Maggie Smith, the New York Times bestselling author of the heartrending memoir YOU COULD MAKE THIS PLACE BEAUTIFUL, joins Zibby to discuss her beautifully lyrical and calming new picture book, MY THOUGHTS HAVE WINGS. Maggie reveals how challenging conversations with her children—during her divorce and the pandemic lockdown—prompted the creation of this book. She describes the bedtime rituals they developed to fight nighttime anxiety. She and Zibby delve into the challenges of parenting, reflecting on rituals, the power of positive thinking, and how they’ve helped their children with their worries.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maggie. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss My Thoughts Have Wings, your beautiful new children’s book, which I adore and is amazing.

Maggie Smith: I’m so glad to hear it. Thanks for having me back. It’s good to see you.

Zibby: It’s good to see you too. You are preaching to the choir here with this book of the nighttime worries, the daytime worries, the worries all the time. I read this to my son. He was like, “Oh, you did that too. You had me think about drinking a strawberry freeze in Jamaica one night when I couldn’t fall asleep.” I’m like, “Yes, this is what you have to do.”

Maggie: I love that.

Zibby: I was like, okay, good, I’m on the right track here with my — .

Maggie: Or we’re making the same mistakes, but I don’t think so.

Zibby: Or our kids are just all messed up. I don’t know. Let me back up. Tell everybody about your children’s book.

Maggie: My Thoughts Have Wings was really inspired by two different conversations I had with each of my kids years apart. The first one, I actually wrote about in Keep Moving in the last chapter called Nesters. I had a conversation with my daughter when she was younger. She’s in high school now. When she was much younger, I had a discussion with her one night because she couldn’t go to sleep because her mind was going. Yes, I’m raising my hand here too because I think we all do this. We’re busy during the day. We’re preoccupied. We have a lot of stimuli. Then we lie down in bed, and suddenly, all the thoughts that we’ve been pushing off to the margin flood into that quiet space when we’re trying to fall asleep. I told her thoughts are like birds. Some of them fly away quickly. Some of them build little nests in us. They stick around. It’s hard to know how to get them to move on. On the bright side, it just means that your head is such a beautiful place to live that they don’t want to leave you. I understand that as your parent. I wouldn’t want to leave you either. That helped. Then years later during lockdown in the middle of our divorce and just everything happening in our home and in the world, my youngest, my son, was having a really hard time going to sleep.

Those tuck-ins were hard. Every parent knows that sinking feeling where you leave their room and you’re like, I don’t think that I did that right. I don’t think I offered the comfort they needed. I feel like I need a do-over because that wasn’t the sweet, connecting, quiet moment that I during this busy day when we have so little one-on-one, really connecting time. Rhett would say things like, I’m trying to think good thoughts, but the bad thoughts keep pushing them out of the way. I thought, of course they do because they do that in my brain too. That’s what happens. We came up with a bedtime ritual of filling up with good thoughts. How do we build more nests for the good thoughts and help crowd out the negative thoughts? That was the idea, as a redirect. We had these great evening conversations around happy memories, like you were just saying, or things to look forward to. That didn’t make the bad thoughts disappear. They didn’t change the circumstances of our lives, but they helped him focus his mind in a brighter place. It helped. I thought, you know, if it helped in my home, maybe it could help in other people’s homes at bedtime or during stressful times too. That’s where the idea of the book was born.

Zibby: So nice. I feel like the problem is that the happy thoughts are kind of flimsy. They’re like slippery sheets or something. They just kind of gather and pool, whereas the bad thoughts are like trucks ramming through with giant wheels all through your brain and getting everything else dirty and terrible.

