Poetry Friday: “I Am Smoke” interview & review with author Henry L. Herz

It’s not out until Sept. 7, but I had to share news about the latest picture book from my fellow 2021 Book Blast partner Henry L. Herz, I Am Smoke (Tilbury House, 2021). The book has already received some wonderful accolades, including a Kirkus star (“Spreads of smoke rising fluidly into a pinprick-starry sky, a ‘dark dance from every campfire,’ are veritable gems.” –Kirkus Reviews) and even showed up on the School Library Journal’s list of The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Books of 2021, which includes titles by such folks as Deborah Freedman, Jon Klassen, and Brian Selznick.

This is not Henry’s first picture book by any means, but it is unusual in its lyricism and gentleness – as well as its point of view, which is first-person, from the voice of the smoke itself. I don’t normally feature picture books here, but the text is so poetic and beautifully-worded I knew I had to share it. Who says a book like this isn’t poetry??

Henry L. Herz

Henry is the author of 11 traditionally-published children’s books, eight children’s short stories, and over 20 adult short stories. He is co-editor of two children’s anthologies: THE HITHERTO SECRET EXPERIMENTS OF MARIE CURIE (Blackstone Publishing, YA) and COMING OF AGE: 13 B’NAI MITZVAH STORIES (Albert Whitman & Co., MG).

Thanks for taking the time to join me here, Henry! Congratulations on the book – I’m very happy for you that it’s doing so well, and it’s not even out yet! One of the questions I ask everyone who visits here is the question that all authors need to ask ourselves: “Why did this book need to be written?” Can you tell me where you got the inspiration for the book, and how you began the process of writing it?

Thanks! I’m inspired by many things in the natural world. I love how much personality dogs possess. I’m amazed that you can cut a piece off of a succulent, stick it in the ground, and grow a brand new succulent. That’s like making a whole new person from just a finger! The range of defense mechanisms employed by animals is amazing— from camouflage to squirting ink to being poisonous to mimicking predators.

I find the use of fictional elements to convey facts a great way to engage with young readers and teach them without them realizing it. Fiction can be the melted cheese we pour on top of the broccoli of nonfiction. 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 over the ages and across the world than smoke itself?

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.

Fiction as the cheese on top of the nonfiction broccoli…great way to describe it, Henry! And I’m glad you show that smoke, while potentialy dangerous, can be a good thing. So what were some of the pitfalls you encountered while writing it? Anything surprising or unexpected?

It wasn’t a surprise, per se, but this was the first book I’ve written that I felt needed to be reviewed by sensitivity readers because it mentions Native Americans. Happily, both sensitivity readers found everything to be fine.

All images © 2021 Tilbury House Publishers, all rights reserved, used with permission

You have a number of picture books and short stories under your belt, but I Am Smoke is different in that it is a more lyrical, thought-provoking picture book than, say, your recent 2 Pirates + 1 Robot (Kane Miller, 2019) or the pun-filled Good Egg and Bad Apple (Schiffer Kids, 2018). Was this done intentionally, or did the subject matter lead you to this style of writing?

That’s true. I Am Smoke is also the first creative nonfiction picture book I’ve sold. I did write a creative nonfiction picture book narrated by a flea. But that was done for the sake of humor. In the case of I Am Smoke, since smoke has been harnessed by people for millennia, I thought letting it tell its own tale in riddles, like an ancient supernatural being, would grant gravitas to the narrator’s voice. Like smoke itself, the narrator is dark, spare, and mysterious.

I usually focus on poetry here at the ol’ Triple-R but wanted to share your book because it is, in fact, very poetic. Although it is a loose narrative it can be read as one long poem; again, was this deliberate, or did it come about organically? 

The lyrical prose developed organically. I threw in a little alliteration: Flickering flames work their mysterious magic on burning branches. Then I mixed in some metaphor: I am borne aloft in the heat’s embrace, soaring and spreading my wings.

Smoke, like fire, is destructive, but can also be put to useful purposes. This duality inspired the riddle-like phrasing: I lack a mouth, but I can speak. I irritate eyes, but I can soothe bees.

