The Natural World of Henry Cole,By Sheilah Egan

The 2013 Shenandoah University’s Children’s Literature Festival was the venue for Henry Cole’s presentation and slide show. It became obvious as he spoke, that Henry is very concerned that all children do not have opportunities to experience nature and
the “out-of-doors.” Observing nature, first hand, should be an important part of “childhood development.” Many of his books are subtle reminders of how much humans of all ages need to connect with nature. Evidence of his concerns can be seen in his book On Meadowview Street (2007). In it, Caroline wonders why the street was named Meadow View-there is no view of a meadow. She and her family proceed to create a welcoming space in their own yard for birds, insects, and other creatures needing a place to live. The reader watches as she and her family provide shelter, a pond for water, and lots of places for little things to live under rocks, etc. The payoff is that the neighbors observe their efforts and begin to turn their own lawns into “meadows.” Cole’s own early experiences and education have given him the perfect background to help youngsters “explore and observe” nature “up close and personally.” One look at his art will assure any reader that he has been an excellent observer and has honed the ability to translate his love of nature into his illustrations.

He “tries to write to people” because he wants to make a difference for that “child or reader who will be struck by a single word or event.” Stressing that a single event or “bit of praise” from the right person (teacher/educator) could literally “change a life,” he made it clear that his philosophy of life is based on “connecting with people.” “Connections are most important with students, with all people, to help each other see.” Scholastic asked him to speak to The Principal’s Advisory Board (“24 top notch principals from around the nation”). At first he felt intimidated but then decided to tell them about his ideas of connection. They were impressed by Cole’s speech about the importance of “teacher-student connections” and I feel sure all of them went back to their schools prepared to reinforce Cole’s idea that every teacher can be “that one person who can connect with a kid and change his/her life.”

Growing up on Shadowlong Farm in Purceville, VA, was the perfect incubator for Henry Cole’s development as a loving person, an inspired teacher, and a gifted artist/author. The youngest of five, Cole was fortunate to have had “the kind of mother who could make small things really great!” Having been a fashion illustrator, she could draw and was particularly talented in creating beautiful portraits of people. This was probably his first introduction to the observational skills necessary to create authentic facial expressions for his work. Looking at one of his drawings, one can know almost immediately what the character is thinking or feeling. Mrs. Cole provided many opportunities for imaginative play, such as creating detailed scavenger hunts where old Christmas light bulbs were the colorful buried treasure; she also allowed the children to explore their natural environment and encouraged their efforts to learn through experience.

With great gusto and obvious enjoyment, Cole told about the time his brother “invented” an observatory from a refrigerator box and a large carpet tube. His mom let them stay up until midnight to observe a lunar eclipse. His next story was told with little boy mischief dancing in the corners of his smile; he only tried to suppress that grin a little bit. “There once was a great grasshopper invasion.” He loved insects, nature, spending the summer outdoors, and exploring the woods and farmland around his home. Having parents that provided space to explore and “invent” was important and offered valuable “hands on” learning experiences. They did, however, shut down the “torture chamber” in the basement where Cole and his brother dissected and experimented on “many of those grasshoppers.” He acknowledged that he had a great place and time to grow up learning about the natural world.

“I had an excellent education in Loudoun County (VA).” One teacher stood out in his mind and he told the audience of educators that he had visited her while he was in the area for the Festival. His third grade teacher, now 92, made a huge impression on Cole. “She did things like read Charlotte’s Web aloud and then passed out big sheets of paper. She would say ‘What was in Chapter 13? Draw it.'” Sometimes she would have them draw “the future of your own self” or ask them to “visualize your own future.” To emphasize just how much this teacher influenced him, he took a piece of paper out of his wallet. It was a letter she had written to him many years ago. He carries a copy of it with him wherever he goes-now that is an “influence,” a connection of a lifetime.

Many of the stories that Cole shared were accompanied by slides with illustrations dating from his childhood to the present. “My mom saved everything,” he said as he showed a poster he had made at Powell Fort Camp. Humor punctuated his tales and he never shirked in exposing his own foibles, such as his homesickness at the Camp. He discussed his education as a Forestry Major at Virginia Tech and his subsequent discovery that he did not really want to be a “forest ranger.”

