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Shana Smith’s ‘Islands of Cedars’ blends Florida facts and fiction

Bill DeYoung



Novelist Shana Smith, a.k.a. children's performer Shana Banana. Photos provided.

Shana Smith has two hometowns – St. Petersburg, where she lived, worked and performed as a singer/songwriter for many years, and Gainesville, where she spent her teens and where she now resides fulltime as an instructor in yoga and meditation.

Make that three hometowns. Smith was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii.

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated. She also counts Cedar Key – a tiny island hamlet 58 miles west of Gainesville as the osprey flies – as another hometown. Her father, a marine biologist, was there pretty much every weekend, and he brought the family.

“Cedar Key was where the magic happened,” Shana Smith says. “That’s where I fell in love with Florida. I didn’t think I was going to, because moving here from Hawaii was not easy. At first.

“But Cedar Key took care of that. It was an incredible way to grow up, teenage years into early adulthood.”

Her love of Cedar Key, and the things she learned about coastal marine life, feature prominently in Smith’s first novel, published this week by St. Petersburg Press. Islands of Cedars – named for the chain of small barrier islands that includes Way Key, location of the town of Cedar Key – is the fictional story of two young boys, one Black and one white, who become fast friends. They bond over a shared love for fishing, marine biology … and milkshakes (they’re kids, after all).

That’s the backbone of Islands of Cedars. After that, like Shana Smith’s hometown saga, it gets complicated.

“For years and years, when we first moved to Florida, we drove back and forth to Cedar Key. And there’s this little sign, ‘Rosewood.’ I remember wondering about it. And somebody in Cedar Key had mentioned, ‘that’s where all the Blacks died.’ Just off-handedly. And I was like, ‘wh-wh-what?’”

Rosewood, Florida was an African-American community destroyed in 1923 by a white mob. At least six residents were murdered. It remains the most violent, racially-motivated crime in state history.

Director John Singleton fictionalized the story in his 1997 film Rosewood, but Smith – angered by the current climate of revisionist history she perceives in Florida – decided there needed to be more.

“Rosewood is not taught,” she explains. “People don’t know about it, other than maybe, quote-unquote, ‘that’s where the Blacks died.’ That kind of thing. It’s just not known about.

“And I thought, here’s maybe where I can offer something. Here’s the educator in me, and the awareness-builder, and the pro-activist. This has to be known.”

Islands of Cedars blends history, marine biology and the fictional story of a deep friendship into an intoxicating Florida smoothie.

It’s also a ghost story.

“I’m drawn to action when I’m moved,” the author explains. “When my heart is moved, or I resonate with something. So by creating characters who have real feelings for each other, for their world and their conditioning and their trauma, I felt that would be a more effective way to present real history, real issues, real facts, and hopefully real transformation.”

Shana Banana and friends.

Smith’s professional career has been all about transformation. She earned a degree in marine science from Eckerd College, then a Masters from University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and was well on her way to achieving a PhD in the field.

It was during those years that she discovered a talent (and massive love) for writing and performing music for children and young people. Her focus shifted. Shana Banana was born.

“It was a scary thing,” she remembers, “because I was going against my father, and I was going against my major professors, who were wonderful, all of them. They were all supporters of the marine science track.”

Following her heart, though, and trusting her instincts, had always been important. Shana Banana has received multiple awards, a Grammy nomination and countless accolades. Her music encompasses environmental and mindfulness. Education mixed with fun stuff.

Today, Smith and her husband operate the Gainesville Retreat Center. She is a Kirtan wallah and Yoga Alliance RYT-500 hour Yoga Instructor, with additional certifications in Chair and Yin Yoga.

“Hopefully, the work I’ve been doing in the world has been helpful – Shana Banana, and teaching Zen and yoga and so on – but the writer inside was literally crying to get out,” Smith confesses. “ I managed to squeeze out a Meditation For Moms and Dads book five years ago.

“I’d write in the wee hours, or in between a million parental and work duties. I squeezed out a few columns and magazine articles here and there. But the writer can’t be squelched.”

Islands of Cedars was birthed, ironically, by the pause-button necessity of the pandemic. “That was the silver lining,” she explains. “Suddenly, between all these busy, busy things happening in my life there was a little bit of space. And the writer said ‘This is it. I’m on. I’m not waiting any more.’”

Plus, there was this: “You can take the girl out of marine science, but you can’t take the marine science out of the girl.”

Islands of Cedars is available via Amazon and St. Petersburg Press.

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