I Am Smoke: A Cover Reveal and Q&A with Author Henry L. Herz
All right, folks. It’s time to give smoke its due.
Even as I say this, I realize that we’re right smack dab at the start of wildfire season. It is possible that the very last thing people want to think about is smoke. Yet Henry L. Herz isn’t “people” and smoke has so many myriad uses that it’s high time they got noticed. In his upcoming title I AM SMOKE (released by Tilbury House Publishers on September 7th), Herz provides an account of the life cycle and the beneficial uses of smoke across the globe and throughout the ages. Or perhaps you’d prefer the publisher copy? It reads:
Smoke speaks in mesmerizing riddles: “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….”This rhythmically powerful narration is complemented by illustrations in which swirling smoke was captured on art paper held over smoky candle flames, and the dancing smoke textures were then deepened and elaborated with watercolors and Photoshop finishes. With this unique method, Mercè 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 not even out and already it has garnered a star from Kirkus Reviews saying that it contains, “gossamer landscapes decorated with molecular structures as well as homey scenes of Greeks fumigating temples. Spreads of smoke rising fluidly into a pinprick-starry sky, a ‘dark dance from every campfire,’ are veritable gems.”
Intrigued, I asked fellow alliteratively initialed author Mr. Herz a couple questions about the book. Here are his responses:
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for answering some of my questions today, Henry! With blurbs from folks like Matthew Cordell, Doreen Cronin, and John Rocco, I AM SMOKE seems to be raking in the praise early on. Can you tell me a little about where you got the idea for it?
Henry Herz: 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. Fiction 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? But I needed an overarching structure. I considered 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.
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.
BB: In that case, what kind of research did you do for the book? Were there any sources you particularly liked?
HH: I tend to start my research on Google and dive down the rabbit hole from there. My sources were as disparate as the uses of smoke: a 1632 report from a French missionary, the Association of Cereal Chemists, the journals of Lewis & Clark’s expeditions, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Journal of Insect Behavior, a smokehouse brochure, the Talmud, and the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
I AM SMOKE thus blends science with history and social studies, using mysterious, lyrical language from an anthropomorphic narrator.
BB: What fact did you discover about smoke that surprised you the most?
HH: 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.
BB: The art of Merce Lopez beautifully complements both the text and the feel of the book. What’s your general impression of the final product?
HH: Oh. My. Gosh. I love it! 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.
To see more of her stunning art, check out the book trailer:
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
HH: 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. After that, my activities will include:
- Moderating a San Diego Comic-Con panel with actors from Netflix’s Norsemen series.
- 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.
- Please keep in touch via my website, www.henryherz.com and social media.
All right! And here, indeed, is the cover in question:
Many thanks to Henry for answering my questions and to the good folks at Tilbury House. I Am Smoke is on shelves everywhere September 7th.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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