Valerie Leonhart Smalkin has worn a number of different hats in her life, but these days, it’s all about her shoes: a pair of lime green, Converse high-top sneakers.
Smalkin, an attorney-turned-puppeteer and ventriloquist-turned-author, is releasing her first children’s book, “Springtime Dance,” this month.
The 32-page book, named for a song she wrote, features her lyrics with illustrations by Kimberly Hopkins of khopdesigns LLC, a Baltimore-based studio.
Smalkin and Hopkins are celebrating the book with a party May 10 at The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. The book itself, published by Smalkin, will be available May 25, complete with a CD that includes the song.
“What I always wanted to do before I die, I thought, I’d really love to create one really artistic, challenging thing,” Smalkin said. “It could have been a song or a CD. Turns out, it’s a book.”
The writing gig is new for Smalkin, who has spent the past few years as one half of the duo, “Silly Goose & Val,” and performs children’s shows at schools, libraries and birthday parties around Maryland.
Smalkin and her puppet pal, Silly Goose, perform songs Smalkin wrote intermixed with comedic dialogue and audience participation.
“A part of my brain is [Silly Goose] and I really don’t know what she’s always going to say,” Smalkin said.
Smalkin and Hopkins met about a year ago during a painting class.
“I looked at her painting and said, ‘Oh! You can draw,’’ Smalkin said.
Smalkin told Hopkins she had a song that would make a great children’s book and the two started collaborating.
Hopkins began by fleshing out the characters from the song, deciding what they would look like, and then drawing full-spread pictures. She would then review the pictures with Smalkin.
“It’s a long process,” said Hopkins, who also teaches at Towson University but had never done a children’s book. “It takes time to make sure the character is developed properly.”
As for the writing end, Smalkin said she saw another artist singing a springtime song on YouTube and decided to make her own.
The lyrics — like “Groundhogs creepin’, in my garden sneakin’, eatin’ every single flower of mine” — all “came out very easily,” Smalkin said.
From music to law and back
The product of a large and musical family, Smalkin received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Goucher College in Towson in 1971, then headed to Berklee College of Music in Boston before deciding a career in music was not going to cut it.
Her sister suggested she become an environmental lawyer, and soon Smalkin was attending what is now the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
“I figured either I go or I don’t go, and I went and I loved it,” Smalkin said.
She got her J.D. in 1977 and then worked in the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, where she stayed for three years before she met a young federal magistrate judge named Frederic N. Smalkin.
The couple married, and had children in the early 1980s. While her husband was elevated to judge, then chief judge of the U.S. District Court (he retired in 2003), Val Smalkin kept a few private clients but also formed a group called Val & Pam Kindersingers in 1987. They had a children’s show called “It’s Kinder Time” in the 1990s on WMAR-TV: ABC2.
Around 2000, she gave it all up — the group, her clients and her malpractice insurance — to work for St. James Academy in Monkton as a full-time music teacher. She retired from teaching in 2009, had knee surgery and was ready to go back to jumping around on stage by 2011.
Smalkin hand-made Silly Goose, a chatty bird with a wispy, high-pitched voice and a flower-bedecked hat. She has also incorporated a host of flamingos, an earthworm and a snake into her star-studded cast.
“If you can make children laugh, that is a very important thing,” she said.
For the past 20 years, she has taught herself ventriloquism, mostly through trial and error, meanwhile perfecting the art of moving Silly Goose’s mouth to match the sounds.
These days, Smalkin is booked up. Her summer schedule has been full since February, sometimes with two shows a day, she said.
The shows generally start with a greeting song, followed by “Hop Silly Goose” because, Smalkin said, Silly Goose insists on going next. Then comes the “Dino Dance,” for which Smalkin calls dads up to the stage to groove.
The show has evolved over the years, she said.
Smalkin learned to play the guitar in the beginning, because it was easier to bring on stage and travel with. Then she had an electric piano. Now everything is modern and she controls the show via a remote placed strategically in her costume.
Over the years, Smalkin has always draped herself in some version of a handmade, colorful cape. The latest iteration combines a green flowered pattern with a polka-dotted fabric.
Which, of course, go perfectly with the shoes.