Maggie: Zibby, I have to say, you do realize you’re working in metaphor right now? You sound like a poet. I just want to point that out. Even early in the morning with a cold, you’re thinking like a poet. It’s totally true. It’s absolutely true that the negative voices in our heads tend to bully out and talk louder and yell and wave their arms if they’re not getting enough attention. Oftentimes, that positive inner voice gets shouted down. It is tricky. I absolutely get that. I think the idea is having that connecting time be a time not to say — no one ever stopped worrying because they were told, don’t worry. No one ever stopped crying being told, don’t cry. No one ever calmed down from being told, calm down. I think the important thing is listening to our kids and hearing their worries and concerns and being like, yeah, that’s tough, instead of, that’s not real, or don’t think that. Really hearing them, but also being like, yes, and these other things are true too. Why don’t we just pivot our attention slightly to the fifty things that are going right instead of the two things that are going wrong but shouting really loudly?

Zibby: I need this advice as well. Writers and reviews, you can have a thousand good reviews, and the one bad one sticks in your brain. That would be a nice ratio. It’s how the brain works, this horrible magnifying glass of the negative. It doesn’t go away.

Maggie: It doesn’t. It’s something that we do too. Someone asked me recently, what’s the age range for this book? I said officially from the publisher, it’s four to eight, but in my mind, it’s three to ninety-nine, like you see on certain card games. They go to ninety-nine. I think if you’re alive and living in the world, you are worried about things. You probably could use a redirect. Not to replace the negative thoughts, but to focus your attention differently, especially before you’re trying to go to sleep. It’s not the time to be reliving every conversation you wish you had done differently, every snarky text or email or thing you should’ve gotten done that day that you didn’t get done, thing you said to your kid out of frustration that you wish you could take back. All of these things just play like a little film strip on the insides of your eyelids when you lie down to go to sleep at night. I think this might be useful for the person reading the book with the child too.

Zibby: Also, childhood anxiety starts at seven, eight, nine, so I would push the target age up a bit anyway.

Maggie: I think that’s true. I think it’s only becoming more complex, particularly with the last few years and the pandemic. I know when I was having these conversations with Rhett — we were wiping our mail. We were not able to go to school, see our friends, hug our grandparents, go to soccer, do any of the things that made us feel calm and connected and safe and like ourselves. It’s still difficult. It’s still happening. Obviously, it’s still happening. That sort of separation and lack of connection was so painful for children in particular and has shaped them in ways that we will probably be understanding and coming to terms with for years to come. I think anything we can do to ease their minds a little bit and help them remember all of the positive things in them and in their lives — I need it. They need it.

Zibby: My daughter just this morning was saying something like, “Remember how we used those shields over our faces in school?” She was like, “Do they even make those shields anymore?” I was like, “I cannot believe that you lived through that, that was your –” Whatever grade it was. It’s crazy. At the time, we’re like, okay, yes, now they’re going to all wear shields.

Maggie: In our family, it was first grade and fifth grade. I was actually cleaning out the little drawer where we keep our — each kid has a drawer where we keep scarves, mittens, hats. It’s also where I was keeping their individually sized masks. First, the fabric ones, and then the N95s. I found this tiny, smaller than the palm of my hand, Star Wars fabric mask that I bought on Etsy that Rhett wore in first grade whenever we left the house. I kept it. I put it in a box because I just thought, someday — we’re living through history all the time. In particular, a seven-year-old, I thought it might be interesting for him to hold that tiny thing in his adult hand someday.

Zibby: Someday, I will be interviewing him about the poem he wrote about that very piece of fabric.

Maggie: Who really knows? He does love poetry. He calls this our book.

Zibby: That’s so sweet.

Maggie: I love that. I have 250 copies in a bunch of boxes in the living room behind me that I have to sign and send for a book club. He was like, “Do they want me to sign those too?” I was like, “I think just me and the illustrator are signing these, Rhett.” Actually, if everybody got a little heart in their book from —

Zibby: — I was going to say, I think that —

Maggie: — Maybe I should let him do it.

Zibby: When I had my children’s book come out and the kids wanted to sign, I was like, “Go for it.” Why not? What are they going to do? They’re just going to be like, that’s so cute. Did it ruin your book? No. Come on. I don’t know.

Maggie: I think I’ll let him.

Zibby: Let him do a couple.

Maggie: I’ll let him do some.

Zibby: Then he’ll get bored.

Maggie: He’ll probably sit with me at the table and want to sign some books. It’s true. When people open this, the spreads, they’re actually his positive memories.

