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.
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 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. I wreathed all these uses within the framework of the aforementioned smoke cycle.
“I am smoke. I twirl in dark dance from every campfire.”
Meet the Author:
Henry Hertz is the author of ten picture books including I AM SMOKE (Tilbury House). His children's short stories have been published in Highlights for Children, Ladybug Magazine, and in anthologies for Albert Whitman & Co. and Blackstone Publishing. Henry also writes adult science fiction and fantasy short stories. He holds a BS in Engineering from Cornell, an MS in Engineering from George Washington University, and an MA in Political Science from Georgetown.