That Piece Had A Smile: A Derek Hughes Book Review

It’s the semi-finals of the 10th season of America’s Got Talent, and stand-up magician Derek Hughes steps onto the stage of Radio City Music Hall in a pair of light blue and grey striped pajamas. He’s wearing house slippers, has a brighter blue handkerchief in his breast pocket and is holding a newspaper. He tells the judges he’s taking the live television opportunity to read his children a story as they’re getting ready for bed back home in California.

The nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty is read aloud with detailed illustrations on the newspaper and on the digitized screen in the background, but it’s not the version heard as a child. This version gives Humpty Dumpty a background and a purpose.

Humpty Dumpty Lived Near A Wall was always going to be a book in Hughes’ mind, starting from the day after it was spoken into existence. Nearly 10 years ago, while driving down Interstate 10 on his way back home from an LA performance, Hughes was on the phone with a friend and laughing hysterically at the idea of Humpty Dumpty being a hero. The next morning, he spent a few hours in between commercial breaks of Back to the Future playing on TBS to hammer out the initial rough draft.

“I had this moment when I read it back to myself there in the apartment that morning [where] I started to weep,” he said. “I had very strong emotions; it really moved me. From the right perspective you can see that he hasn't failed, that he has won; but it was no longer comedic or funny. It was touching and moving and in many ways, inspiring.”

That first draft sat for a while before he memorized it and started incorporating it into his live performances. As a performer with a strong show of stand-up and magic, going from consistent laughs to pure silence could have meant the moral of the story landed or the finale turned into a long awkward moment. It was when the audience came up to him after the show and praised the thought-provoking ending that he knew he found an once-in-a-lifetime piece.

“That moved me, that inspired me, which is the drive and the goal of the artist ultimately. You want to do work that is important in one way, shape or form and if I can through my efforts inspire someone to strive to improve their world in some way, shape or form, well, then I'm winning.”

He turned to his friend from college, Nathan Christopher, and asked him to illustrate the story. He was more than up for the challenge – he spent five years placing the utmost detail into every page. Every time he would send over a draft, Hughes would say, “This is perfect!” But to Christopher, it wasn’t. To him, there was so much more to do.

With Christopher working on the illustrations, Hughes ran the story by one of his magician friends, Teller. The silent performer of duo Penn & Teller reached out to Hughes years ago after multiple people showed him Hughes’ work, and during a visit to his home in Las Vegas he gave a remarkable piece of advice.

“’If you are going to be committing it to the page I would encourage you to spend a little more time perfecting the meter and the rhyme,’ and then he launched into Lewis Carroll from memory and started reciting from Alice in Wonderland. It was beautiful and the rhyme was perfect and he immediately made his point. There's great power in going the extra mile and really, really working it out so the reader can experience it the way you intended it to be experienced. You don't have to leave anything to chance.”

By the time the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent rolled around, eight pages of the story were complete, which were the number of pages Hughes needed for his newspaper trick that he would perform while reading the story. As he read through it, he tore up the newspaper and had somehow restored it by the ending. As he flipped through the newly restored newspaper, there was a piece missing. He recited the last sentence – One piece was on top, that piece had a smile. – and showed the audience the missing piece that was laying on the floor. It was an illustration of Humpty Dumpty; smiling, of course.

It would take another four years before Hughes self-published the story with Christopher’s finished illustrations. The black fabric hardcover and stunning artwork bring the story to life, and was everything Hughes could have hoped for. Then one day he gets a call from his friend, Derek DelGaudio. He has a meeting with publishing company Penguin Random House and wants to show them the book. Two weeks later he hears from President and Publisher of Penguin Workshop, Francesco Sedita. He can’t stop thinking about the book.

With a team of extraordinary editors, they helped Hughes keep the content and the meaning intact while upgrading a few minor details. The original artwork had a page with a beautiful image of a crescent moon and a rocket ship face down near the moon’s closed eyes. It was homage to Georges Méliès who directed the film A Trip to the Moon and was an illusionist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was meant as an Easter egg to pay tribute to Hughes’ craft, but did not make its way into the second edition as it was agreed upon that it might be confusing to the uninitiated reader. There was also a line towards the beginning – But a vision had hatched, Humpty kept under cloak. If the King knew his plan, he’d scramble his yolk. – that they suggested changing as Humpty Dumpty wasn’t wearing a cloak. “Could it be, ‘it was no joke’?” Turns out they found a way to pay tribute to his craft after all.

Hughes finds the serendipity of it all, reminiscing on a conversation he had with the creator of publishing house Baby Tattoo, Bob Self. He was the go-to person for getting the story self-published and Hughes remembers asking him if publishing the story himself would hurt his chances of it getting picked up by a publishing company later down the road.

“If I self-publish will that in any way preclude or reduce the interest of an entity like Penguin Random House from picking it up and publishing it?” he asked.

If it were to be published, that was the vision that he had in his head: that little orange penguin on the spine. He spoke it into the universe, and so it came to be.

Humpty Dumpty Lived Near A Wall is available here.