Just like the chemical cycle of smoke, the story returns to where it began, with smoke twirling in dark dance from a campfire, and the words, I am smoke.

And that’s what I love most, that you show all these nuances of smoke, from the smoke’s first-person point of view. So what do you hope readers will take away from this book, and what would you say to folks who are considering picking up a copy?

Aside from the STEM, cultural, and historical facts, I hope readers will see that common practices bind humanity across time and space.

To folks who are considering picking up a copy, I’d say “Do it.” These terrific authors can’t be wrong:

“Herz presents a provocative and unique look at the lifecycle and benefits of smoke throughout the millennia. Lopez’s multimedia artwork further illuminates the ethereal nature of smoke as it drifts and dances across the page.” – John Rocco, author/illustrator of the Caldecott Honor book BLACKOUT

“A fascinating, refreshing, and beautifully atmospheric take on something often taken for granted. I’ll never look at smoke the same way again!” – Matthew Cordell, author/illustrator of the Caldecott Medal-winning book WOLF IN SNOW

“I Am Smoke is an absolutely beautiful book, where smoke is both poetry and science. Readers will rest, float, and dance along with smoke’s quiet power across time and traditions. I have lingered over its pages more than once, and I’m sure young readers will, too.” – Doreen Cronin, author of the Caldecott Honor and NY Times bestselling book CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE

“Wowwwwww” – Raina Telgemeier, #1 NY Times, #1 USA Today, #1 Publishers Weekly bestselling author/illustrator

What’s next??

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!

Glad you could join me, Henry, thank you! And again, best luck with the book – it’s gaining some great traction with positive reviews all around, and as an author myself I know how good that must make you feel.

And by the way, to anyone who is in the trenches, submitting your first or second manuscript and trying to deal with all those rejection letters (or worse, NO letters at all), I hope you’ll take a peek at last week’s post about rejections – why they aren’t as bad as you think and why it’s important to keep going!

Since it’s Poetry Friday, I hope everyone will check out all the poetry links and fun with Mary Lee Hahn, who is hosting today’s complete poetry roundup at her newly-revised blog, A(nother) Year of Reading, with an original villanelle about flames and torches (or is that all just a metaphor??).

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I continue adding to my “Wit & Wordplay” videos ! These videos were created for parents and educators (along with their kids) to learn how to write poetry, appreciate it, and have fun with it. From alliteration and iambs to free verse and spine poetry, I’m pretty sure there’s something in these videos you’ll find surprising! You can view them all on my YouTube channel, and if you have young kids looking for something to keep busy with, I also have several downloadable activity sheets at my website.

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20 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: “I Am Smoke” interview & review with author Henry L. Herz

  1. Thanks for sharing Herz’s work. I always am fascinated when I encounter inanimate narrators like smoke, giving us new ways to look at it. After all, most things have other sides and smoke is helpful and necessary. I’d like to read this.

    Like

  2. lindabaie

    I just came from an article about the wildfires in California, yikes! That smoke is here in Colorado, too, thus I enjoyed reading about the more special nature of smoke from Henry’s book, Matt. Thanks for sharing; it sounds very good!

    Like

  3. It’s always nice to meet a new author! I wonder if this fascinating book will arrive on my doorstep for NCTE Notables reading? We receive many many rhyming picture books which we don’t typically consider as poetry, but there are always a couple-few picture books that are book-length illustrated poems. The difference can be subtle but we can usually tell what’s “notable,” I think.

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    1. Hmmm…”book-length illustrated poems”…you mean like that one, I forget when it came out or who did it…I think it may have been titled “Once Upon Another Time?” Or something like that? 😉

      Seriously, though, I do hope you’re able to get a copy of I AM SMOKE, it’s beautifully done!

      Like

  4. haitiruth

    Thanks for sharing this! It sounds great. I love all the ways smoke is positive and helpful. Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

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  5. Matt, this quote by Henry L. Herz jumped out at me: “Fiction can be the melted cheese we pour on top of the broccoli of nonfiction.” What a fascinating interview your brought to us. I hope there will be snippets of the book available when it is published.

    Like

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