All posts by timmuky

Heather talks about “Lift Your Light a Little Higher”!

Heather talks about her new book, LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER, coming in September, 2016!

Heather5x7Q: What’s LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHERabout?
A: It tells the story of a man named Stephen Bishop who was a slave in Kentucky. He was born around 1821 and brought as a teenager by his master to Mammoth Cave, which was already a big tourist destination in the early 1800s, if you can believe it! People all over the world became fascinated with this enormous cave in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky – as they should have been! We now know that it’s the longest cave system in the world.

Q: Why this story?
A: When I moved back to Kentucky, I took my kids to Mammoth Cave, a place I had visited with my parents as a child. I loved going down into the earth, loved the weirdness and vastness of this underground world. I felt immediately that there were stories down there. I learned about the slaves who were guides and I learned about a group of people who had been brought to live in the cave because their doctor thought the constant cool temperature would cure their tuberculosis – which it didn’t! Most of them died. I knew I had to write about the cave.

lift-your-light-a-little-higher-9781481420952_lgQ: How did you focus on Stephen Bishop?
A: A friend and fellow Kentucky writer named Elizabeth Orndorff had written a play called DEATH BY DARKNESS, which was produced at my family’s summer stock theater (that’s another story!) One of the main characters in the play was Stephen Bishop, and I became fascinated by him. I started doing research, although there wasn’t a huge amount since Stephen was a slave and often records were not kept. And since it was against the law for slaves to read or write, sadly we do not have an account of Stephen’s story in his own words.

Q: Why did you choose to tell the story from Stephen’s point of view?
A: All my stories are character driven. When I sit down to write, I may know what I want to write about, but I’m not sure exactly how I’ll tell the story until a character starts speaking to me. I actually first wrote a draft of the book from the perspective of the cave! But I didn’t feel like it worked for kids – I wanted them to feel as engaged about the history and place as I was. When I went back to start a second draft, Stephen Bishop’s voice came to me loud and clear. Right away I knew I was on the right path.

Q: What made Stephen so important to the cave?
A: There were several slave guides, but Stephen became the best known from around 1838 to 1857. Writers of the day who visited the cave mention Stephen’s eloquence and intelligence, his deep knowledge of the cave, his important discoveries.

Stephen was the first to draw a map of the cave and the first to cross the “Bottomless Pit” – a huge chasm that had stopped other explorers. He was the first to discover a new species of eyeless fish and albino crawdads found only in the underground rivers of Mammoth Cave.

Stephen Bishop was an amazing explorer, and yet he never got the credit he deserved because he was a slave.

Q: What happened to Stephen?
A: He married, he had a child. He was promised freedom by his master, but it came only the year before he died. What I find so strange is that we don’t know anything about his death. He was only 37, which is young even for back then. He’d been free for a year. He was loved, he was respected, he was such an important part of Mammoth Cave — they buried him near the original entrance. And yet, we don’t know how he died.

Q: What do you want kids to learn from this book?
A: In most of my picture books, I write about pieces of history that have been forgotten or lost. I want kids to understand that there are other stories out there, amazing stories, beyond what’s taught in history books. History is made up of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Q: Stephen talks about learning to read and write in the cave. Is this part true?
A: According to my research, it is. As I said, it was against the law for slaves to read or write. But white visitors to the cave liked to have their names written on the cave walls and ceilings –historical graffiti! They don’t allow it today! They used a long taper with a candle attached and the flame would burn a line so they could write. Many of the slaves, including Stephen learned to read and write this way, from watching and helping.

Q: The importance of reading was a big part of your last picture book, THAT BOOK WOMAN. Are these books connected?
A: Yes! Reading is hugely important to me. It’s what I love doing the most (if I’m not writing.) In THAT BOOK WOMAN, a young boy surprises himself and his family by learning to love books and reading through the perserverence of one brave book woman. In LIFT YOUR LIGHT, Stephen longs to read and write, but it’s denied to him, so he learns the only way he can.

