As a writer, Maggie Smith has published three collections of poetry and a memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. As a parent during the pandemic, Smith struggled with her kids’ worries, and her own. In her debut picture book, My Thoughts Have Wings, a child wrestles with the recurring thoughts that often plague kids at bedtime until their mother frames the experience with a powerful metaphor: “Thoughts are like birds. Some fly away quickly… but others build nests in our heads.” Illustrated by Leanne Hatch, the story watches a parent and child catalog good memories, making space for those images to settle down and nest so that sleep will follow. PW spoke with Smith about bedtime rituals, the futility of telling people to calm down, and seeing your child’s memories drawn by someone you’ve never met.

Is this the first time you’ve ever tried to write a picture book? Or do you have a drawerful of children’s stories hidden away somewhere?

This is the first time I actually sat down to do it. I remember reading some picture books out loud to my kids that were unsatisfying and unsuccessful, and thinking, “I could probably do this, but I’m a poet and I write for adults, so I’m not going to.” For 20 years I stayed in my lane because of what I thought my work was supposed to look like and what I thought my audience was. Just in the last few years, something emboldened me. The story feels like it almost wrote itself. While it’s a new form for me, it’s pulled from my life. It felt like the right thing.

Did the words the story is built around come to you during one particular bedtime?

The inspiration was two-fold: bedtime, years apart, with my two kids. It started with my daughter’s bedtime, and thoughts she had, ruminating she was doing. It was really important not to say, “Calm down,” or “Don’t worry.” I don’t think anyone calms down from being told to calm down. The negative thoughts were real and valid, and it would have been disrespectful to imply that they weren’t. Because I’m a poet, impromptu metaphors come to me. I told her that some thoughts fly away quickly, like birds, and others build nests in our heads. It helped her to have a visual, and to have it feel normal.

Then bedtime hit a really difficult point for my son during the pandemic. Everything just came to a screeching halt. We were wiping our mail down. You couldn’t hug your grandparents. And my ex-husband moved out of state. It was the perfect storm for a first- or second-grader. Kids didn’t have the tools that adults do to have the sense that we’ll get back to normal. I remembered the nest metaphor, and we came up with a bedtime ritual, a positive brainstorming session of happy memories—particularly things that we weren’t able to do at the time. I wanted to kind of redirect him to positive thoughts, and also to empower him. If you’re ever having a hard time, when you’re with one parent and missing the other one, it can be part of your tool kit. And it worked. It made our bedtime so much calmer and more joyful. I thought, maybe there’s something to this, and maybe it could be a resource for other families, too.

Are the examples in the book memories from your own family?

Going to the beach is always one he would bring up. The creek, that’s my parent’s house. Christmas time, baking cookies with Mimi, there were more seasonal core childhood memories, but there were also answers to the question, “What good little thing happened today to put in the good pile, so the bad pile isn’t getting so much attention?”

Did the story start out in the voice of the child?

Yes. I wanted the child to be the main character. After getting feedback from my agent, I sent an early draft to Alison McGhee, who’s been a writing friend, and she gave me the smartest advice. She said that in a children’s book, the child has to have agency. The adult can’t solve the problem. They can’t be feeding them ideas. That really helped.

How did you work on the pacing, knowing you’d have to fit those thoughts into 32 pages?

That was really fun for me. How bite-sized should each of the bits be? The page turns are like line breaks in poetry; what do I want to be on one spread, and when do I want the reader to have to turn the page? I did draft it in spreads, with brackets indicating the page numbers. That was another thing Alison said: “I would take out the bracketed page numbers. That’s what you have in mind, but you don’t want to be hemmed in too much.” She said the illustrator might have different ideas how it might unfold. Again, great advice.

And you showed it to your agent first, you said? Did she have good notes?

Oh, yes, I have deep trust in Joy [Tutela]. I send her almost everything first. And she had notes on wording, on pacing... she asked questions in the margins, “Is this the place you want to go next?” We worked on a couple of drafts together before I sent it to Alison.

You’ve written that you don’t write and then revise, but sort of revise along the way—was that true for this story, too?

I don’t know how else to do it. Whether it’s a poem or an essay, the writing process isn’t any different; I’m always sort of tweaking as I go, thinking about word choice and listening to the rhythm the sounds make reading out loud. I don’t write anything that I don’t read aloud. You can hear the splinters that you need to sand down.

In the introduction to an article about the book on your Substack, you mention getting to weigh in on the book’s illustrator. Can you tell that story?

This is my first picture book, and I actually had no idea how any of this works. When we sold the book to Donna Bray, she and the art director sent links to three artist’s portfolios whose styles they thought would be a good fit. They were all terrific! But Leanne... I was immediately drawn to her style. I love the way that she handled darkness, and that was going to be so important. When I heard that she had agreed, I jumped up and down.

Whether it's a poem or an essay,
I don't write anything that I don't read aloud. You can hear the splinters that you need to sand down.

More often, writer and illustrator have a sort of arm’s-length relationship. What was it like for the two of you?

I’ve had artists make covers, but I’ve never worked with another person like this. And with a picture book, their work is more important than my work. And yet we’ve never met. The two of us built this thing together and yet we’ve never spoken, or been in the same room, or even been on a Zoom together.

I’ve never been so excited to open sketches or PDFs in my life. I was sitting with [my son] Rhett in my lap and clicking through the initial pencil sketches, we got maybe three spreads in, and he turned around and looked at me and said, “It’s me!” in this wide-eyed, touched way. It was almost like his thoughts in visual form.

He knows what my artistic ability is. If I’d illustrated it, it would have been stick people. Seeing his happy memories illustrated so gorgeously was powerful for him. I know it was powerful to me.

What was it like to work with Donna Bray?

She’s been terrific. Knowing I was working with the publisher that did my kids’ favorite series [The Wildwood Chronicles] was incredibly cool for Rhett. “It’s the same people that published Wildwood, Mom, you’ve made it!” Otherwise, you know, even though I’m a writer, I’m just his mom.

Did the story change again?

Earlier on, there wasn’t as much airtime given to the negative thoughts. I thought, “I don’t want to be dwelling on the negative emotions.” I wanted to get right to the good ones. Nothing scary. [Donna] said, “But I think we need to give a couple of examples.” Leanne made the illustrations so light and funny. The spiders are cute, the little kid who’s being sucked up to a flying saucer holding the hands of her little bunny—there’s a kind of tenderness and levity there.

Now that you’ve written a picture book, can you see yourself doing another one?

I would like to keep writing them. I have such a good time doing it. It’s just wholly pleasurable, and that’s not always the case with every book. And my kids have enjoyed it. It’s not the same thing as your mom writing a bunch of stuff that’s not for you. Though they’re not quite in the target age range, they get it.

They get to be the experts. Do you still read aloud to them?

Violet is a high school freshman, so not really. I buy her books constantly.

Rhett prefers to read things himself. But every once in a while, he comes to me with a book and he says, “You don’t know anything that’s going on, but I’ll bring you up to speed and you can read me a few pages.”

What’s next for you?

My last four books were all different genres and my next book is a different genre, too. It’s a collection of essays on creativity and writing. When it comes out, I’ll have five books shelved in five different sections of the bookstore.

Or maybe they’ll just make a Maggie Smith shelf.

And it would say, “Not that Maggie Smith! The other one.”

My Thoughts Have Wings by Maggie Smith, illus. by Leanne Hatch. Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Feb. 13 ISBN 978-0-06-321458-3