Seattle author JL Cheatham II’s new book, Hi Blue Sky, has been decades in the making. “It was a poem at first,” Cheatham says — one that he wrote for himself to cope with his first major loss.
“I lost a friend when I was about eight years old,” Cheatham says over the phone. “We played together all the time and then one day she didn't show up anymore.” He didn’t know what had happened to her until she picked up a copy of The Facts newspaper and “there was my friend in the obituary section.”
Eventually, Cheatham learned the truth about what happened: “She went on a boating trip with their teacher and she drowned.” Cheatham recalls it as a confusing and lonely experience. “At the time, nobody was like, ‘hey, Jeff, how are you feeling?’ And it stuck me all the way till this time —I'm 33 years old now.”
Cheatham wrote the poem that became Hi Blue Sky for himself, but he decided that he wanted to share it with children, to help them through the grieving process. Death is a taboo topic with kids, and Cheatham hopes “adults will use the book to “start the conversation about how do we help each other deal with loss in an illustrative manner.”
The book is gorgeously illustrated by Johanna Puukila, an Israeli artist Cheatham “stumbled across on Facebook.” They worked closely together “on the phone and in emails, texting, IG messaging” to bring the book to life. “It was long hours of communicating — going back and forth, making sure that the imagery and the placement of the words matched.”
Cheatham has brought the book to a number of young readers to make sure that Hi Blue Sky worked on its target audience. “Of course, my number one person is my daughter and I had her read the book as words first.” She loved the poem that her dad had written, but when paired with Puukila’s artwork, the experience became much more universal. Cheatham says the story helped his daughter deal with a different kind of loss: “It’s not just about the loss of a loved one who passed away. It could be a story for kids who lose a friend who moves away.”
On June 12th, Cheatham is celebrating the launch of Hi Blue Sky with a family-friendly happy hour reading at The Station coffee shop on Beacon Hill from 5 pm to to 8 pm , with pizza and chocolate. Why’d he pick that location? “Last year was a very rough year for me personally. I lost my job. I had to move. I lost my car. I was really failing the test and I was kind of directionless for a minute,“ Cheatham explains. And then a friend took him to The Station for the first time. From the minute he walked in, Cheatham “just felt right at home because there's so many lovely creative weirdos that go to this place. I love them all to death. And once I was there, the owners embraced me as a part of their community and they allowed me to create.”
Cheatham wrote and produced much of Hi Blue Sky at The Station, and so he wanted to celebrate the book’s birth there too. “I'll always be grateful for that place.”
Cheatham’s got a bunch of projects lined up in the near future, including a summer writing workshop series with King County Libraries that kicks off on June 29th and continues through August. And of course his baby, the Seattle Urban Book Expo, will take place in February of next year. Cheatham says there will be some announcements about locations and the registration process on the Expo’s Facebook page soon.