Q: Any last words about LIFT YOUR LIGHT?
A: I believe there are so many stories out there – stories of people who have been marginalized thorughout history, stories that are so important for us to know, stories that make us who and what we are today. In this book I try to imagine a life from a few written descriptions, from a few facts. In this book, I try to imagine what Stephen Bishop, Cave Explorer and Guide, would have to say to us if history – if slavery — had not silenced him.

Starred Kirkus review for “Lift Your Light a Little Higher”

****STARRED REVIEW IN THE JULY 15, 2016 ISSUE OF KIRKUS REVIEWS***

LIFT YOUR LIGHT A LITTLE HIGHER

By Heather Henson; illus. by Bryan Collier

(Atheneum; ISBN 978-1-4814-2095-2; 9/06/2016; Fall 2016 catalog)

This story whispers of the life of a man most contemporary American readers should know but don’t.Stephen Bishop, born circa 1821, had intimate knowledge of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he served as guide for visitors who traveled far to tour the underground passageways. Despite the ban against teaching slaves to read, Stephen acquired literacy and wrote his name on the ceiling of Mammoth Cave by using smoke from a lighted candle. Henson weaves Bishop’s impressive scientific discoveries of cave life into the sparse narrative, demonstrating the magnitude of his contributions despite that little is known of his life or death. Collier’s strikingly symbolic collage illustrations often draw a stark line between what appears above and below the ground, emphasizing the covert nature of Bishop’s achievements. Perhaps the book’s most memorable illustration appears when, speaking in Bishop’s voice, Henson says that slaves are “bought and sold…same as an ox or mule” while overlapping silhouettes of black and brown textured faces appear within the collage cutout of an ox plowing a field. Rich backmatter will help young readers understand more about the historical context in which Bishop lived and died. A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by 2 million people each year.(Picture book/biography 4-8)

 

Frank X Walker Literary Festival…See You There!

Frank X Walker is the current Kentucky Poet Laureate.  He also happens to be a Danville native and a DHS grad (just like yours truly.)  So some literary types in Danville have organized the first ever literary fest in Frank’s honor.  Be sure to come to Danville and check it out.  Here’s the schedule:

 

The Frank X Walker Literary Festival

Thursday, September 18, 2014

“Turn Me Loose…. The Unghosting of Medgar Evers” Convocation

Newlin Hall/Norton Center/7:30 p.m.

Featuring Frank X Walker

 

Friday, September 19, 2014

  • Frank X Walker … School Presentations
  • Authors in our Schools (Danville/Boyle)

Writing Workshops/Oral Readings/Student Presentations

  • Boyle County Public Library:  Heather Henson/Marie Bradby: Reading & Talk 1:00-3:00 p.m.

Picturing Words Smithsonian Exhibit 9:00-5:30 p.m.

 

  • Frank X Walker Community Reception Danville High School 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Danville High School

10:00 a.m. ­­­­- 4:00 p.m.

  • Oral Presentations by Frank X Walker and Authors
  • Community Readings
  • Book Fair 10:00 – 4:00 p.m.
  • Frank X Walker “State Historical Marker” Project
  • Concessions : Dunn’s BBQ

 

Boyle County Public Library

  • Family Day of Literacy/ Readings/ Workshops 10:30-12:00 p.m.
  • Picturing Words Smithsonian Exhibit 9:00-5:00 p.m.

Authors:

Frank X Walker                                            Rick Lee

Minnie Adkins                                              Maurice Manning

Amy Barkman                                              Marcia Mount Shoop

Wendell Berry                                             David Nahm

Marie Bradby                                              Ricardo Nazario-Colon’

Devine Carama                                           Guerney Norman

Hasan Davis                                                 Mike Norris

Mitchell Douglas                                         Yolantha Pace

Carolyn DuPont                                           Katheryn Ragle

Ruth Ann Fogle                                            Octavia Sexton

Thomas Freese                                            C.A. Shelley

Hazel “Sybil” Hall                                        Judy Sizemore

Louis Hatchett                                             Penny Smith

Heather Henson                                         Patsi Trollinger

Shayla Lawson                                             Crystal Wilkinson

 

 

 

Pioneer Playhouse 64th Season….Into Thin Air

 

It’s become a ritual to sign an “L” for the last night of the entire Playhouse season.  Here I am in front of an audience of 500 (!!), introducing the final show, thanking our regular patrons, bidding adieu until next year….

