Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blogging for a Cure: Henry's Snowflake

I first encountered D.B. Johnson's "Henry" books when Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon took turns reading one of them aloud on NPR's Weekend Edition. That means that, oddly, I encountered this wonderful picture book artist without pictures--though with Simon and Pinkwater's descriptions of the pictures, which were a good start.

I can't remember now which of the books it was I heard that morning, but some time later I encountered the first three books in Cody's Books in Berkeley. There I bought Henry Hikes to Fitchburg for my husband, for whom--as for Johnson--Thoreau has been an important influence. The Henry books (there's now a fourth, Henry Works) all draw on episodes from Walden, illustrating them with gentle humor and glorious color.

When I saw Johnson's name on the list of snowflake artists for Robert's Snow, then, I was delighted to be able to feature his work on this blog. We are well past the days when I read three, four, five picture books a night to a lap-sitting child, but there is still a significant shelf of picture books in my study, and the Henry books have an important place among them.

Johnson, who has three picture books out in addition to the four Henry books (the most recent, Four Legs Bad, Two Legs Good! takes off from Orwell's Animal Farm--how cool is that?) agreed to answer a few of my questions the other day--you can read our brief interview below, then go look again at his gorgeous snowflake (and all the others!). Also make sure you check out Johnson's own site, where you'll find another interview, a lovely explanation of how he makes his art, and how important Thoreau is to him.

1.How did you get involved with the Robert's Snow auction?

I respect and admire Grace Lin's books and am amazed by the dedication and devotion she has given to her husband's illness and to cancer research. My heart goes out to her loss. Any small thing I can do to help this cause I am happy to do, both for her and in memory of Robert.

2.Did you ever tell the Henry stories to your children? Or any other stories? If so, did that condition how you developed your Henry stories?

We have three grown children. When they were very young my wife and I decided to give up television and replace it with books. We read everything to our children, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Mark Twain and lots of picture books too. At that time I was a full time freelance illustrator working from a studio in our home. I did editorial art for newspapers and magazines around the country. I loved children's books and knew a couple of children's book artists in the area where we lived, including Trina Hyman, but I was not yet doing any books myself. My wife Linda is a writer and worked for a time in the children's department of the Dartmouth Bookstore. She introduced our family to the best books for kids.
My Henry stories grew out of my love for Thoreau and my desire that kids should know that there are other choices they can make besides TV, computers, video games and lots of stuff. I realized from my own children's experience as well as my own childhood that what kids experience and are exposed to in the first 8 or 9 years will have an enormous effect on the decisions they make the rest of their lives. My children are budding artists and writers who love adventure in no small part because of the choices we made as a family when they were very young.

3. It seems to suit Henry's somewhat solitary, occasionally curmudgeonly nature that you depict him as a bear. How did you know he had to be a bear?

Henry is a bear because I realized from the beginning that if I wanted to reach kids with the Thoreau philosophy, I had to present it through a character they could love and identify with. One of the problems most people have with Henry David Thoreau is they think his standards are impossible to reach today or that they just don't work in our modern world. But really people don't get him because they've lost their innocence and sense of wonder --their childhoods are scheduled to death and their heads are filled with the sales pitch of mass culture. So the philosophy of living a simple life close to nature needs to come in early and under the radar. The bear is my vehicle for that.

But that's not the only reason he's a bear. When I first had the idea for Henry Hikes to Fitchburg I came across a couple of descriptions of Thoreau by people who knew him. They described him as a bit of a rustic with a weather beaten face that reminded them of some animal's--a philosophical woodchuck, perhaps...or a magnanimous fox. But I knew Henry loved to roam widely in the woods and a woodchuck would not have done that. Would any kid believe a woodchuck could hike thirty miles in a day? And I thought a fox was just too flamboyant with that slyness and flash of red to ever be Henry. So I made him a bear and gave him Henry's long face and alert eyes, his broad-brimmed hat, long coat and sturdy boots, and set him off down the road to Fitchburg.

