Note: Henry has been kind enough to offer a copy of I AM SMOKE to one lucky reader of the blog. Please share this post on social media and tag @HenryLHerz @Literally_Lynne and #IamSmoke #TheStoryBehindtheStory and Henry will select a winner on September 2, 2021.
Written by Henry Herz
Just like kids need a balanced diet in what they eat, young readers also benefit from consuming fiction and nonfiction. Even when I write fiction, I figure out a way to include some nonfiction elements, offering entry points into developmental conversations between child and parent or teacher. My fictional Little Red Cuttlefish has an author's note offering some interesting tidbits about cuttlefish and tiger sharks. My fictional Good Egg and Bad Apple is loaded with word play not critical to the story, but great for English language learning. My 2 Pirates + 1 Robot includes a tiny flying robot who asks questions about what's happening in the story. The math and physics underlying the answers are laid out in an author's note for when the child is ready for them.
But what about when I'm writing nonfiction? It should come as no surprise that I sprinkle in fiction, like salt enhances food's flavor. Fictional elements can entertain young readers, increasing their interest in the underlying facts in a subtle, engaging way. 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? With that approach in mind, I researched the chemistry of smoke. It turns out that wood smoke is primarily carbon dioxide, ash, and water vapor. One thing leads to another in planning a book. 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.
Then 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” too.
Subverting expectations is a tried and true writing technique. When people think of smoke, they often think of fire. And both are dangerous. But what about the beneficial uses of smoke? More research followed. Be forewarned—research is a risky undertaking for the intellectually curious. For we can easily tumble down the rabbit hole of Google and forget why we're doing the research in the first place. But what fun things I discovered.
Smoke has bee 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. I wreathed all these uses within the framework of the aforementioned smoke cycle.
“I am smoke. I twirl in dark dance from every campfire.”
Author Bio: Henry authored 11 traditionally published books for children: MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES, WHEN YOU GIVE AN IMP A PENNY, MABEL & THE QUEEN OF DREAMS, LITTLE RED CUTTLEFISH, CAP'N REX & HIS CLEVER CREW, HOW THE SQUID GOT TWO LONG ARMS, ALICE'S MAGIC GARDEN, GOOD EGG AND BAD APPLE, 2 PIRATES + 1 ROBOT, THE MAGIC SPATULA, and I AM SMOKE.
He also wrote over 25 traditionally published short stories, including for Daily Science Fiction, Blackstone Publishing, Albert Whitman & Co., Highlights for Children, and Ladybug Magazine. He edited three anthologies: BEYOND THE PALE, COMING OF AGE (Albert Whitman & Co., MG #ownvoices), and THE HITHERTO SECRET EXPERIMENTS OF MARIE CURIE (Blackstone Publishing, YA horror).
Website & Social Media Links:
Jacket Flap Copy from Book:
“I lack a mouth, but I can speak. I lack hands, but I can push out unwanted guests. I’m gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm.” When smoke speaks, its messages swirl and shift like smoke itself—playful, challenging, devious. Smoke has been borne aloft from flames, and its elements returned to earth, since before recorded time. Its cycles never end. Smoke was here before us. It helps us when we're wise but hurts us when we're careless. Do not treat me lightly, it seems to warn. This is the story of smoke.