Henry Cole Talks with Roger

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Back in high school, Henry Cole carried his lunch in the same paper bag for three years. Fifty years later, that bag became a picture book, One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey.

Roger Sutton: My first question is inspired by One Little Bag’s art note, which says that the book was printed on "woodfree paper." What is that?

Henry Cole: I don't know what that means. I'm going to see the designer this weekend at ALA, so I'll ask about that. Maybe bamboo or something. The paper feels good!

RS: It does.

HC: It’s nice. But no trees were harmed in making this book.

RS: The very first Earth Day happened when we were both in high school — we are around the same age — and I see that it gave you both a paper bag and inspiration for this book.

HC: It sure did, a long time ago.

RS: What do you think possessed you to keep that same paper bag going all through high school?

HC: I was born on a farm, without a lot of money. Nothing was thrown away easily. I had a compost pile — this was when organic gardening was just a hippie thing — and we reused stuff. There were glass containers and jars. I didn’t throw anything away, not even a paper bag, if I didn’t have to. In school, after lunch I’d keep my used paper bag, and it became a thing — Henry’s folding up his bag and putting it in his pocket. He’s going to use it again. People wrote their homework assignments and phone numbers and such on the bag.

RS: You were committed. It would be kind of hard to back out.

HC: I was committed. I was committable.

RS: So what brought it to mind as a book?

HC: I taught science and math at a school outside of DC for years. I remember — this was twenty-five, thirty years ago — mentioning that bag to a fifth-grade teacher who was a great friend. Her response was so immediate, and it really stuck: “Oh my gosh, that would be a great book.” It hadn’t occurred to me before, but since then it’s been mulling in my head for a long time. My wonderful editor at Scholastic, Dianne Hess, helped devise a stronger story, so it wasn’t just me carrying a bag back and forth across the field from school.

I have a forestry degree from Virginia Tech. I also worked for Union Camp in South Carolina and Georgia — this huge paper plant. So, it’s been in my head for a long time, the process of what it takes to make a sheet of paper or a paper bag. And then to put it all together: there was this paper bag that I carried as a kid; I studied forestry, and I know every tree in the Eastern United States (I got an A+ on my dendro exam!); teaching science for seventeen years. Weaving all of those things together — this book had to come out eventually, it just had to. The cover illustration is of Mac’s Market in Purcellville, Virginia — a little grocery store in the middle of the town near where I grew up, with a lady with a white apron cutting up meat in the back and a screen door in the front.

RS: Here we had Danny’s — that was the supermarket down the street. There aren’t places like that anymore.

HC: Yes, everything’s big. But this was very little. It had wooden floors that creaked. Can you imagine a grocery store with creaky wooden floors?

RS: And not on purpose. An intentionally rustic building today…

HC: Yeah, I watch HGTV.

RS: What are the particular challenges of telling a story without words?

HC: I like the idea of a wordless book in that, as a reader, you’re making up your own story, your own words in your head as you go along. It’s fun to share a wordless book with a kid, and to have them tell the story.

RS: Back when I was a children’s librarian, I always felt a little awkward sharing a wordless book at story hour. What do you do? When do you turn the page? What’s your cue?

HC: Right, in a group setting it would be harder.

RS: Did you have any experience of that when Unspoken, also wordless, came out? Were you sharing it with groups of children?

HC: No, I haven’t done that. But I’ve heard so many teachers and librarians tell me about how they’ve used it. After they’ve gone over the story with the kids in a classroom, they’ll pick a spread or a page from the book and say something like, “Okay, I’m going to give you twenty minutes to write a paragraph, and it has to have three adjectives and two adverbs.” It’s a hugely helpful tool, and then they’ll send me their writing samples. They’re really amazing — it’s like giving kids a canvas and saying, “Here, paint with words.”

RS: And it can also be surprising. When you ask kids what was this book about? you might not get the answer you thought you would. Does creating a wordless book require a particular type of artistic clarity?

HC: It does, since there are no words to guide you through the pictures. You have to have a pretty clear thought in your head about where the pictures are going, in order to get from start to finish. There are no little helpful word markers along the way.

RS: And this book was wordless from the get-go?

HC: Yes.

RS: Do you have any ecological solutions for what we can do about recycling or not throwing things away? I’m looking at my desk, and it’s a mess of coffee cups and printouts. It’s very shameful.

HC: Reuse. Use less. Those are the only things I can think of. There are just so many people, and everybody wants convenience. I would be very worried if I was a child these days. I’m worried for them.

RS: Let’s see if we can find something more chipper to end this on.

HC: Like a wood chipper, you mean?

RS: So cheerful, you are. In your book, this bag does find a happy ending. It returns to the earth from whence it came. But you don’t know what happened to your bag, is that right?

HC: No. Oh my gosh, no, and that has really stressed me out. After high school I left the bag to my friend Susan — she was a year behind me — and she carried it around. It was pretty worn out at that point. She lives in the house where she grew up, and she has ransacked that house, but she can’t find it. I hope it at least went into a paper recycling bin. But I would’ve loved to have found it. I wanted to take a picture of it and put it on the back flap.

RS: I like what you say about the feeling of an old paper bag. It’s true — it does become almost feltlike, clothlike.

HC: It was so soft and worn. I’m thinking of my mom before she passed away. She had a stroke and couldn’t speak, but I was holding her hand and said, “Mom, if you know I love you, squeeze my hand.” She squeezed my hand, and it felt like that paper bag, with that same worn, smooth, soft feeling. It had contour to it, and it felt the same. That just came to me now, looking out at the water.

My mom was an elementary librarian. This would have been back in the early 1970s or so. I remember she would bring copies of The Horn Book home sometimes. She was reading them like homework for her. That logo is so seared in my head. And the covers — they had these great covers.

RS: On beautiful paper, too.

HC: There's something very, very wonderfully nostalgic about the connection. Right now I can't believe I'm being interviewed for The Horn Book, after all these years, knowing about it for so long.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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