4.Walden is hugely popular in Japan. Have the Henry books been translated into Japanese? (or any other languages?)

I'm happy to say that all four Henry books have been translated into Japanese as well as Chinese and Korean. Henry Hikes to Fitchburg was also translated and published in France.

5. Can you say anything about your forthcoming non-Henry book? I know it's about a boy named Eddie who likes to draw...[here is where your blogger demonstrates her ignorance, and the artist is more than gracious]

Now you've made me realize how negligent I've been in updating my website since I have all four Henry books on it but none of the books I've written and illustrated since. That's one of the most difficult things for me--to balance the schedule for doing my next book with keeping my website current. If I could only learn how to write that html myself.....

I've done three non-Henry books since Henry Works. Eddie's Kingdom is a story about a boy who loves to draw and is inspired by the work of the Quaker painter Edward Hicks who created the "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings in the 1800s. But my story takes place in an apartment house in the present day. Last year I illustrated a story my wife Linda Michelin wrote called Zu Zu's Wishing Cake. This is a wonderful story about a very creative girl who makes gifts out of ordinary materials to give to the new boy who has moved in next door.
And this September my newest book was published by Houghton Mifflin titled Four Legs Bad, Two Legs Good. In this book I've imagined what George Orwell's Animal Farm might be like after all these years being run by pigs who learned to walk on two legs. In my humorous telling the duck brings about a revolution in the barnyard! Booklist called it "filled with quirky, quacky fun!" In these last two picture books I've been experimenting with telling the stories using comics style panels and voice balloons as a way to help kids master reading (more pictures to illustrate what's being said, as well as fewer words).

I am currently working on the final art for a new Henry book that will be published in Spring 2009. It's based on Henry's moonlight walks in the woods and is filled with night paintings!

6.Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about your art, or your snowflake?

I enjoyed doing the snowflake. I've never done a story of Henry in the winter but Thoreau talked often in his journals about skating on the rivers in Concord. It seemed like the perfect subject. The buyer of this snowflake should also know that I am not selling any of the art that appeared in my Henry books and have done only a couple of additional images of Henry that people have purchased. So this is a rare chance to own an original of Henry.


  1. Lovely interview. And boy, do I want that snowflake! (I also want Larue Skating, but that's another story.)


    I'm trying to calm myself down here. I love the Henry books with the burning intensity of 8,000 suns. And I'm so excited to be reading that there will be one more with night-time art!!

    !!!! (Sorry, trying to compose myself. I've really been looking forward to this feature, in particular).

    And I love what he has to say about his "philosophy of living a simple life."

    What a great interview!!

    Sorry for the all the irritating "!!!!!"s.

    Excellent job. Thank you. I can at least put an image of the snowflake on my computer's desktop and admire it from there, huh? :)


  3. It was such a pleasure to "talk" with Johnson--he was so generous. And, yes, I can't wait for the new Henry book--but I also want to go out and get the non-Henry ones, which I'm embarrassed not to have known about.

  4. Thanks for this great interview! Love the snowflake and Henry. Bears rule!

  5. Great interview! Thanks for the link to "how he makes his art". Long live the art of airbrushing in this world gone digital!


  6. How much do I love that his family gave up television for books?? Nice interview.

  7. I love this interview, partly because DB Johnson seems like the kinda guy I thought he'd be.

    Now, could someone distract Jules so I can bid on this Henry flake without her getting all one-uppy on me???

  8. I love the Henry books, particularly Henry Works, which I find so inspiring as a writer. I bought it for myself, actually, for that reason. I'll have to keep an eye on that snowflake!!

  9. How cute, how cute!!
    And Henry is looking rather Thoreau-esque... Really great interview!

  10. Very cool that the purchaser of this flake will be getting a rare Henry image!

  11. Love the Henry books and want the Hicks book! YAY to choosing books over TV. Adorable snowflake too!

  12. Thanks-- I hadn't seen these books before! I just read Henry Hikes to Fitchburg online and I'll be ordering a few copies-- one for us and some to give away.