Zibby: The ice cream cone.

Maggie: Yeah, the ice cream cone at the beach. That’s something we used to do. The fishing in the creek behind Mimi and Papa’s house. Those are my parents. That’s the creek behind the house where I grew up and we still have Sunday dinner every night.

Zibby: We call my mom Mimi and Papa too.

Maggie: I love that.

Zibby: We say Papa. Mimi and Papa. My son was like, “Let me see that. It doesn’t really say that, does it?” I was like, “It does.”

Maggie: That’s close enough. We’re Mimi and Papa. The banana bread, the , they’re all his happy memory. When he calls it our book, I’m like, it is because it’s from your list of things that you filled up with before bed. My hope, that it will be an invitation for other kids and adults to think, oh, that’s one child and happy memories. What are mine? Oh, yeah, I like ice cream at the beach too. I like churros at the beach. I like roller-skating. Remember that one time we did X, Y, and Z?

Zibby: It would be really great to — maybe you already have this planned or whatever — to have, not a workbook, but a prompt. You could easily take a sick kid and say, draw me two pictures of things that scare you and two of your happiest memories. Then you just take your words and put them through. Then they have their own way.

Maggie: I love that. I love that idea. It’s almost like you’re a book person, Zibby.

Zibby: Stop. This all comes from a selfish place. I’m like, I think I could do that with my kid today. That would be really great because then he would feel like it was his book. Then we could reference the drawings again later and say, remember when that worry was stuck in your head? Remember when you were scared of whatever he’s scared of today?

Maggie: I love that. The ad hoc version is, draw on individual pieces of paper, and then leaf them into the story so that when you get to that point in the book, you’re actually also looking at your own little —

Zibby: — That’s true. Just put them in here.

Maggie: Like as a little bookmark.

Zibby: I like that too. They could be bookmarks. I want the whole page, though.

Maggie: I love this.

Zibby: Then I was saying to my son, I’m like, “How crazy is it that the illustrator’s last name is Hatch when it’s all about nests and birds and eggs and the whole thing?”

Maggie: Zibby, that never occurred to me. Is that wild? That never occurred to me. Such magic. When I turned this manuscript in, I had no idea who — I knew it would not be me drawing the pictures because it would just be stick people. I had no idea. They sent me a few links to portfolios of illustrators they thought the style would work really well with what I had created. All of them were gorgeous, but I clicked on Leanne’s and went to her portfolio and saw the little faces of the children that she had drawn. They, honestly, were so sweet and reminded me of my own child, the little smattering of freckles on some of them and the sweet little eyes and the little smiles. She did dark so well. So many of her drawings handled light and darkness so well. I knew that would be important because this is a bedtime story, and some of it is set in a dark bedroom.

Zibby: This is creepy.

Maggie: Right, the little eyes. You don’t know if the person wants to illustrate your book. It’s my only attempt at a dating app, which I’ve never done. They reached out to her and said, “So-and-so would really like you to illustrate their book.” She could’ve said, no, I don’t connect with the story. She could’ve said, I like it, but I don’t have any room in my schedule for the next three years. These things take a long time to make. I feel so blessed that she agreed to do it and then just worked magic. I got her drawings and just couldn’t believe what she had made from the words. It’s the first collaborative experience I’ve had in this way, making a book where someone else’s work was, frankly, I feel like, more important than my work in this book. I think she’s a marvel. I haven’t met her. That’s another thing. All of this happens at a distance.

Zibby: Crazy. She’s so good. It’s almost crayon style in some of the backgrounds, how it just looks so relatable to kids versus so polished where it doesn’t feel accessible in some way.

Maggie: There’s a lot of texture in the drawings. It’s not cartoony at all. It’s not so crisp. There’s just a lot of texture and layering in the drawings. The one challenge is that made us trying to figure out how to make sure that the words were really legible with that text behind it. That was one of the challenges of going through the process. I honestly couldn’t be happier. I just look at it, and I’m like, how is that — I couldn’t have done that. My poor stick people.