Becoming a math and science teacher was Cole’s next vocation and he referred to his time at Langley School as “The Best! Those were the good old days.” He was well prepared to share his love of natural sciences and encouraged lots of “hands on” learning. While at Langley, he began to illustrate books and find his own voice in the children’s book world. He and then Langley librarian, Pamela Duncan Edwards, wrote and illustrated numerous picture books: Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale, Some Smug Slug, BAREFOOT: Escape on the Underground Railroad, and Livingstone Mouse to name a few. Other Edwards/Cole titles include: The Worrywarts, Wake-Up Kisses, Roar!: A Noisy Counting Book, The Old House, The Neat Line: Scribbling Through Mother Goose, and The Grumpy Morning. Cole also did illustrations for Jim Aylesworth’s Naughty Little Monkeys. Susan Winter’s Good Night, Copycub and Always Copycub were also given the Cole treatment. Other publishers began to clamor for his illustrations and he was well established in the children’s art world.

The natural progression occurred and Henry Cole began to write his own stories and illustrate them with the wide range of styles he has developed over the years. A person viewing the Mother Goose book might be very surprised that the same artist created the illustrations for Dinorella or Big Bug (April 2014). Cole’s art is versatile but always informed by his observations of nature “in the wild” and the farm animals he grew up watching and drawing. The essence of his work is never far from his “connection” to nature (“and people”). At this point Cole’s books have won a wide variety of awards. Here is a listing of the awards and honors garnered by just one title, And Tango Makes Three (all located through use of CLCD’s Awards and Honors Feature):


Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2005 Bank Street College of Education Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2006 National Council for the Social Studies NCSS
Book Sense Kid’s Picks, Fall 2005 American Booksellers Association Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, May 16, 2005
Booklist Book Review Stars, May 15, 2005 American Library Association Cahners School Library Journal Book Review Stars, July 2005 Cahners
Capitol Choices, 2006 The Capitol Choices Committee Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award, 2005
Children’s Catalog Nineteenth Edition, 2006 H.W. Wilson Winner Fiction Environment and Ecology United States
Choices 2006 Cooperative Children’s Book Center Lambda Literary Award, 2005 Finalist United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, June 1, 2005 Sheffield Children’s Book Award, 2008 Shortlist Picture Book United Kingdom
Notable Children’s Books, 2006 ALSC American Library Association Storytelling World Award, 2006 Honor Book Stories for Pre-Adolescent Listeners United States


The next part of his presentation was about the process of his work. Playing “beautiful music while working quietly” is his norm but he is quite capable of producing “on the spot.” He draws pictures for audiences wherever he goes. The Children’s Book Festival was no exception. While he was talking and telling stories he drew a picture “right in front of your very eyes.” He was very amiable to people taking pictures and asking questions. Which led back to his discussion of the steps in producing a book. “Usually I get a manuscript in the mail, with very little direction. Then I develop the characters with an eye for their emotions and expressions in little sketches. I have to work to make them the same all the way through the book. Then there are the layout, setting, color choices, and page turners to consider. The values of perspectives include local and global perspectives and matter greatly in creating relationships in picture books. Of course, I have to leave room for the words!” The book designer and the editor then start on the revision process. “In the past, the editor used post-it notes that I could rip up as I made (or didn’t) her suggested corrections. Now she uses ‘comment bubbles’ and there is nothing to ‘rip up.'” There are a lot of technical aspects to getting a book “right,” such as allowing for space to highlight important things, planning for the gutter, text placement, watching the plot development in relationship to the page turns, and fact checking. Every aspect of a book must be considered. He starts with sketches and photos in preparation for the final artwork. His first drawings are in black and white and then he works with color. Throughout his career he has been asked by his editors to repaint a tree “because that one is too gray,” to put “protective footwear” on characters, and reposition characters within a scene for “aesthetic” reasons. Even choosing a title has its challenges. There were over fifty suggestions before the final title of Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad was chosen. There is also the initial interaction with publishers to consider. Unspoken was rejected by a publisher who did not think that a “White guy” should be telling a “Black” story. Neither did Cole expect the controversy generated by And Tango Makes Three. When he was sent the manuscript, he loved it and sent in sketches that were “accepted.” He said with a shrug of his shoulders, “(you) just never can know.”

School visits keep him “in touch and connected with students.” He loves to tell students to use whatever materials they have to create their own art. Grabbing a “plain old crayon” he will proceed to make a drawing while he is talking about all of the steps needed to get a book to the “finish line.” The students get to experience the “reality of expression” in a very concrete way, watching Cole creating “a real drawing” in real time. The actual art helps them to connect with the truth that a “real person” is behind the idea and the pictures in a book. Students also give Cole “new perspectives” every time he has the opportunity to interact with them. He described feeling the impact of “thirty different perspectives” from “thirty different brains. They use different adjectives and adverbs and can be very exacting. ‘Those eyelashes are black…we were thinking they should be charcoal grey.'” He admits to being influenced by N. C. Wyeth and John Singer Sargent. I suspect future artists will testify that they were influenced and affected by Henry Cole and his art.

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