In ‘I Am Smoke,’ an unlikely subject deserves its due

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 find a new approach or a new subject.”

“Authors face this kind of Goldilocks challenge in the sense that if you look too much like something else, editors will tell you, ‘You already did,'” Herz continues. “But if you’re too far off track, some publishers may say, ‘I don’t know if we can sell this.'”

Luckily for readers, “I Am Smoke,” Herz’s recently published book at Tilbury House Publishers, was both a unique and marketable idea. Written by Herz and beautifully illustrated by Mercè López, the book unfolds like a campfire story, with the smoke serving as something of an anthropomorphic narrator, helping to explain the historical, cultural, artistic and, towards the end of the book , the ecological importance of smoke.

And while Herz can’t pinpoint the exact moment he thought of the “I Am Smoke” concept, he took great care when researching it. The real challenge, however, was to condense this information into a few poetic lines of text.

“It’s kind of an adult subject, but a picture book is for younger readers,” Herz says. “So it’s hard to distill it into the proper vocabulary. And there’s a second challenge in that the smoke itself is a character, and as a character it has to have its own distinct voice.

Herz opted for a smoke persona who he describes, understandably, as “old, wise, and mysterious.” A being who uses free and lyrical language to make the reader understand how smoke is not only used to benefit humanity, but is part of a larger circular cycle that benefits nature and the earth itself. -same. Some of the other ways smoke has benefited mankind over the centuries will probably surprise readers, such as how ancient cultures used smoke to rid homes of pests like termites.

“It’s probably the only picture book in history that has a shot glass of hard liquor in it,” Herz says, referring to the part of the book explaining the process of smoking meat and liquor. .

This is fundamental to Herz, as he has always wanted his books to be both educational and 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 recalled. “I would take pictures from the internet just to illustrate it. It was for their consumption only and as a way to get them excited about the fantastic stories.

During the process of creating this improvised story for his children, however, Herz realized he might have a knack for writing.

“I was a middle-aged man and had never done fiction writing before,” Herz says. “But I found I liked it and it was something I kept doing 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 was able to produce a number of children’s books, most of which he sells on his website (, but considers “I Am Smoke” a new chapter in his craft.

“All of my previous picture books were fiction and ‘I Am Smoke’ is what’s called creative non-fiction or what some call informational fiction,” Herz clarifies. “He conveys facts via a fictional narrator.”

“I Am Smoke” was also Herz’s first time working with López, a Paris-based illustrator who has worked on a number of other picture books and graphic novels. Herz credits her publisher for finding her to illustrate the book and says it was a “delightful surprise” when he saw her work and she brought “new levels to the book”.

Herz also considers the book to have an “unusually broad appeal”, something that might appeal to adults and children alike.

“I think it could definitely be a coffee table book. The art is stunning and the messages work for both young readers and adults alike,” says Herz. “That’s what you always aspire to as a writer. You want to create something that appeals to a range of people for a variety of reasons.

He hopes the book does well enough that he can continue in the same vein for future books, perhaps exploring other topics that, while important, might not immediately be considered the subject of a children’s story.

“I do it because I love it, and I do it because I think getting kids excited about reading is the best thing you can do for a kid,” Herz says. “And these books would contain a bit of everything; they have a bit of science, history, geography, cultural studies, and it’s lyrical. So it has a lot of tentacles in different academic disciplines and I think it’s fun.

Mysterious Galaxy presents Henry Herz

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, November 13

Or: Mysterious Galaxy, 3555 Rosecrans St., Suite 107, Midway District

Price: Free

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Combs is a freelance writer.

Jessica C. Bell