Michelle Cuevas' vivid language shines light on dark topics

GREAT BARRINGTON — With the upcoming simultaneous release of her two books, "The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole" and "Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow," Berkshire-based author Michelle Cuevas illuminates the lighter side of exploring darkness in our lives.

The writer, herself, will introduce her new stories for young readers with a special community reading and signing event, starting at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at The Book Loft, 332 Stockbridge Road.

In a recent phone interview from her home studio in Great Barrington, Cuevas said she and her friends jokingly call this her "year of darkness." After all, the main characters in her books include an affable black hole and a boy's big-dreaming shadow, respectively.

"I tend toward writing lonely characters, characters who are looking for community and connection," Cuevas said.

But she promised of her new tales, "They're light-hearted, not dark Gothic novels or anything."

These projects weren't intentionally written to both have shadowy characters, said the author, who admits that she may have subconsciously cross-pollinated them with similar elements, though they're written for different audiences.

"The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole," joins the group of books for middle-grade readers (ages 8-12), while "Smoot" is a children's picture book collaboration with Canadian illustrator Sydney Smith ("Sidewalk Flowers"). Both are published through the Dial Books for Young Readers division of Penguin Young Readers Group at Penguin Random House.

"The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole," is the second of Cuevas' written works that have become bound for film; this one through Fox Animation and director Matt Reeves' 6th & Idaho Motion Picture Company. Fox Animation also acquired the rights to Cuevas' 2015 novel, "Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier."

The new literary releases are Cuevas' fifth and sixth finished books in her professional repertoire, established first in 2011 with "The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant." Forthcoming in 2018 is her eighth work, "The Town of Turtle," illustrated by Catia Chien ("Things to Do"), about a turtle doing some big renovations on his shell.

"I used to do one book at a time, then I started doing picture books," said Cuevas. "It's nice some days when I've needed a break from one project or the other, like prose versus poetry. I've always wanted to be a poet, and picture books are sort of the closest I can get."

Her latest picture book begins with: "If life is a book, then Smoot the Shadow had been reading the same yawn-colored page for seven and a half years."

The protagonist, she said, was born out of her musings on shadow puppets while noticing a candle's flame.

"But," writes Cuevas, "shadows can dream." In the case of this shadow, versus his boring human boy counterpart, "Smoot dreamed of singing canary-yellow songs. He dreamed of doing a dance in wildflower red."

Sydney Smith's accompanying illustrations, "done in ink, brush and watercolor, with a bit of Cont ," bring Smoot's dream-chasing to life, while Cuevas writes of the shadow "wishing for sky blue-colored freedom," making the book both a vivid look and read.

"I'm pretty obsessed with the language in my books, with picture books even more so," Cuevas said. "My goal is to have language really bring out a moment."

In "The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole," those moments range from playful and laugh-out-loud humorous to throat-tightening and tear-inducing. The themes of grief and coping, among others in the novel, came to light in the author's own life, when her beloved stepfather, Edward "Eddie" Rossi, to whom the book is dedicated, passed away in 2014, from complications with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.

The plot of the black hole story begins "on an afternoon the color of comets, with a girl dressed all in black." Moments later, 11-year-old Stella Rodriguez finds herself — in the midst of grieving over the death of her father — becoming the unsuspecting caregiver to a black hole that follows her home after Stella attempts to hold an appointment with Carl Sagan in the year 1977, a mere few months before the launch of NASA's Voyager 2 space probe.

The animorphic black hole is characterized by Stella as having "Eyes that shimmered, and seemed to have tiny galaxies inside of them." It also has the temperament of a voracious puppy, gulping down anything or anyone of interest into a void of time and space.

Says the protagonist, "The problem with training a black hole, if you're wondering, is that nobody really knows anything about them. It's all theoretical-this and possibly-perhaps-hypothetical-that."

Through literary devices and space puns, her own illustrations, and a brave sense of imagination blended with science researched with Pittsfield's own astronomer, Duane Lee, Cuevas recounts a girl's cosmic journey through dimensions of love, loss, family and the discovery of self-efficacy.

Both the tales of the black hole and Smoot are sure to entertain when read aloud at her inaugural appearance at The Book Loft on Saturday.

The author has said that reading her work to an audience, "out loud to yourself or your dog a thousand times," is a fun and integral part of her process as a writer. (Her Bernese mountain dog, Indy, by the way, is one of her top editors.)

She said she's looking forward to hearing feedback from fans, new and older.

"Since I'm living here, I thought it would be nice to know the community more. It's always great to get to know people, and it makes it really fun when you see them see the book for the first time," Cuevas said.

About the author:

Michelle Cuevas, a native of Lee, graduated from Williams College, and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia, where she received the Henry Hoyns Fellowship. Learn more and follow updates on her work at: michellecuevas.com.


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