Zibby: I can’t draw either. I really wish I could. It’s gorgeous. I was sure, though, when I heard that you had written a children’s book, that it was going to be your handwriting because I feel like now you’re branding your handwriting so much. Not branding it, but you have analysis of your poems. I feel like now everybody can know your handwriting. Then I was like, where was it? Did you consider?

Maggie: The problem with my handwriting is it’s not particularly legible. They used a little bit of it on the cover of my memoir just for some of the smaller text. It’s pretty idiosyncratic. Is that an R or a V? Is that an L or an I? It’s not particularly legible. I love that they hand-lettered the book. It has that kind of feel rather than typed words. It’s much more legible than my own poet scrawl.

Zibby: What are the current worries when the lights go off and the mind starts going? What’s something you’re particularly worried about these days?

Maggie: The world. I’m worried about the world. I’m just gesturing widely at all of this. We’re in an election year. There is so much unrest. I’m a parent, so seeing other children in pain hits me in a place in my body that I have a hard time ridding myself of. Frankly, I don’t think I should. I think witnessing is important. In addition to all those, how am I going to make this deadline? How are the kids doing? All the other in-my-own-home things. I think it’s going to be a really stressful year. We have a lot collectively on our plates in 2024 in this country and beyond. I’m not sleeping well. How are you sleeping?

Zibby: Oh, no. Maybe I got three hours of sleep.

Maggie: Not great.

Zibby: No, I am not sleeping well. I can fall asleep. I get up, and then I can’t fall back asleep. Usually, I’m just so overtired that I pass out. My thoughts spin at four in the morning. I’m like, I might as well just get up. Forget it.

Maggie: I’m a three AM’er. When people are getting emails from me at three AM, they’re like, you’re an early bird. I’m like, oh, no, I’m in bed. I’m an insomniac. I’m not an early bird, per se. I was, maybe, up doing work in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep.

Zibby: I realized recently — well, I didn’t realize. Someone told me that you can set your emails so that they send at a later time on Apple Mail, which is the mail client that I use all the time. I started doing that. I was like, oh, this is so great. Now my team won’t wake up and have twenty emails from me in the middle of the night. Then once, it didn’t work. I was like, I can’t trust it. I’m never going to do it again, so forget it.

Maggie: No. I just have to be transparent that my working hours are sometimes different from other people’s working hours. I might not respond to emails between three and five because the kids are home from school. I’m fixing dinner. I know it’s still the workday for most people, but it’s not a great time for me. Two to four AM, I’m sharp. No one’s asking me to heat up a snack or cut an apple or help them with a math worksheet. I’m getting a lot done in the middle of the night.

Zibby: It’s true. You just have to grab the time when you can.

Maggie: Oh, my goodness, it’s the truth. It’s the truth.

Zibby: What is coming up for you? What’s the next release after this? Not to stress you out more.

Maggie: No, no, no. The next release after this is the paperback of You Could Make This Place Beautiful the first week of June. I’ll be back on the road when the memoir paperback comes out.

Zibby: Is the cover different or the same?

Maggie: No, we can’t change that cover.

Zibby: I know. I love the cover. I know. I was just making sure. A lot of times, people change it.

Maggie: No, I can’t. I think they’re moving some blurbs around and doing some different things, but no. I would like that to be the cover of every book. Let’s just change the title going forward. Every book I ever publish, it’s just that. I love it so much. Then next year, I have a collection of essays. That’s what I’m working on now, and working on poems. I think probably, the next next is another book of poems.

Zibby: Amazing. I can’t wait to read. I know that I’m going to love whatever you are going to write, and you haven’t even written all of it yet. I’m just like, I can’t wait to have the experience of my reading your words later. It’s such a crazy thing.

Maggie: That’s so kind.

Zibby: No, but it’s true. I’m just like, hurry up and finish.

