The illustrator of some 80 picture books – some of which he wrote, some penned by other authors – Henry Cole is a versatile children’s book creator. He casts off his familiar comedic illustrator persona (think Margie Palatini’s Bad Boys series and Erica S. Perl’s Chicken Butt books) in his latest solo effort, Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic), a wordless picture book about a girl who discovers – and protects – a runaway slave hiding in her family’s barn. Bookshelf caught up with Cole while he was on the road, hauling a load of furniture from Florida, where he’s been living, to Virginia. He is moving back to the area of his childhood home, a Loudoun County dairy farm whose setting inspired that of Unspoken.

Does your love of creating art date back to your boyhood on that Virginia farm?

I always loved to draw. When we were quite young my sister and I created a book. I think it was called Birds of Our Farm. She wrote the words and I drew the pictures. My mom was a fashion illustrator in New York in the 1930s and ’40s, so I grew up with lots of pictures and art supplies around – and they have always been in my head. Though she exchanged that for the life of a dairy farmer’s wife, I got a nice mix of farm and love of the land from my father, and more cultural things from my mother. It was an interesting mix.

But your early creative endeavors didn’t immediately translate into a career as artist when you grew up?

No. My mom had trouble financially being an artist during and after the Depression – and then came World War II. She encouraged us to draw, but didn’t want to encourage us to go into the arts as a career. She said, “Be a plumber or a teacher.” I studied forestry at Virginia Tech – I loved birds, trees, and all of the ’ologies. After I graduated, I taught science for 17 years at the Langley School, a wonderful independent school outside of D.C. I had a great time doing that.

So how did you make the leap from teaching science to creating children’s books?

That was the result of one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. Authors would visit our school – I remember meeting Katherine Paterson and Steven Kellogg. One day, Jean Craighead George came to the school, and My Side of the Mountain is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Well, here I was a science teacher, and pretty shy, but somehow I found the courage to tell her, out of the blue, that I had created a little book about bats – inspired by a unit I’d done with second graders – and to ask her if she could recommend an editor I might send it to.

And did she?

Well, she stared at me for a few minutes, and then wrote the name of Katherine Tegen, at HarperCollins, on a napkin that was on a nearby table. I showed Katherine my book, and she liked the illustrations. And since HarperCollins had just purchased a manuscript on bats, by Ann Earle, Katherine thought I could illustrate it. So I did, and the book, Zipping, Zapping, Zooming Bats, came out in 1995. That’s how I got my little foot in the door, and I owe everything to Jean George. If I had a child I’d name her Jean George. I now have that napkin framed and hanging in my studio.

After that you published the first book you both wrote and illustrated?

Yes, not long after that I published Jack’s Garden, about a boy who plants a garden, with Greenwillow. Susan Hirschman was my editor and Ava Weiss the art director. They were just the greatest – more people I am so grateful to.

Nature clearly played a major role in your first books – and beyond.

Yes. I think I was so lucky to have grown up with barns, cows, cow pies, pitchforks, dirt, and outdoor places to play, explore, and hide. I visit so many schools that seem to be homogenized, sterile environments, and I wonder what kids are doing after school that is creative play. When I draw chickens, I think back to our farm and the smell of the corncrib, the look of the stonework around the basement. I have all those images in my head, and I wonder what kids see in their heads these days. I feel very lucky to have had that exposure to farm life.

And your childhood family farm inspired the setting of Unspoken?

It did. And as we speak, I am driving by the site of that very farm. My dad was born there – I think in the kitchen. It’s now a shopping center, which is always a shock to see. The barn in Unspoken is almost exactly the same floor plan as my family’s barn.

Was the Underground Railroad theme of the book also rooted in childhood memories?

Yes. I remember when I was a little kid – maybe five or so – there would be elderly relatives of my father’s at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. When they were kids, they had relatives who were in the Civil War. Our farm was not far from where some decisive Civil War battles were fought, and I was amazed to be speaking to a person who spoke to a person who was in the Civil War! And when a librarian much later told me about a safe house she had known about – I think in Ohio – that had a corncrib in the barn where runaway slaves would hide in the stalks, I remembered the corncrib on our farm. I started thinking about how maybe that could have happened in our barn too – and that was fascinating to me.

Why tell Unspoken without words?

Actually I first wrote the story with words, but I couldn’t find an editor for that. So I submitted it a bunch of years later, with just the pictures, to the wonderful Dianne Hess at Scholastic. I decided it worked well wordless. I love the idea that I don’t have to worry about where the words will go on a page – it’s really freeing, from a layout perspective. And, when I visit schools, I love to show kids the book, and put a spread out and ask them to write a paragraph about it. We then read what they wrote out loud, and it’s wonderful to see how kids interpret the pictures differently and come up with their own ideas.

Much of your picture book work is humor-driven, yet clearly Unspoken is not. Would you say that this book is a departure for you?

I like the ability to do things differently. If you gave me a story about Little Bunny Foo Foo, I’d illustrate it one way. If you gave me a story about Frankenstein destroying a city, I’d illustrate it another way! I obviously wouldn’t want them to look alike. The Chicken Butt books don’t look anything like Unspoken – I like using different styles.

But humor is clearly an important part of your children’s book work?

Kids like to laugh, and books are a great way to make them laugh – the more we can do that the better. I have to say I do many, many school visits, and the best part of being in front of kids is to hear them laughing. It’s better than eating in the best Italian restaurant. And whenever I visit a school, I remember the kindness that Jean George shared with me. If anyone tells me they have a manuscript, I always try to listen and to share with them. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for what happened to me 20 years ago.

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole. Scholastic Press, $16.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-545-39997-5