I’m excited to talk with Michelle Cuevas today about Smoot, her research adventures, and her very innovative Halloween costumes!
What draws you to write quiet picture books about introspective characters?
I actually think about this question a lot! I suppose it has to do with being a bit of a lone wolf as a kid – I loved making up song lyrics, building rock gardens, writing a newspaper about the lives of neighborhood animals. I was good at creating little worlds inside my own world, (I have three brothers, so I had company, but mostly the fighting-over-monopoly kind). I also think that in everyday life, it’s not always the big-bad-villain-monster that we’re up against. Often the things we face are inside – fear, loneliness, grief. I like characters who take on that kind of struggle, who make the everyday ‘okay this is hard but I’m going to keep trying’ feel extraordinary.
What was your inspiration for Smoot?
Smoot came to me when I had a couple candles lit and the shadows made me think I should do a book about shadow puppets… or a shadow puppeteer… something in that world. As I started writing, I realized that the most interesting character by far was the shadow. What were the shadow’s innermost dreams? Thoughts? Ideas? A lot of people ask about his name also. I think it’s a combination of “smudge” and “soot,” (though a child I met suggested it could also be “small” and “foot.” Definitely possible). I have such a great time naming characters in my books, I think I would thoroughly enjoy a career at Crayola in the color-naming department.
If you were a runaway shadow, where would you go or what would you do?
If I were a runaway shadow I might like to try being other things for a while – you could go be the shadow of a galloping horse, a skyscraper, a cloud across the surface of the ocean. The possibilities are pretty endless.
One of your activities is falconry, which conjures up such wonderful images. Could you tell how you became involved in falconry and a little bit about it?
I like to do research for my books, so falconry started as research for my second novel about a boy who is half bird and hatched from an egg. I got very interested in it, even looking into getting my own Harris Hawk, but it takes many years and several days of hunting every week. Maybe someday!
I’ve also done research by riding elephants, bird banding with ornithologists, interviewing astrophysicists, spending time with butterflies, and more. It’s a really interesting part of my job!
Your research sounds fascinating and such fun! Is there anything you’d like to try that you haven’t yet?
I like to keep trying new things as a writer, and one new adventure I’m trying is artwork. I LOVED Shel Silverstein as a kid, so I’m pretty sure he’s my inspiration. I’ve been afraid to illustrate my own picture book, so far just sticking to little line drawings in my last two novels.
Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Smoot, be brave, and give picture books a try in the near future!
In your beautiful The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, the main character collects and delivers messages sent through bottles tossed into the sea. If you were going to write such a note to your readers, what would you say?
My dedication for Uncorker read:
For the Ocean Bottle Senders and Ocean Bottle seekers:
Try. Want. Wish. Tell
Is everyone as intrigued by book dedications as I am? When I read a book, I love imagining who the people are in the dedications, why did the author choose them? I often think about themes of my books when I write a dedication to a specific person. Since Uncorker is about a man with no name, and since the messages sent in bottles are often to no one in particular, I decided my dedication should reflect both of these feelings too.
As an author of middle grade and picture books, what do you find is the best part of writing for children?
The best part of writing for children… well, from my perspective, the best part is the sense of fun. I started out during my fiction MFA writing stories for adults. I’d often turn in stories with talking plants or deer that broke into houses. These stories confused the other writers in my program. Who were they for? Not serious-thinking adults. My mom sent me care packages, often with books inside, mostly kids’ books I had loved when I was younger or new ones she thought looked cute. I read them and it was a light bulb-over-my-head moment. I started writing my first novel about a prolific painting elephant my last year of graduate school and suddenly, my writing felt like me. I was able to do all the wild, free, magical things I had wanted to do all along in my writing. I was finally having fun.
And I think the best part in the “interacting with the world” category is when a child (or adult) says they connected to a character, or that a character’s tale made them cry. We don’t know one another very well, but I know how it feels when a book makes me cry. It’s a remarkable connection, really blows me away every time.
What’s Up Next for You?
Up next for me are visiting schools to talk about my new books Smoot and The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole. In April 2018 I have a new picture book out with Catia Chien called Town of Turtle. It’s about a turtle who decides to do some renovations to his shell, which of course get wildly out of hand.
Since Celebrate Picture Books is a holiday-themed blog, I have to ask: what is your favorite holiday, and do you have any stories you’d like to share?
My favorite holiday… I’ve always loved making costumes and the idea of getting to be a character on Halloween. Even in the last few years I’ve been… a pro wrestler, a deer with branch antlers, Cindy Lou-Who, a falconer… the list goes on. Last year I was Lydia Deetz from the movie Beetlejuice. When I was Cindy Lou-Who I spent a couple days making a wire-rigged headpiece with some very architectural hair. Making the costume is half the fun. I have several glue gun burns to prove it.
I also got my Bernese Mountain dog a backpack to hand out candy. I don’t usually let him wear clothing, but made an exception for lollipop duty.
Thanks, Michelle, for the fun and inspiring interview—and all of the fantastic pics! I wish you all the best with Smoot and all of your other books!
World Dream Day Book Review
About the Holiday
World Dream Day is a global participatory holiday that encourages individuals, schools, businesses, and families to focus on their dreams and make them reality. Discovering and acting on your dreams can transform not only your life, but the lives of others. Imagine how the world could change if everyone had the opportunity to live their dreams. Today, feel inspired and empowered to do or become whatever you’ve always dreamed of!
Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow
Written by Michelle Cuevas | Illustrated by Sydney Smith
Smoot the Shadow was bored. Bored. Bored. For seven and a half years, he’d been doing the same things over and over. Every day, he and his boy—to whom he was firmly connected—“brushed the same teeth, frowned the same frown, and drew the same pictures—always staying perfectly inside the lines.” Smoot’s boy never jumped, ran, or even laughed, so Smoot never did either.
Except at night. Then, while the boy slept, Smoot dreamed. He dreamed in a multitude of colors about singing, dancing, and having fun. One day, with an unexpected “pop” Smoot became free of his boy. He didn’t waste a moment, but packed a few things and headed out into the world. He jumped rope, rode a carousel, and climbed a tree to say hello to a little bird. He even got to dance in a field of multicolored wildflowers just like in his dreams.
Suddenly, other shadows took notice. As they watched Smoot play, they became braver too. “‘If he can follow his dreams, we can too,’” they reasoned. The first shadow to take the plunge was a dandelion. As it soared away into the sky, becoming an indistinct form, people tried to guess what it was. All this attention emboldened the shadows of a cricket and a grasshopper who had “formed a band, but were nervous about playing music in public.” Their shadows, however, picked up their instruments and played “like cool shade on a hot afternoon.”
A frog’s shadow discovered his inner prince, and a dragonfly’s shadow floated out over the city as a ferocious dragon. Even a lowly rock’s shadow had dreams of greatness, transforming into “a cathedral, and then a skyscraper, and finally a castle that reached the clouds.” Smoot began to grow afraid of the imagination he’d unleashed. What if the shadows of zoo animals escaped and roamed through town or if the sun was eclipsed by the shadow of an enormous whale? How would anyone catch them?
But Smoot had an idea. He made a castle from the ambitious rock and some others. The frog moved in to live like a prince, and the dragonfly guarded the gate. Then Smoot sang with the grasshopper and cricket to give them more courage, and he blew the dandelion seeds into the air. The shadows all saw that their dreams had come true, so they returned to their owners, who also felt different.
And Smoot’s boy? All the excitement had inspired him to be more like his shadow. After he and his shadow reconnected, they ran, tumbled, jumped in puddles, and played in “singing, ringing, flying, vibrant, dancing color.”
Through her rambunctious shadows, Michelle Cuevas creatively externalizes that small (or loud) voice inside many people that is yearning to be heard and acted on. For many children and adults, giving free reign to their alter ego can be hard. In her lyrical and uplifting book, Cuevas reveals these dreams for greatness, recognition, or freedom and encourages readers to let go and chase them. She shines a light on how they can take that first step through play, teaming up, or using their imagination and talents to make their dreams come alive.
Sydney Smith’s striking images immediately orient readers to the monotone world the boy lives in. While outside the window colors abound, inside, the boy sits on a gray sofa with a black-and-white rug and his black-and-white dog nearby. The walls are white, the floor is dull, and even the plant—standing away from the light of the window—is browning. Perhaps, however, the painting above the boy offers hope and a little foreshadowing: Black images play on a white canvas, but a swipe of blue and a red dot add lively, colorful accents. Likewise, the red-covered book the boy reads is a bright spot in this otherwise dreary room.
The boy’s shadow, however, dreams in color. When Smoot pops free of his restraints and goes on a play-filled adventure, the illustrations are full of action and vibrancy. Smoot smiles and exults in his freedom. His joy is infectious, and his antics and clever ways of ensuring that each character gets to fulfill their aspirations will inspire children to uncover their own inner world.
Smoot: a Rebellious Shadow is a heartfelt and empowering book for hesitant and more adventurous children alike. It would make an ideal book for home libraries and classrooms.
Ages 4 – 8
Tundra Books, 2017 | ISBN 978-0525429692
Discover more about Michelle Cuevas and her books for children and tweens on her website!
View a portfolio of artwork by Sydney Smith on Tumbler!
World Dream Day Activity
Live Your Dream! Shadow Blackboard
Shadows are fun to create and play with! Making a black board from a shadow is a great way to show your imagination while making a useful decoration for your room. Put on your inventive thinking cap and devise a unique shadow by using toys or other objects from home. You can even make a shadow of yourself! Making the blackboard may require two people.
- Black thick poster board, 1 or 2 pieces or a tri-fold depending on how large your blackboard will be
- Large sheet of white or light paper
- Objects to create the shadow
- Scissors or x-acto knife
- Mounting squares or tape
- To Make a Shadow Blackboard from an object or objects
- Choose two or three objects, such as toys, musical instruments, shoes, knick-knacks, etc., that will make interesting shapes or ideas. Arrange the objects in a way to create the picture you want. (In the photo above, a cactus-shaped pillow and a ukulele were used to create the shadow)
- Either outside in a sunny spot or inside with a light, lay the white paper on the ground
- As one person holds the item or items above the paper, trace the shadow.
- Alternately, if the objects are large enough, you can arrange them and trace them on the white paper or directly on the black poster board.
- Cut the shadow out of the white paper
- Trace the shadow on the black poster board with the chalk
- Cut the image out of the black poster board
- Attach the shadow blackboard to your wall with the mounting squares or tape
- Use colored chalk to write or draw your dreams and doodles on your blackboard
To Make a Shadow Blackboard of Yourself
- Lie down on the white paper
- Strike a pose
- Have someone else trace you
- Cut out your figure
- Trace the figure onto the black poster board
- Cut out the figure from the black poster board
- Attach to the wall with the mounting squares
You can find Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow at these booksellers
Picture Book Review