Maggie: I know. I’m hearing that. I need to do that. I need to do that. I sat down and realized my last — I’m a poet. I’m first and foremost a poet. This book technically isn’t poetry. It’s not a rhyming kids’ book in poetry style. I thought about it. I’m like, my last four books, and then including my next one, they’re all different genres. It’s self-help, poetry, memoir, picture book, essay collection. I need to loop back to poetry because that’s really my home base. I need to make the rounds of the bases and then come back around to home. It’s sort of strange to me. I think if you had asked me twenty years ago, I would’ve said I will always write poetry. I hope that I’ll be able to write multiple books of poetry. If I can do that, I’ll be so happy. I never would’ve thought that I would be writing in multiple genres or publishing in multiple genres. Each idea — I’m sure you felt this too because you do the same thing. Each idea demands its own container. It shows up and sort of whispers to you what form, what shape it wants to take. My memoir could not have been a collection of poems. It just wouldn’t have worked. This couldn’t have been that either. The essay collection is not anything close to being a memoir. It also can’t be a picture book. Letting inspiration happen and meeting all of those ideas where they are and taking them on a case-by-case basis and instead of being like, well, I’m a poet, so whatever this is, it’s going to be poems, instead of foisting your own agenda, just listening — who’s the audience for this? What’s the story? Who needs it? What’s it going to look like? What’s the texture of it going to be? For me, the last few things have all asked to be different things. I’m just trying to listen more than I talk with the books.

Zibby: I love that. That’s great. I had this one idea. I’m like, maybe it’ll just be a graphic novel. I’m like, what on earth? What do I know about that? I don’t know, I’ll just have to teach myself how to do it. This idea, the kids who are going to want to read it, they want to only read graphic novels right now. You’re probably going to write a graphic novel too.

Maggie: Oh, my gosh. I definitely won’t be doing the graphic part of the novel if I do, let me tell you, unless someone really wants stick people. Though, I guess Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a little stick person-y. Perhaps there’s a place for that.

Zibby: Yes. Yes, indeed. That was also great advice already for aspiring authors too, is paying attention and listening for the ideas. It’s just so great. I feel like now I’m going to finish this and go have my son build a nest or something and show him how to take it apart, that we can actually deconstruct it, construct and deconstruct, that it’s all our power.

Maggie: I love this. I love this idea of different interactive ideas that caregivers and kids can do together around the themes of the book. I think we’ll be doing something like this when we launch it at my public library because I want it to be family friendly. What kind of drawing or writing or craft ideas can we do around that? I think it’s so true. My hope is it’s a conversation starter. Okay, this is this kid’s stuff. What is your stuff? What are you worried about? Maybe it’s not the big kids taking the ball at recess. Maybe it’s not stuff under the bed. What are you worried about? Then what are your positives to help balance it out? I would love to hear what other kids —

Zibby: — And even that they know that everyone has stuff. Everyone has their list. That’s where the brain goes. I always say to my kids when they can’t fall asleep, everything seems worse in the dark. Everything is worse in the dark. Let’s deal with it in the morning. If it still seems terrible, we’ll deal with it then.

Maggie: That’s another thing I hope. My ultimate goal for this book, which is a tiny goal, is just that it makes bedtime a little bit easier for somebody who’s holding this book sharing it with a kid. Just easier bedtimes. I know that seems small, but you know as a mom, it is not small.

Zibby: It is not small.

Maggie: A bad bedtime colors your entire day. It’s hard. It’s heartbreaking to feel like they’re suffering and having a hard time, and we’re not able to get in and help them do the work for themselves. One of the things I really hope for, too, is that this helps to normalize the idea of worrying and anxiety. There are probably kids out there who think nobody else’s brain is working like my brain is working right now. Everybody else is just going to sleep. Nobody else is worrying about what’s going to happen with that test tomorrow or with soccer practice or their grandma being sick or whatever the thing is. We all do it. It’s just such a human — we’re all in it together.

Zibby: Maggie, thank you. Thank you so much for My Thoughts Have Wings. I’m so excited to do even more with it with my kids and just see where this book takes off.

Maggie: Thank you so much. It was so good to see you and chat with you for a bit.

Zibby: You too. Congratulations on your book.

Maggie: Thank you. Take good care.

Zibby: Okay, you too. Bye.

Maggie: Bye.



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