Pioneer Playhouse was started by my dad  in 1950, and my family has continued to run it since then.  Hard to believe we’re 64 years old…. and still going, still talking about the future…future plays, future actors, future programs.

We do 5 plays a summer.  One every two weeks.  Plus a 3 day comedy show to end out the season.  It’s a grueling schedule.  Rehearsing one play during the day while performing another at night.  Tearing down one set within a 36 hour period and putting up a completely new one.

About 15,000 people come through our doors over the summer.  Many have been coming for years.  We have patrons who first saw a play here 40 years ago.  We have some who haven’t missed a show in 20 years.

The theatre was my dad’s dream.  He wanted to be an actor, went to NYC, but had to return home to Kentucky, so he decided to bring “Broadway to the Bluegrass.”  After he died, almost 10 years ago now, my mom and sister took up the reigns.  Since I’d moved back to Kentucky to write, I’d help out when needed.

But when Holly died last year, I stepped in as Managing Director along with my brother Robby.  Maybe we could’ve just let the dream die, but it seems impossible to even contemplate.  So we work…we work really, really hard.  We don’t just put on plays.  We do an outreach program that teaches playwrighting to inmates at Northpoint prison here in Danville.  We started a similar program to teach playwrighting to seniors this year.  We were the force behind the hugely success first ever Danville Irish Festival, during which we mounted an original play set in Ireland, and organized Irish musicians, dancers, singers, and storytellers to come to Danville to give us a taste of Irish culture.

So much time!  My husband jokes that I work over 100 hours a week in the summer!  It’s certainly more than a “regular”  job.  It’s exhausting, overwhelming at times.  But it’s also  incredibly rewarding.

Night after night, I shake every hand that comes through the gates of the Playhouse.  I give hugs to familiar patrons, just as Holly did.  I ask them how they like the show after it’s over, and listen as they tell me “It’s the best we’ve seen yet!”  Or sometimes they’re honest and say, “I liked the last one better.”  But overall, they’re happy, happy to have escaped into another world for a couple of hours.  And that makes me feel good, makes me feel it’s worth all the work that goes into keeping a 64 year old theatre alive.

“See you next year!” I call out to the crowd as they pass by, and for the last few nights there have been tears in my eyes.  I’m running on fumes from the breakneck pace of the summer, am looking forward to staying home at night with my family, not having to deal with the million little things that pop up during the day.  But when it comes down to it, I’m sad to say goodbye to everyone — actors and patrons alike — I’ve come to know all summer.  This is the way my dad felt, I’m sure of it, and my sister too.  It’s one of the reasons we Hensons can’t really ever think about saying “goodbye,” but always… “see you next year!”

My dad used to quote Shakespeare at the end of the season, as the actors drove away, waving good bye from their car windows.  He’d say:

Our revels now are ended,

These actors as I foretold you,

Were all spirits

And are melted

Into thin air, into thin air.”

In my book about a tween growing up at a theatre a lot like the Playhouse (Here’s How I See It/Here’s How It Is), I have Junebug, the main character quoting the words because her dad can’t just then.  But it’s ritual for her, a tradition, and so it must be done.  The show must go on.

 

Me and my dad on the Playhouse stage circa 1977

 

Celebrating MLK Day in KY

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I decided to take my kids to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY.  The Ali center is jewel of a structure outside; inside it is a beautiful and moving tribute to the boxer, the humanitarian, the man who has spent his life fighting racism in this country and around the world.  Through the interactive exhibits my kids learned about what it means to stand up for your rights and put your convictions on the line.  I felt like it was a fitting way to celebrate MLK Day, as well as the day the first African-American president of the US was sworn in for a second term.  Above is a picture of my sons sporting their hats from the center with a couple of Ali’s trademark phrases on the front.

At the center, during a film giving the highlights of Ali’s life, the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling is often quoted.  Here is part of it below:

IF

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

When you go to the center, or if you visit the website (alicenter.org), you’ll see a list of Ali’s core beliefs.  Here they are:

Confidence Belief  in oneself, one’s abilities, and one’s future.
Conviction A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise.
Dedication The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
Giving To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
Respect Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
Spirituality A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.

Happy MLK Day!

 

My sister, my friend

I’ve been unable to update this blog for months.  Here’s why:  my sister’s cancer came back with a vengeance.  She was gone in a flash.

Holly was my only sister, my big sister.  She was born in Danville, KY on July 19, 1960.  She grew up on the stage at Pioneer Playhouse, the theatre our dad, Eben Henson, started in 1950.  She was always involved in one way or another at the Playhouse — acting, directing, managing.  She became artistic director when Dad passed 8 years ago.

Holly died where she lived — in her home not a stone’s throw from the Playhouse stage.  She died on May 27, 2012, just as the Playhouse company was assembling — the new actors arriving for the 63rd season.  After she was gone, the company meeting went on without her; auditions for the first show continued.  Rehearsals began.  That’s the way Holly wanted it.  The show must always go on.

It’s been a hard few weeks without her.  Robby and my mom, Charlotte, are the ones who run the Playhouse now.  I pitch in where I can.  The family has vowed to keep Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theatre alive another year in Holly’s memory, and then we’ll see what happens.  It’s hard to imagine ever closing it though.  The Playhouse has been a part of my family’s very fabric, our heart and soul.

Every night I stand to greet patrons arriving for the show (one of my duties), and I’m constantly told how much I look like Holly, how much her personal greeting meant to them, how much the Playhouse continues to mean to them, how much they miss Holly, but are glad to see us going on as a family.  It’s heart-breaking and gratifying all at once. It makes me feel sad. But it also makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.

Holly felt the same way.  A few years ago, she started an “Artistic Director Diaries” as part of a podcast the Playhouse was doing at the time.  Holly’s diary entries aren’t long, some of them just talk about the mundane day to day running of the theatre.  But one passage jumped out at me when I read through it after she died:

Is it worth it?  To keep this place going, under immense stress and strain?

Last night a mosquito kept me awake….I thought about my mother, who is 79, playing guitar and singing every night for the supper guests, as she has done for over 50 years.  I thought about all the changes she has seen.  All the sets, all the actors, the loss of a husband — as she stands in the back, enjoying the sound of the dialogue and the audience laughing. 

All summer my trailer has filled up with flowers and photos and press releases and memories.  There have been five opening nights.  I’ll never see these same people, gathered in the same place ever again.

I’m so busy, I seldom have time to think about Dad.  Except in an odd pause or two, and the realization that he’s not here still has a tinge of surprise — like he’s just taking a nap and will be back shortly and take all my worries away.  Like he’ll invite me to sit beside him, as we greet the audience together.

I still don’t know whose dream is more important — mine or my dad’s.  I still don’t know why the “show must go on.”  There are only 20 outdoor theatres left in the entire US.  If one more closes, does it matter?

If I wanted, I could walk away from all of this…into my own story.  But how lonely would my summers be, without laughter and tears.  At least when I’m stepping into Dad’s shoes, I can see the path.

I guess it’s my turn now, Holly, to follow in your footsteps. And I’ll do my best.  But already the summer — and the path — seem lonely without you here.

Holly Lee Henson

July 19, 1960 – May 27, 2012

Speaking at NKU Bookfest 2012!

I’m heading up to Northern Kentucky University tomorrow to participate in their annual Bookfest on Friday, May 4.  It’s a really incredible day long program in which about 500 middle grade students from around the state come to the NKU campus in Highland Heights to talk about books and reading.

Here is a link to NKU’s webpage about it, with a really terrific video showing highlights of years past:

http://english.nku.edu/outreach/bookfest/index.php

Last year, Silas House was the featured speaker, so I’m just thrilled and honored to have been asked to follow in his footsteps.

Will post pictures from the event soon!  Hope to see you there!