I Am Smoke by Henry Herz, illustrated by Mercè López. Tilbury House, 2021. 9780884487883
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 4
What did you like about the book? In this free-verse, nonfiction picture book, smoke speaks in the first person to explain its essence, appearance, and uses. The text captures the old-fashioned rhythm of riddles: “I am gentler than a feather, but I can cause harm” or “I lack hands, but can push out unwanted guests.” The bulk of the book focuses on smoke’s helpfulness: its use as a signaling method, in preserving food, as part of religious ceremonies, its role in the carbon cycle, etc. López’s illustrations are beautiful and fascinating. According to the endnotes, she captured smoke patterns by holding art paper over candles and then built her images around the resulting swirls, employing watercolor and Photoshop. The predominant colors are grey, brown and black, punctuated with the occasional rich green of plant life. I definitely learned some interesting smoke facts, for example, that French traders in the 1630s documented Huron farmers using smoke to speed seed germination, and that smoke masks bees’ chemical signals to one another, which is why it’s used by their keepers. An essay “Smoke and Civilization” closes out the book with information about all the uses poetically alluded to in the text, followed by a source list. Herz thanks two sensitivity readers/cultural consultants for their contributions, presumably for the information and images featuring American Indians and religious ceremonies from around the world.
Anything you didn’t like about it? I didn’t have any children nearby to test out the book, but it might elicit some blank looks. I found the idea of a talking physical phenomenon odd. If a child wanted to know more about smoke, this would have to be paired with a more concrete text. Also, I get that the book aims to clear up smoke’s bad reputation, but there’s no discussion of its negative impact, except for a brief mention of climate change in the endnotes.
To whom would you recommend this book? It would be an interesting read aloud for a child ages 6-9 who are curious about the topic. Certainly its subject matter and treatment are unique. The artwork is gorgeous, although I do always feel some trepidation when I see Indians wearing headdresses or sending smoke signals.
Who should buy this book? Public libraries
Where would you shelve it? Somewhere in nonfiction? This is a real head scratcher and I’ll be interested to see where it ends up.
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No
Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA
Date of review: August 18, 2021