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  • Ratha Tep

Interview with Michelle Cuevas, THE UNCORKER OF OCEAN BOTTLES

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, who lives alone atop a hill, has a job of the utmost importance. It is his task to open any bottles found at sea and make sure that the messages are delivered. He loves his job, though he has always wished that, someday, one of the letters would be addressed to him. One day he opens a party invitation—but there’s no name attached.


Written by Michelle Cuevas

Illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Publisher: Dial Books (August 23, 2016)

Can you tell me the origin story behind The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles? MC: "The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles is based on a bit of real history – Queen Elizabeth the 1st would receive correspondence from the Royal Navy in the form of messages in bottles. Sometimes, these would wash ashore, and regular citizens would find them on the beach and open them. So, the Queen declared an official royal job called The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, and only he was allowed to open bottles found with messages. If anyone else did… off to the Tower of London.

I read this and thought that job sounded VERY interesting. It percolated in my mind for a year or two, and then one day I just knew who he was and his story.

As far as illustrations, I had read A Sick Day for Amos McGee and was basically obsessed with Erin Stead illustrating Uncorker. She was super busy winning Caldecotts and whatnot, but her agent sent her the manuscript while she was on the beach, and she really wanted to illustrate a one-man band, so it was all fated."

Loneliness is quite the daring subject to explore in a picture book. Are there other picture books that you think tackle it well? "My favorite books of any length or genre are ones that break my heart and then heal it in the most beautiful way; the kind you finish reading and hug to your chest. Some picture books that successfully humpty-dumptied my heart, (and put it back together again), are City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems and Jon J. Muth, which makes me feel emotional just thinking about it, as well as two by Sydney Smith: Sidewalk Flowers ("written" by JonArno Lawson) and Small in the City. All three books understand loneliness and connection to their core, in every color and brush stroke. Their makers are masters of their craft."

What contemporary picture books do you think will be the new classics of the future?

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

Sidewalk Flowers by Sydney Smith

A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip and Erin E. Stead

Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

I Want My Hat Back Jon Klassen

Julián is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers

The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

After the Fall by Dan Santat

What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time?

"I guess I would retitle this: The 100 Best of All Time or: Here are ten picture books I adored as a child, and probably shaped me as a writer in ways that are totally mysterious to me even now:

If the entire world became illustrated, which illustrator would you choose to illustrate it?

"My top 3 would be:

Erin Stead, everything she touches is magical.

Brendan Wenzel, makes you realize how colorful and awe-inspiring the world really is.

Shaun Tan, keep it weird."

If there was a book or illustrator whose work most closely looks like inside your mind, who or what would it be? "I’ve thought about this a lot, (too much I’m sure), and the answer is inside my mind looks like The Muppet Show. But as far as illustrators: The Fan Brothers."

What picture books coming out in 2022 are you most looking forward to reading? "Erin Stead is illustrating a 100th anniversary edition of one of my favorite books of ALL TIME, The Velveteen Rabbit, so I’ll just get my dogs, (to cry in their fur), and settle in with that one in April."


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