Maggie Smith makes space for the good thoughts

The celebrated poet and memoirist makes her debut as a children’s author with ‘My Thoughts Have Wings.’
Maggie Smith
Maggie SmithDevon Albeit Photography

The initial seed for My Thoughts Have Wings, Maggie Smith’s debut children’s book, was planted years ago when the poet’s oldest child, Violet, was still very small and struggling to settle in at night. 

“She was doing some ruminating and couldn’t fall asleep because her mind couldn’t turn off, which, speaking of genetics,” Smith said, and laughed. “And maybe this is the blessing or curse of your parent being a poet, but in that moment, I was like, okay, thoughts are like birds. Some fly away from us really quickly, and others just kind of stick around. And I think that metaphor helped her, like, ‘Oh, it’s normal … if some thoughts don’t leave quickly.’”

Smith then tucked the idea away and forgot about it, returning to it years later when her youngest child, Rhett, began experiencing his own sleeplessness amid growing turmoil both in and outside of the home in the early months of the pandemic. Rhett was in first grade at the time, and schools had shut down, along with most everything else. His parents had also recently divorced, and his dad had just announced his intentions to move some 500 miles away from the family. 

“I remember thinking that it was hard to imagine the pandemic wasn’t the most personally stressful thing happening to my children,” said Smith, who documented the turmoil of those years in her memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, a heartbreaking but ultimately empowering collection that opens with the events that led to her divorce and then loosely stumbles its way forward through time as the writer begins to reestablish her footing. “So, in our house, [the pandemic] was problematic but it wasn’t the most problematic thing happening. And at that time, Rhett was having a hard time falling asleep, and he would say things like, ‘I’m trying to think good thoughts, but the bad thoughts keep pushing them out of the way.’”

In those tumultuous days, Smith and her son developed a bedtime routine rooted in her earlier bird analogy, with Rhett sharing good thoughts both big (planned family vacations) and small (the time somebody shared their cookie with me at lunch). The aim, Smith said, wasn’t to dismiss or erase his worries, but to nudge them aside and offer more space for those little joys to nest alongside, helping to introduce a needed sense of ease. 

“It wasn’t about saying, ‘Don’t think bad thoughts,’ which doesn’t work. I mean, who stops worrying when someone says, ‘Stop worrying!’?” Smith said. “When a child is experiencing real fear and real worry and legitimate concern … it felt really disingenuous to be like, ‘No, no, no, no. Don’t focus on that. Just think about the good.’ So, for me, it was about honoring what he was going through and then saying, ‘There’s also all of this good stuff.’ … And having this little thing helped me to be able to leave the room, frankly, and know that he was going to be okay.”

My Thoughts Have Wings essentially recreates this experience, with the bulk of its text drawn directly from those nighttime conversations between mother and son – a reality that has led Rhett to describe the release as “our book,” Smith said. But beyond functioning as a way to spread this exercise to other families who might benefit, the book also serves as a thoughtfully constructed work of art, Smith’s open-hearted words enriched by the soft, imaginative illustrations courtesy artist Leanne Hatch. (Smith said she was immediately drawn to Hatch’s work owing to “the sweetness” in her character’s faces, which reminded the writer of her son.)

Reading through, it’s clear attention was given to everything from the length and pacing of the story to the legibility of the text on the page (take this from someone who in low bedtime light still struggles to make out the writings of Yellow Crayon in The Day the Crayons Quit) – a sense of care that bleeds over into even the words themselves. Throughout, Smith employs consonants that take on a gentle, rhythmic cadence, the collected syllables steadily building into a soothing bedtime lullaby, of sorts.

“This book, maybe more than any I’ve written, is the merging of my life as a mom and a poet, which are the two things I think of myself being the most,” said Smith, who will take part in a book release event at Bexley Public Library on Sunday, Feb. 25. “This is meant to be read aloud. It’s meant to live in the air. There’s no way to write a picture book without reading it aloud to yourself, and you want the rhythm and the cadence and the vowel sounds to be just right, and for everything to click together. And then I realized that I was thinking about even the page turns almost as line breaks or stanza breaks in a poem – these little sorts of pauses you build in.”

In many ways, Smith began prepping for her debut as a children’s author long before she even had kids, landing a job in children’s book publishing early in her career. This education continued once she became a mother, the family immersing itself in the worlds of Mo Willems and Dr. Seuss – books Smith said remain on the shelves in her home, and with which she can’t ever imagine parting.

“I don’t have any problem shuffling along the early chapter books and graphic novels and whatever they read in elementary school, but those picture books, many of which were made out to them as babies or toddlers by friends or relatives for Christmases and birthdays, I can’t get rid of those,” Smith said. “And I don’t know if I’m keeping them for their children, if they have them. I don’t know what it is. But I feel attached to them, because these are the books you read to your kids over and over and over again, and they just become a part of the rhythm and the fabric of your day. And it’s still wild to me that this book might become a part of someone’s regular rotation the way Jon Klassen books or Mo Willem books or Richard Scarry books were for us.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
logo
Matter News
www.matternews.org