimsical fiction. Other than having to do more research, it wasn't harder writing information fictional, just different. I find the employment of fictional elements to convey facts a great way to engage with young readers and teach them without them realizing it. Fictional elements can be the melted cheese we pour on top of the broccoli of nonfiction. Now, there are some picture books with anthropomorphic characters, but I'd never seen smoke treated as a character. And who better to explain the various ways in which people have employed smoke than smoke itself?

The cheese on nonfiction - that's such a perfect image! Is there something you want your readers to know about I Am Smoke?

The saying “where there's smoke, there's fire” conveys danger. And of course, fire and smoke can be lethal. But I was surprised to find how many beneficial uses smoke has been put to across the world and through the ages. It turns out to be a commonality that spans humanity, geographically and temporally.

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.

It gets such a bad rap, that we do seem to forget how it's been helpful. How long did it take from first draft to publication for I Am Smoke?

A great question that demonstrates two useful characteristics of an author: patience and having a thick skin. My first draft was completed in May 2017. After more than 30 publishers passed, I signed a contract with Tilbury House in February 2019, over a year after submitting the manuscript to them. The book was released in September 2021. Remember, of course, that after buying the manuscript, Tilbury House had to find the right illustrator, and then the illustrator had to create all the artwork. Then the book must be designed and printed.

A thick skin and patience indeed. But I think you can add a little trusting belief in your manuscript to that mix. When you first saw Mercè López’s illustrations, did anything surprise or amaze you? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Henry Herz, 2021. Image © Mercè López, 2021.

Merce's artwork took my breath away. It's not only gorgeous, but the style is perfectly suited to the text. She devised an innovative approach for creating illustrations. Actual swirling smoke was captured on art paper held over smoky candle flames. Then the dancing smoke textures were enhanced with watercolors and Photoshop. Merce López “let the smoke decide how the idea I had in mind would dance with it, giving freedom to the images.” The resulting illustrations are astounding and they resonate with the otherworldly text.

It's so cool to learn that the illustrations were created with real smoke trails. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Lots of good stuff!

- Another picture book very much like I Am Smoke, but with a different subject matter.

- A straight nonfiction picture book on a subject I haven't seen treated.

- Launching in fall 2022 my contemporary magical realism early chapter book, The Magic Spatula from Month9 Books with co-author Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien.

- Launching in March 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.

Oh my gosh, so much wonderful news. We will have to keep our eyes open for all of them, Congrats! During these crazy times, how are you staying creative? What things are you doing to “prime” the well?

My creative muse seems to be unaffected by the pandemic. I “prime the well” as I always have – reading, watching TV/movies, interacting with friends, and paying attention to the world around me. You never know what observation will trigger a book idea.

If you could meet anyone (real or literary), who would that be?

That is a Sophie's Choice of a question. Do I indulge my interest in military history (Alexander the Great), science (Galileo), art (Da Vinci), literature (Tolkien), religion (Moses), or someone else? That reminds me of an innovative TV show hosted by Steve Allen called Meeting of the Minds.

And a sneaky way to get in a bunch of names! I can just imagine the party you would have. Thank you, Henry for stopping by. It was wonderful to get to chat with you again.

Thanks for hosting me, Maria.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on I Am Smoke.

To find out more about Henry Herz, or get in touch with him:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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