I Am Smoke

h1 November 4th, 2021 by jules

“I am smoke.
I twirl in dark dance from every campfire.”

(Click spread to enlarge)


Henry Herz’s I Am Smoke (Tilbury, September 2021), illustrated by Mercè López, is a picture book you may have already heard a lot about this year. It has received a handful of good reviews — and even made Travis Jonker’s list of The Most Astonishingly Unconventional Books of 2021.

And why did it make Travis’s list? Here’s what he wrote:

The illustrations in this book violate what I thought was a hard and fast rule of art: Don’t Burn the Art. Merce Lopez Ascanoio throws this out the window, holding paper over lit candles to create the smoke elements in this story about the importance of fire and smoke to humankind. …

In the same post, Travis also notes that the narrator of this book is smoke itself. “I am smoke,” the book opens. “I twirl in dark dance from every campfire.” (This spread is pictured above.) Smoke speaks in evocative terms about its role on the planet over the course of time — the ways in which it alters the natural world; the ways in which it both helps and endangers creatures on the planet, including humans; the ways in which it has helped populations of people (including communication among them); and more. As we read smoke’s words, we also learn about its properties and the way it moves across the planet.

López takes us on a vivid tour across time and across cultures, as you can see in some of the spreads featured here today. She plays beautifully with light and shadow in these illustrations, which — yes — were created with the aid of smoke. Here’s a note from the book’s backmatter:

To create this book’s illustrations, Mercè López captured patterns of swirling smoke on art paper suspended over smoky candle flames. She then deepened and elaborated the smoke impressions with watercolors and Photoshop finsihes. With this unique method, she “let the smoke decide how the idea I had in mind would dance with it, giving freedom to the images.”

Also in the backmatter is a note on “Smoke and Civilization,” which provides additional information about what we see in these spreads. These notes make more concrete the elusive qualities of the subject matter.

This one is a lyrical and mesmerizing blend of science, art, and poetry. Here are some spreads. …


“I lack hands, but I can push out unwanted guests. I helped ancient Greeks drive termites, mosquitoes, rodents, and other pests from enclosed spaces.”
(Click spread to enlarge)


“I irritate eyes, but I can soothe bees. My smell beguiles guard bees so beekeepers
can harvest honey without disturbing them.”

(Click spread to enlarge)


“I cannot touch, but I can help ease pain. Through the centuries,
the smoke of some plants has been used as medicine.”

(Click spread to enlarge)


(Click cover to enlarge)


* * * * * * *

I AM SMOKE. Text © 2021 by Henry Herz. Illustrations © 2021 by Mercè López and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Tilbury House Publishers, Thomaston, Maine.

One comment to “I Am Smoke

  1. Wow. What an amazing technique to use the actual smoke from fire to create parts of theses. Fascinating!

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