In ‘I Am Smoke,’ an unlikely topic gets its due
Local author Henry Herz explores the importance of burning vapor in new children’s book
Henry Herz is well aware that smoke is an unlikely topic for a children’s book.
“As an author, you want to come up with something new, but of course, that’s very hard to do,” Herz says from his home in Carmel Valley. “You really have to work hard to come up with a new approach or a new subject.”
“Authors face this sort of Goldilocks challenge in the sense that if you’re too similar to something else, publishers will tell you, ‘it’s already been done,’ Herz continues. “But if you’re too far away from the trodden path, some publishers may say, ‘I don’t know if we can sell this.’”
Luckily for readers, “I Am Smoke,” Herz’s recently released book from Tilbury House Publishers, was such an idea that was both unique and marketable. Written by Herz and beautifully illustrated by Mercè López, the book unfolds like a campfire story, with smoke serving as something of an anthropomorphic narrator, helping to explain the historical, cultural, artistic and, toward the end of the book, the ecological importance of smoke.
And while Herz can’t pinpoint the exact moment he originally thought of the concept of “I Am Smoke,” he did take great care while researching. The real challenge, however, was condensing that information down to a few poetic lines of text.
“It’s kind of an adult subject, but a picture book is intended for young readers,” Herz says. “So there’s a challenge in distilling it down to the appropriate vocabulary. And there’s a second challenge in that smoke itself is a character and, as a character, it needs to have its own distinct voice.”
Herz settled on a smoke character that he describes, naturally, as an “old, wise and mysterious” being. A being that uses spare, lyrical language to convey to the reader how smoke is not only used to benefit humanity, but is part of a larger circular cycle that benefits nature and the earth itself. Some of the other ways smoke has benefited humanity throughout the centuries will likely be surprising to readers, such as the use of smoke by ancient cultures to rid homes of pests like termites.
“It’s probably the only picture book in history that has a shot glass of hard alcohol in it,” Herz says, referring to the part of the book explaining the smoking process of meats and liquor.
This is fundamental to Herz, as he has always wanted his books to be educational as well as entertaining. He grew up loving fantasy and science fiction, and says it was a passion he tried to share with his two sons.
“One day I thought it might be a fun project to write a fantasy story that was just for them,” Herz recalls. “I would grab photos off the internet just to illustrate it. It was intended purely for their consumption and as a way to get them excited about fantasy stories.”
In the process of creating this makeshift story for his children, however, Herz realized he might have a knack for writing.
“I was a middle-aged man and I’d never done fiction writing prior to that,” Herz says. “But I discovered that I loved it and it was something I continued to do as a side hobby.”
Herz says writing is “my thing now,” especially now that he’s retired from his previous jobs in software development. He’s been able to produce a number of children’s books, most of which he sells on his website (henryherz.com), but sees “I Am Smoke” as something of a new chapter in his craft.
“All my previous picture books were fiction and ‘I Am Smoke’ is what’s called creative non-fiction or what some refer to as informational fiction,” Herz clarifies. “It conveys facts via a fictional narrator.”
“I Am Smoke” was also the first time Herz worked with López, a Paris-based illustrator who has worked on a number of other picture books and graphic novels. Herz credits his publisher for finding her to illustrate the book and says it was a “delightful surprise” when he saw her work and that she brought out “new levels to the book.”
Herz also sees the book as having an “unusually broad appeal,” something that could appeal to adults and children alike.
“I think this could definitely be a coffee table book. The art is stunning and the messages work on a level for both young readers and adults,” Herz says. “That’s what you always strive for as an author. You want to make something that appeals to a range of people for a range of reasons.”
He hopes that the book will do well enough to where he could continue in a similar vein for future books, perhaps exploring other topics that, while important, some might not immediately think of as being the topic of a children’s story.
“I do it because I enjoy it and I do it because I think getting kids excited about reading is like the best thing you can do for a kid,” Herz says. “And these books would have a little bit of everything; they’ve got a little bit of science, history, geography, cultural studies, and it’s lyrical. So it has a lot of tentacles into different academic disciplines and I think that’s fun.”
Mysterious Galaxy presents Henry Herz
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13
Where: Mysterious Galaxy, 3555 Rosecrans St., Suite 107, Midway District
—Seth Combs is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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