Bringing nonfiction topics to kids can entail challenges but also can invite creative approaches. Henry Herz took on an unlikely topic—smoke—and made it a character. Read on to learn how he used a narrator as a fictional element to share science, culture, and more. After reading I AM SMOKE, you’ll probably never think of smoke the same way as you once did!
Subverting Expectations with a NF Narrator 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.
But what about when I’m writing nonfiction? It should come as no surprise that I sprinkle in fiction, like salt used to enhance 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 children’s book subject, much less a character. Editors, we’re told, are always looking for new approaches. And who better could describe smoke than smoke itself? First person anthropomorphic it is, I told myself. But smoke isn’t even corporeal. Would editors consider such so unusual approach? Would this stray too far from the trodden path? I decided to find out.
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? Since smoke is telling its own story, I also had to consider what type of character voice to employ. Smoke is ancient, dark, shifting, mysterious. That inspired me to have smoke speak in a spare, lyrical voice, using alliteration and riddles:
Flickering flames work their mysterious magic on the burning branches.
I am gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm.
I lack a mouth, but I can speak.
Smoke tells its own story, explaining the various ways in which people have employed it over the ages and across the world. Not only did this add richness to the story, it added marketing hooks: STEM, geography, history, and social science. Authors focus naturally on story, but we must also factor in marketing considerations.
Congratulations to Jilanne Hoffman, winner of WITHOUT SEPARATION from Larry Dane Brimner and Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane!