All posts by timmuky

“Booklist” essay cites “Lift Your Light” as one of two “books that stretch young readers and the boundaries of biography”



Lift Your Light a Little Higher was the subject, along with Jonah Winters’ My Name Is James Madison Hemings, of an in-depth Booklist essay on “Two new books about men who lived under slavery [that] bring up interesting questions about the elasticity of biography, the discernment capabilities of younger audiences, and the lines between history and historical fiction.”

The author, Ilene Cooper, describes Lift Your Light thusly:

Heather Henson’s Lift Your Light a Little Higher … takes readers inside Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, where Stephen Bishop, also known as Guide, leads tourists through the twists and turns of the underground wonder. In a come-close first-person narrative, Bishop, a slave, describes how he came to spend his life underground, so attuned to his surroundings that he discovered a previously unknown species of eyeless crawdads. Bishop learned to write by watching folks scrawl their names on the walls, and his own name can still be seen there. Poetic and evocative, the story chronicles what it was like for Bishop to cup a deerskin moccasin in his palm or to feel pride in being Guide, “a man able to walk before other men, not behind.”

Using watercolor and collage, primarily in dark greens and browns, artist Bryan Collier provides bold, striking art on oversize pages. Children will feel the intensity of both the natural world and a man who understands his corner of it.

Cooper’s article raises interesting questions about fictionalization of historical subjects and how we can explain children that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are not always as clear as they think. It can (and should) be read in full at the Booklist Reader website.

This Saturday! “Lift Your Light” reading and signing at Kentucky Soaps and Such in Stanford

A photo posted by Heather Henson (@hensonbooks) on

Come join Heather this Saturday, 24th, 11:00 am, at Ky Soaps and Such in Stanford, KY. Kids and adults welcome! Reading, book signing, cookies, locally made products such as Plainview Farm all natural goat’s milk soaps and lotions! Visit Kentucky Soaps and Such for more info.

Lift Your Light gets Web Exclusive Shout Out on BookPage OnLine!

Web Exclusive – September 6, 2016

A cave guide to remember
BookPage review by Billie B. Little

From about 1838 to 1857, Stephen Bishop was an underground guide in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. With carefully chosen wording, rich historical detail and luminous images, author Heather Henson and Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier bring Stephen’s story to light.

Stephen guides the reader through tunnels and quagmires of the cave and his own life. He tells us he can neither read nor write—it’s against the law to teach him these skills because he’s a slave: “Because I am bought and sold, same as an ox or a mule.” But Stephen has a yearning to learn, and he does, in a law-abiding manner. By the light of a candle, deep below the ground, when the visitors write their names on the cave’s ceiling, Stephen is watching and learning. In time, he writes his own name, too, along with the names of his wife and son.

Stephen hints at other secrets of Mammoth Cave. He tells of the men who discovered the cave and tracked bear beneath the earth. He makes his own discoveries of eyeless fish and albino crayfish. He finds a deerskin moccasin in the passageways below and wonders about his own legacy. Today, though Stephen no longer walks the cave, his name remains there for visitors to see, if only they look carefully.

This sensitive portrayal hints that every man and woman who walked this earth, free or slave, has a story worth telling.

Billie B. Little is the Founding Director of Discovery Center at Murfree Spring, a hands-on museum in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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!

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”



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.


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