The Care and Feeding of Michelle Cuevas
The characters in Michelle Cuevas’s children’s books leap off the page.
Children's author Michelle Cuevas is unapologetically philosophical, poetic, and playful. Her breakout book was Confessions of an Imaginary Friend.
"'I realized I was imaginary last year,' continued the Everything. 'It was when I was being blamed for shaving the family cat. My best friend blamed me, which was okay by me, since I couldn't get grounded like he could. But then, his parents got real mad, and said that it wasn't my fault Mr. Tickles was nude, because I was imaginary, and imaginary things can't shave cats.'
'And how did that make you feel?' asked Stinky Sock. 'Bad,' said the Everything. 'And sad, like I'm not in control of my own fate. It's not like I wanted to shave cats, but I'd like the option, you know?'"
Growing up in the tiny town of Lee, Massachusetts, Cuevas had plenty of space to indulge her own imagination.
Michelle Cuevas: Our neighborhood had, mostly, young boys, so I played alone a lot. I have three brothers. And so I ended up making up a lot of games, and I would...I had a family newspaper. I would make plays, and make my brothers perform them. So I was, you know, alone a lot, and writing a lot. I think that was kind of two things, and kind of doing a lot of make-believe.
A penchant for whimsy would follow Cuevas throughout her life, but it wasn't until she was studying for her MFA that she found her niche. Her thesis became her first novel.
Cuevas: It felt like such a good fit. When I was working on it, I was happy when I was writing it. It was a work of magical realism, which I loved bringing into it. And I didn't know if it would ever get published, but I liked doing it. And I remember that feeling, for the first time as a writer, of feeling I had chosen the exact right type of writing for me. Which was...which I don't think everyone finds. I don't know that that's always the case. And then, when you hear people saying how much it feels like work, I sometimes wonder if they might want to try a different genre.
In her genre, Cuevas has now published half a dozen children's books, two of which have been optioned by 20th Century Fox. But, as it turns out, they were already movies in her mind.
I think I am kind of a visual storyteller, in my own head. A lot of times, if I'm working on a scene, and I'm trying out where it should go, I will close my eyes and kind of play it like a movie. I'll picture characters, and what they're doing, and where they are, and kind of where it might go next. So it's...sometimes, it'll just play on its own, like a movie, and okay, I'll just write it down.
Not only write it down, but also draw it. Just recently, two Cuevas works were published on the same day: one, a picture book, called Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow, the other, a novel that follows a young girl, as she learns The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole.
Cuevas: And she realizes she can feed it things. She can feed it her problems, basically. And in the story, she starts lightly. She starts feeding it, like, "I don't wanna do this homework, I don't wanna take the garbage out, I don't wanna eat my Brussel sprouts." But, in the story, her father has passed away recently. So, she's dealing with, or not dealing with, her grief. And I had lost my stepfather the year I wrote the book. So, I feel like it was really coming from a very true place.
Cuevas: And so, she starts throwing away her memories, the things that remind her of him, and the black hole's getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, her dog gets eaten by the black hole, so she has to go in and save him. And her little brother follows her in—Cosmo is his name—and it becomes a space adventure. One of the lessons is, you don't deal with your problems, they grow, they morph. So, there are space monsters and galactic showers, and it's this kind of big Star Wars-esque space adventure. And obviously, at the other level, it's her confronting these memories, and confronting her grief.
Though her books are, at their core, entertainment, like all great children's literature, Cuevas is also committed to imparting wisdom. And though she never names it thus, she believes it's best to hide philosophy in plain sight, so that the reader and the story can mature together, over time.
Cuevas: So, maybe they're in first grade, and they haven't learned a lot of these lessons, or experienced a lot of these things. So, they're learning some empathy. They're kind of imagining they're the character. If you're reading as an older student, or as an adult, the conversation becomes, "I remember that feeling," you know, "I've experienced that." And I think all of that's really valuable. So, it can almost be a different book, for different people, or even a different book for the same person, at different stages in their life.
But ultimately, Michelle Cuevas doesn't write to tickle our thinking brains. She writes to touch our hearts.
Cuevas: When you get it right, when you get that moment that you know that the reader is going to cry—and I mean that in a good way—I think you know. And, more often, the feeling I know is when I haven't done it, and I really just don't need to. Then, I won't hand the book in, until I feel that.