By Dedra Cordle
Some of the major milestones in the life of author and illustrator Henry Cole can be traced back to school assemblies.
As an elementary student in Purcellville, Virginia, Cole received his first brush with fame when the self-proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Whistler’ made an appearance at his school.
“I’m pretty sure he was just a local guy who could whistle but he blew my mind,” he said.
Cole said he can still remember his appearance and tunes with an acute clarity.
“He looked like Fred (Mertz) on ‘I Love Lucy’ and whistled one of the best renditions of Yellow Bird for us. It made quite the impression on my young mind.”
The second milestone came when Cole was in the eighth grade and received a visit from noted Australian author and illustrator Robin Hill.
“He specialized in birds and he was the most exotic person I had ever met,” Cole said.
It also didn’t hurt that he spoke in his thickly accented voice about a topic that was a favorite of Cole’s.
“I had always had a passion for the outdoors,” he said. “And I especially loved drawing the wildlife.”
The third major assembly milestone came when he was teaching science and math at an elementary school when they received a visit from yet another author. It was during this experience that he worked up the courage to speak to one of their guests.
“I had just finished a book about bats after one of our units and asked if I could have the contact information for their editor, or any editor,” he said. “I took a chance and much to my surprise and delight, they were interested in my work.”
Though he didn’t leave his job after the publication of his work, it did create a fire within to reach others through educational entertainment in the form of literature.
“When I first started all of this,” he said, referring to his second career as an author and illustrator, “I wanted to focus on reaching children and young adults. Their imaginations are the most active during this time and it’s exciting to know that you could be making an impact on their lives.”
Since retiring more than two decades ago, Cole has written and illustrated more than 170 books, including “A Nest for Celeste,” “Eddie the Bully,” “Try a Little Kindness,” and the award-winning “Unspoken,” which takes the reader through the Underground Railroad without the use of text.
During that time, he also began travelling to schools throughout the country for his own assemblies where he talks about his work, the perseverance it took to get to where he is today, and his hidden hope of living up to the expectation of the guest speaker spot.
“It can be intimidating,” he said. “I always expected something engaging and funny and I know that they are too. So what I try to do is be as engaging and funny and interesting as possible while also giving positive messages without being too preachy about it.”
For three hours, which were broken up into three one-hour assemblies at Buckeye Woods, Cole shared childhood illustrations about growing up on a rural farm, joked about being the younger sibling to a genius older brother with a knack for inventions, shared the tragic backstory behind his book, “The Somewhat True Adventures of Sammy Shine,” and got a bit serious when telling the students to never give up on their dreams as he relayed the story of editors heavily critiquing his work.
“It’s like when the teacher hands you back the assignment that you were so sure was great and it’s full of marks and notes,” he said to an audience that was nodding and groaning in commiseration. “While it looks bad, and sometimes feels bad, you have to know their feedback is only going to make your work better in the future.”
School librarian Debi Damato said she appreciated his message about perseverance and called his presence at the school a “joy.” She also said she loved learning about the process of creating and illustrating a children’s book.
“Sometimes we don’t even think about the amount of time and work that goes into it,” she said, referring to the picture he shared of the stacks of heavily edited drafts, as well as his admission that it took more than 100 illustrations to get one character down.
“What I liked about his presentation is that he tells of the hard work, but also the love he has for what he does,” she said. “I hope it’s inspiring to all of our students, especially those who have an interest in writing and illustration.”
Several students also said they loved Cole’s presentation, which when told overjoyed the author immensely.
“I’m glad,” Cole said. “I don’t think my presentation is as awesome as the whistler of my youth but I’m happy they came away smiling. I hope they continue finding their passions and working toward doing what makes them happy.”