What happens when Rudolph comes down with the flu and Santa’s reindeer aren’t fit to fly? In the case of musician Grant Meloy’s Smith’s debut picture book, Fly Possum Fly, you listen to your father when he says his possums, despite their poor eyesight, can guide the sleigh and save Christmas.
Smith’s high-flying, foot-stompin’ picture book began life as a song. (Readers can listen to a bluegrass version of it here and a country version here, both recorded with East Tennessee musician EmiSunshine). Smith’s wry-humored illustrations are rendered via warm watercolors, and the book closes with some possum facts for curious young readers.
Chapter 16 talked to Smith via email about the genesis of the book and the feeling of magic and wonder that Christmas can bring for children.
Chapter 16: I read you were inspired to write this song after appearing on The Tim White Bluegrass Show in East Tennessee. What in particular inspired it?
Grant Maloy Smith: Well, Tim loves possums. He did a whole album in which every song was related to them in some way. He invited me to appear on Song Of The Mountains, a PBS show that he emcees, so I wanted to thank him by writing a bluegrass song about, yes, possums. It was almost Christmas, so the next thing I knew I had written a bluegrass Christmas song about possums. Seems crazy, but that’s really what happened. He played it on his show, and it took on a life of its own.
Smith: Yes, the song came first—and then the idea came to turn it into a children’s book. It’s been an ornery, near-sighted journey from song to book.
Chapter 16: Why do possums make the perfect reindeer substitutes?
Smith: It’s only logical: if you accept the postulate that Santa Claus has the magic to make reindeer fly, then you must accept the idea that he can make anything fly. Why not possums? Santa can do anything!
Chapter 16: Tell me how EmiSunshine got on board.
Smith: The original version of the song had me singing, but when the children’s book came along, we wanted to have a younger voice on the song that we would release as a single. Emi seemed like the perfect choice—an amazing young singer with strong bluegrass and country credentials. So we went to a recording studio in Nashville and recorded it together, with her singing lead and me singing the harmonies. We recently performed it together in Nashville [at the Southern Festival of Books], and it was so much fun.
Chapter 16: Tell me about creating the art.
Smith: I did sketches in pencil and then used watercolor to create the backgrounds. Then I did pen and ink on top of that for the outlines and shading. I really loved doing it this way. I was going to be an artist until I was eighteen years old and even did two years of art college before music swept me away. So it was great to reconnect with my visual-arts background and make it a huge part of my music.
Smith: You’ll have to ask that particular possum. He may or not have grander designs, or he might be getting into your garbage can right now. It’s hard to tell. He’s nocturnal, and he doesn’t have a cell phone, so you’ll have to find him in the dark and ask him. He did sign a contract with me that lasts longer than the average lifespan of a possum. But he has an agent in Hollywood, so you never know.
Chapter 16: Tell me about your plans for sharing this book with readers. Will music be involved?
Smith: Music was the genesis of this whole thing, so it will absolutely be a part of it all the way through. The words of the book are, in fact, the lyrics to the song, so every time I present the book I will be presenting the song, too. They are joined together as closely as a possum mama and a baby on her back!
I have done a few bookstore visits and a festival, and many more are planned. In addition to the book festivals and bookstores, I will be presenting the song at schools and also children’s hospitals. I have really enjoyed seeing the reaction from the kids. It reminds me of when my own children were young, and Christmas held such magic for them. Santa is real. Reindeer are real. Rudolph is real. That’s the magic that I am so blessed to be a part of. The magic of Christmas is stronger than most regular things we have in our lives as adults, and we would be well-served to connect to it more than once every year. Children understand it. We should, too.
Julie Danielson, a former school librarian, blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and writes about picture books for Kirkus Reviews, BookPage, and the Horn Book. Her first book, Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, is now out in paperback.