Find out more about homing pigeon Homer and his crime-solving animal friends in Homer on the Case with celebrated author and illustrator Henry Cole! We asked Henry about the inspiration and writing process for his action-packed new middle grade mystery featuring birds, friendship, and plenty of adventure, and he’s sharing all about it here!
Q: What inspired you to write Homer on the Case?
A: I like the idea of different species communicating. For example, I wonder what the different birds on my bird feeder say to each other. “Quit shoving!” “Move over!” “You take all the peanuts!” When I thought of a homing pigeon learning to read because of the daily newspaper under his feet, and then thought of a parrot learning to speak human …one thing led to another. Imagination took over.
Q: You’ve worked on nearly 150 books for children. What makes Homer on the Case different from your past projects? What makes it similar?
A: I’ve really enjoyed working on my chapter book projects: one can really try to get into the mind and spirit of the characters. I’m lucky because I can also draw the illustrations, which add personality and expression to those characters. Homer on the Case takes place in a city, unlike my usual stories, and although humans play a big part, it’s the animal characters that move the story around.
Q: You’re an author and illustrator. When you come up with ideas for stories, do you usually think of the story in text or drawings first?
A: I’ve been asked that many times, and I think the best reply is “both”! While I’m imagining and outlining a story in my head or on paper, I can’t help but picture the setting and the characters and how they look and act during different parts of the story. I’m a constant doodler. I doodle all the time. I’ll doodle ideas for a story and those doodles can be very helpful for a book dummy.
Q: How did you choose a homing pigeon for the main character?
A: I think pigeons and doves have an expression that some other birds don’t have; they have a more sensitive and thoughtful look. And I liked the idea that homing pigeons are so skillfully able to always return home. Home is often a theme in my stories, and something very important to me.
Q: You really brought the setting of Keeler Park to life. Was Keeler Park inspired by a real place?
A: Well, yes, sort of. Years and years ago I had some time on my hands as I was waiting for an appointment with an editor. It was late summer. I sat on a bench in a small park near the publisher and watched the city go about its business, people and pigeons mostly. There was a scent to the air of sycamores, and a tranquil feel of the park, nestled among tall buildings. When I was writing about Keeler Park in the story, I was imagining myself on that bench that day.
Q: Grandad keeps a photo of Otto’s grandmother inside his gold pocket watch. Do you have a special keepsake that reminds you of a loved one?
A: Several! Many! A wooden stool my grandfather made, my 3rd grade lunchbox (my mom wrote my name on it) that looks like a barn (I grew up on a farm), a string of brass bells my aunt gave me, two little ceramic pigs that sat on the kitchen window sill of the my childhood home….many more! Don’t get me started!
Q: Communication is an important aspect to this story. How did you come up with the idea to incorporate the challenge of the birds in the story trying to communicate with their humans?
A: I wish I spoke a hundred languages. If I could start over, I’d take every language course I could. Right now I’m barely fluent in English! Years ago, I lived in Egypt for a while, and the best part of my experience there was the joy in learning to communicate with people who didn’t speak English, and the only Arabic I knew was “thank you”! I was learning to read and speak and write as an adult. It was a challenge, but with great rewards. I made so many friends that way, learning to communicate. I loved it. I was hoping to get that joy across as Homer and Lulu communicate with their human friends.
Q: If you could choose to be any animal, what would it be?
A: Probably something really useful and cared for, like a police service dog or a therapy animal. I’d like to say something wonderful like a bobcat or a chickadee, but wildlife these days have it rough: they have to contend not only with natural predators and disease, but also with human interference and reduced habitat. I don’t think I’d last long as a chickadee. I’d be in the talons of a sharp-shinned hawk within an hour!
Q: What’s your favorite type of bird, and why?
A: Really?!?! Are you asking for only ONE type of bird?? That’s tough. If I HAD to limit myself, I’d say the American robin, because the song of a male robin singing in early spring has to be one of the best sounds on the planet. And I love hole nesters (woodpeckers, nuthatches, etc.) because I love the idea of nesting in a hole in a tree while the wind gently blows. I’d say “no” to any bird that has to exist in cold water to survive (northern ducks, grebes, gannets etc.) because I hate being cold and wet.
Q: Did any real or fictional detectives inspire Homer?
A: No…Homer is an original, at least in my mind.
Q: Which chapter did you enjoy writing most? Did any of your favorite scenes not make it into the final version of the book?
A: I enjoyed the last chapter the most. I love happy endings! I love the idea of Snaps being out in the sun and lounging in the warm mud. I love the idea of Otto and Charlotte getting credit for something courageous. I like having the characters coming together.
Q: What do you think happens next for Homer and his fellow detectives?
A: Hmmm. I think a dog is involved. Maybe a dog that is just a teensy weensy bit sinister…
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
A: Collaboration. Adventure. Independence. Caring.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Currently working on four picture books. Looking forward to a post-Covid world where I can visit schools again…in person!