A new chapter book for kids by a Berkshires native channels lyrical work from the past in order to pave a promising future in the field.
Michelle Cuevas is a Lee native and Williams College graduate. Her debut book, “The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant,” published by Farrar Straus Giroux and with illustrations by Caldecott winner Ed Young, tells the story of Pigeon Jones, a human boy raised by an elephant. Together they travel, encounter hoboes and circuses and achieve fame in the art world.
Cuevas’ writing hero is E.B. White and her debut novel shows that, both through the relationship between the two characters, and the elegant language that Cuevas uses to draw her readers in.
“I think the reason I initially wanted to write children’s books was that I find them very emotionally honest,” Cuevas said. “I think they can be very poetic, and I think they allow for a level of magic and a classic feel that I think everyone is nostalgic for sometimes. It’s what they grew up with. I’m always striving to say things more simply and in a way that can relate to children and adults, and E.B. White did that really well.”
Cuevas’ style and subject matter point back to the classics, which while beloved, aren’t necessarily the vogue in modern chapter books.
“Industry standards are more action oriented, but I think that there’s always going to be room for classic throwbacks,” she said.
Cuevas hadn’t initially set out to be a children’s book writer, but the promise of creative play and a chance for her imagination to run wild seemed more likely through stories aimed at kids than through the adult-oriented fiction that her work in school allowed for. She sees this first novel as “a flight of fancy” and that’s a change from what was previously possible.
“I love magical realism and the book’s got strong strokes of magical realism,” said Cuevas. “The difference is that I, as I was writing it, would never have labeled it magical realism because it was just magic. An elephant can talk, other animals can do magical things, and I think that it’s allowed, it’s just completely allowed, and I think that’s a lovely thing for a writer to be able to do that.”
Cuevas found what she wants out of writing is “the pure selfish enjoyment” and realized that’s not what she got from sitting down to devote time to the kinds of serious topics and treatments that seemed more likely when writing for adults.
“I feel like, for me, it’s not what I was drawn to do every single day, whereas something with more whimsy and something that every time I worked on it, it made me happy and I kept working on it,” she said. “And the things that I’m working on are the same. That’s just what I’m drawn to as a writer. It’s different for everyone, but that’s me personally.”
Cuevas has been writing since she was a little kid, and her first book was finished at age 8 — “The Tale of the Talking Shoe.” Her logic was that the shoe would be able to talk because it had a tongue.
“I don’t think I have changed that much,” said Cuevas. “I think I kept that part of me and it’s still operating.”
It was in graduate school, at age 26, where she began to seriously begin working on a novel for children in part as a way to more directly address some of her literary ideas.
“I was living in a cabin in the woods in Virginia, and it was gorgeous. I loved it,” Cuevas said, “and the very first thing I wanted to do was write something about the way nature creates art. That was a thing that was on my mind for children.”
A friend sent Cuevas a video of a painting elephant and that got her imagination soaring and her fingers busy at work outlining and then writing. Her output was totally different from anything else that she had done in graduate school — short stories for an adult audience — so she happily threw herself into completing the work. Writing became a consistent source of fun.
“I think the gift I gave myself was having absolutely no idea what I was doing,” said Cuevas. “Maybe everyone’s first book is like that. You can never go back and do your first book again, it’s a totally unique experience.”
Cuevas went so far as to ask one of her professors pointblank exactly how to write a novel. The answer, which involved writing one page after another and being compelled to do it all hours, jibed with her experience and she knew she was doing the right thing — and the fact that she wasn’t working on deadline or for an editor, she didn’t have a contract and was working without expectations, energized her output.
“I don’t think I ever got afraid or second guessed,” she said.
A week after her graduation, the book was sold. Cuevas credits her agent, publishing veteran Brenda Bowen, as crucial to shaping the final product, as well as giving her the initial encouragement she needed to come as far as she has so quickly.
“She said to me ‘This is your career, this is what you’re going to do, I think you’ve got it,’” said Cuevas.
And it does look to be Cuevas’ job from now on. She just signed a two-book deal with Penguin. One will be a chapter book — tentatively titled “The Ornithologist’s Dream” — about a boy who hatches from an egg and dreams of flying.
The other will be Cuevas’ first picture book, “The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles,” based on a real person employed by Queen Elizabeth I to do exactly as the title states.
Cuevas’ career turn into children’s books is something she hoped for, but nothing she trained for. The real preparation for that came from her own private endeavors — reading classic children’s books, as well as the avant garde, absorbing every bit of them and putting that knowledge into figuring out her voice. It’s something she would recommend to beginner writers hoping for a similar path.
“You notice when someone is not doing what everyone else in the market is doing,” Cuevas said. “I think the authors who are really going to stand the test of time are the ones you would never mistake for anyone else, no one could duplicate them, like Roald Dahl, those types of people.”
Which isn’t to say Cuevas suggests impersonating classic authors. It’s more like communing with them and using their guidance to find your own unique voice. And once you have that voice, write — and learn writing. Cuevas believes that it is a learnable skill, and studying it in graduate school prepared her for everything that has followed.
“It’s like building a house that doesn’t collapse,” she said. “You can be really good at designing the house, but you have to learn to actually build it.”