Bill O. Smith, committed environmentalist and author of the beloved Chickadee book series, talks to FLOW about Chickadeeland, writing children’s books, and his commitment to supporting environmental organizations.
Could you provide additional biographical information beyond what is on your website?
I grew up in suburban St. Louis, MO…couldn’t have cared less about clean water and the environment, never paid any attention to any birds except the St. Louis Cardinals. Got a degree from Michigan State in English and Journalism, lived and worked at Folklore Village Farm, a magical little place in Wisconsin dairy country. The immersion into folk life got me interested in dance and food, in storytelling and traditions, in roots and wings and all things natural. I became a teacher for many years, and then an elementary principal in Suttons Bay, Traverse City, and Troy – where in addition to normal principal duties I wrote plays for kids, led folk dances and festivals, and generally tried to engage families in a genuine school community. Many great memories, but will never forget my early morning bird walk with about a dozen students. No sooner did I point out a group of loud crows and tell students they hate owls, when a huge great horned owl swooped out of hiding from the mobbing crows and whooshed right over our heads.
Your website tells a poignant story of your former mother-in-law’s delight in chickadees as she moved into dementia. Can you tell more of that story for our article? What life lesson did it teach you?
Yes – my former mother-in-law lived on Lake Michigan in Sleeping Bear Dunes. She was a little shining light, very dear to all of us, and when I retired I agreed to be her primary caregiver. Dementia teaches us that life is no longer about beautiful memories as it is about beautiful moments. In the moment, Faith loved hugs, gentle voices, beautiful music, and birds coming and going to our feeders. I recall one evening she watched the chickadees flying off into the woods. I could tell she was wondering where they went. A phrase popped into my brain, “With chickadee caps on chickadee heads, do they sleep eight across on chickadee beds?” Faith laughed, and I kept on making up couplets to amuse her. It turns out the couplets amused others too, and the “twilogy” was born.
What about the book do you think touched a chord with people?
I think people enjoy the sweetness, the whimsy, and the simple, strong message of respecting our natural world. And of course, the illustrations. I could be Shakespeare, but these are PICTURE books.
Can you tell us what the creative process was like for Chickadeeland and what kind of reception you’re getting for it?
CHICKADEES AT NIGHT was more or less about “chickadees at home”; THE CHICKADEE SPIRIT is a community celebration; and so for CHICKADEELAND, I wanted our beloved birds to fly out over our whole country and our national treasures (I also put in a little dig at the robin, our part-time state bird in Michigan).
The process is just thinking about these treasures, then creating rhymes and visual images to celebrate them, then revising and revising and revising and revising until it seems to flow.
What are your thoughts on future children’s books or other creative work?
Just when you think there are no new ideas in the world, or new ways to express old ideas, you read or see something that blows you away, sometimes something so simple that you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” There will always be a demand for freshness, for relevance, for something that touches the heart.
What prompts you to support environmental organizations like FLOW?
For a lot of my life, I took it for granted that food comes from a store and water from a faucet, and always will. That beauty will always be available to us, that someone else will take care of any problems that arise. Now I know how naïve I was. It’s time to give back. I am honored to be able to contribute in a small way to those who take on the challenge, often the drudgery, too often the frustration, of combatting the multiple interests that care for little else than money and marketing. I wish you all the best. Keep the faith.
From the final pages of CHICKADEELAND:
His still, small voice is our reminder:
we must be kinder.
Whatever his dreams,
wherever he flies,
we share the same trees.
we share the same skies.
From grizzliest bear to buzziest bee,
from wetland flower to desert tree,
to you and me and chickadees,
we share this land together.
Looking for a great gift idea? You can follow chickadees as they adventure through our public lands & waters in this adorable book. A great gift for the young and young-at-heart!
Bill has committed to donating all profits of Chickadeeland to several national and local non-profits, including FLOW.