Heather Henson, reads from her picture book, That Book Woman, illustrated by David Small, published by Atheneum/Simon and Schuster. The story was inspired by the work of the Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky. It has been published in many languages around the world. Permission to video book reading granted by publisher.
Heather Henson can cite various inspirations for her new book for middle school readers, “The Whole Sky.” Her second book involving horses, it’s not a true story — but was inspired by true events.
Back in 2001, more than 500 thoroughbred foals died on farms in Kentucky from Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS), with the cause of it a mystery for a long time.
“As far as I know, there was no one person (like Sky Doran, the main character in the book) who ultimately helped connect the dots and solve the MRLS mystery; there was no one girl who talked to horses,” Henson says. “But I’m a writer, so I like to imagine that there was — or is.”
One of the reasons Henson began writing about horses — her first book about them was published in 2010, “Dream of Night,” also for middle school readers — is actually because her editor suggested it.
“I’d just moved home to Kentucky after living in New York City and Brooklyn for 17 years, and I was talking to my editor at Atheneum/Simon and Schuster about book ideas and also describing living on a farm and seeing horses every day —so different from my city life. She suggested that I think about writing a novel that was literary but would also appeal to young horse lovers. She felt that since I had moved back to the middle of horse country I would be able to tap into that world, and she was right.”
The Whole Sky got a very nice review from Kirkus, which concluded that “Sky’s first-person narration rings true, as do the details of everyday life among horses.” The review also states that “[t]his literary middle-grade tale with a touch of magic will find eager readers among horse enthusiasts.”
A girl who can communicate with horses learns why thoroughbred foals are dying all over Kentucky.
In the wake of her mother’s death, 12-year-old Sky Doran, a white girl of Irish descent, accompanies her father to the prestigious breeding barn where he works each year during foaling season. Sky’s family has always been nomadic, but Shaughnessy Farms feels like home, and Sky is relieved to be reunited with the mares she loves, especially her favorite, Poppy, who is expecting her first foal. Sky and her father share a secret family trait: they can talk to the horses telepathically. This year, to everyone’s horror and astonishment, the foals are born dead or dying—hundreds of them in farms all across Kentucky. No one can understand why. Making matters even worse, Sky’s father, who has battled trouble with alcohol before, shows up at a difficult delivery drunk. He leaves Sky among friends on the farm while he enters rehab. When Poppy’s foal survives birth, Sky finds healing from her own wounds by caring for the fragile baby and uses her telepathy to uncover the reasons behind the epidemic. Mare reproductive loss syndrome, a real disaster stemming from 2001, forms the backdrop to a story of loss, growth, and friendship. Sky’s first-person narration rings true, as do the details of everyday life among horses.
This literary middle-grade tale with a touch of magic will find eager readers among horse enthusiasts. (Fantasy. 9-13)
Twelve-year-old Sky has spent her life working with horses, helping her father, who has passed on a special gift to her: both can speak to horses. When they arrive at Shaughnessy Farms to help birth this year’s foals, both father and daughter are mourning the recent death of Sky’s mother. Homeschooled Sky rarely spends time with kids her age, but she befriends Archie, grandson of the farm’s kindly owners. Then the foals are almost all stillborn for reasons no one understands, and Sky’s father, who has started drinking, disappears. As Sky attempts to discover what is killing the foals, Henson (Dream of Night) brings readers deep into the world of Kentucky horse farms, smoothly weaving in details about Sky and her father’s work. Sky’s grief is palpable, and her slow-building friendship with Archie is moving, as is Sky’s growing understanding of his flaws and struggle to love him in the face of that humanity. But the heart of the story is Sky’s preternatural bond with the animals she loves. Ages 10–12. (Aug.)
Wow, it’s like Christmas x 1000 when the very first copy of your book arrives on your doorstep! Especially when your amazing editor wraps it up just for you. As with most of my books, The Whole Sky was several years in the making, and I’m just so ☺️❤️❤️ to finally have it in the real world, not just in my head and computer files. Thank you Caitlyn Dlouhy of Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, and everyone at Atheneum and Simon and Schuster. You are simply the best. ❤️❤️❤️
Another glowing review for Lift Your Light a Little Higher, this one from School Library Connections:
This title recounts the biography of little-known slave explorer, Stephen Bishop, who led tours through the intricate and extensive pathways of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky during the 19th century. Attractively illustrated in earth tones by award-winning artist Bryan Collier, the book describes , in lyrical language, Bishop’s excursions through the underground world and the freedom his expertise offered him. Restricted by the bonds of slavery above ground, Bishop becomes a leader, a scholar, and an equal below in the caves. In an author’s note, Henson explains that she pieced together information for the book and imagined what Bishop’s life would have been. In writing instruction, teachers can employ the same concept to show point of view in first person narrative. The poetic content may be adapted for dramatic reader’s theater or paired with Marilyn Nelson’s or Carol Boston Weatherford’s biographical works in verse. Inspired artwork and expressive language unmask Bishop’s obscurity in history and elevate his life.
Bernadette Kearney, Teacher-Librarian, Julia R. Masterman School, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In the quiet darkness, a slave leads a group of “customers” through an amazing cave, and when they write their names on the walls by the light of his lantern, he teaches himself to read.
This is the story line in author Heather Henson’s quiet new picture book, Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop, Slave Explorer. In the book, Stephen is purchased as a young boy and ordered by his owner to “”learn the ways of the cave well enough to lead paying folks around in the deep.” Stephen does just that. And he also does other amazing things: For example, he is “the first to lay eyes upon those eyeless fish” and “those craw dads white as bone,” both found only in the underground rivers of Mammoth Cave. He is also the “first to cross what even learned men have deemed un-crossable” (The “Bottomless Pit”). Yes, Stephen is a discoverer…though like most slaves, he doesn’t go down in history that way.
In Ms. Henson’s Author’s Note, she admits to knowing very little about Stephen Bishop’s life, yet she still manages to breathe beauty and nobility into Stephen’s personality. Her simple, straightforward prose loans a soft-spoken flavor to Stephen’s words, and a courage and resolve to his deeds.
Through Ms. Henson’s prose, readers understand that, slave though he was, Stephen attained a type of freedom in those caves. Readers will share his pride in the fact that he alone held his lantern high and led adventurers through the damp, dangerous, and patchy darkness–and then back again to safety.
Artist Bryan Collier delivers with poignant illustrations of sad, soulful eyes and quiet strength; of courage in the shady depths of the Mammoth Cave. In fact, it is easy to see that Mr. Collier somehow tapped into Stephen Bishop’s quiet courage and resolve and brought it to the canvas. Thanks for these lovely illustrations, Mr. Collier!
From the September, 2016 issue of School Library Journal, a terrific review of Lift Your Light a Little Higher that describes the book as “a germane and trenchant story. Written in the first person, with Bishop leading readers through a tour, the book packs intricate meaning into each line.”
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’sLift 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.