What’s the best-selling hardcover book in northern Michigan this year? Is it John Grisham’s Calico Kid or Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins?
Surprise. It’s Chickadees At Night, a picture book for all ages by Empire author Bill O. Smith. According to Horizon Books in Traverse City, hundreds of these Chickadees have been flying off the shelves since the book’s release in late April. “People see it as an heirloom book,” says Jill Beauchamp of Horizon. “They are delighted by it and want to pass it along to their families.” Smith is quick to add that “it doesn’t hurt at all” that the illustrator is the gifted Traverse City watercolorist Charles R. Murphy.
Chickadees At Night was born within the boundaries of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Smith, who was an elementary principal for many years in Suttons Bay and Traverse City, retired several years ago to help caregive for a relative, Faith Lewis, who lives within park boundaries. “Faith lives completely in the moment,” says Smith, “and some of her happiest moments are watching chickadees at the feeder.” When chickadees flutter, Faith smiles. When a chickadee drops a seed, Faith’s face clouds with worry. Chickadees were usually the first to arrive at daylight and among the last to leave just before dark. Smith wondered, where do chickadees go at night?
Smith doesn’t recall the exact time, but he knows the exact line that arrived one day, as suddenly as the birds: ‘With chickadee caps on chickadee heads/do they sleep eight across on chickadee beds?’
“The couplet made Faith laugh,” Smith says. “I wrote more couplets. Then couplets became stanzas, stanzas became a story, and when Murphy signed on, the story spread its wings and took off.
Chickadees At Night is not so much a story as a flight of fancy into the mysteries of the natural world. Its intent is to draw the reader into nature not with facts, but with wonder and whimsy. On one page Smith asks: “Do they rise as one on the call of the loon till they come to rest on a crescent moon? And that moon, with its smiling, sideways lips — is that really a … chickadee-clipse?
On another page, completely wordless, the reader is invited to search for chickadees playing hide-and-seek in the night forest. A “Chickadee Nuggets” page at the end of the book offers a number of facts about chickadees that may well be just as informative to adult readers as to children.
It’s a great feeling, Smith thinks, to bring a creative idea to fruition. But he quickly adds, “I’m very grateful I’m not doing this for a living. It takes many thousands of dollars to produce a quality picture book, especially if you don’t print it in China.” Smith decided to print his book in the United States. “I hope eventually to get my money back,” he says, “but with some outstanding collaboration — including both Murphy and Traverse City graphic artist Jenifer Thomas. I’ve done something I’m proud of no matter what, and something that will bring a smile to the faces of grandchildren I may never know.”
But it’s not only the grandchildren who are smiling. Ninety-year-old Barbara Dennos, former Glen Arbor resident and longtime patron of the arts, heard a Chickadee reading and proclaimed, “I love it. I must have it. I AM a chickadee spirit.” Smith doesn’t know Mrs. Dennos personally, but he does know many more ‘chickadee spirits’ of all ages who are delighted by the blend of words and illustration. “I never thought of it as just a children’s book anyway,” says Smith. “Doesn’t everyone enjoy a good story? It’ll a great one to snuggle in with at Christmastime too.”
But first things first. In July, Smith is launching his “Chickadee For State Bird” campaign in Leelanau County bookstores. “It’s the ‘up north’ way to inaugurate the 2012 election season,” Smith says. He concedes the robin does indeed lay a very fine egg, but he contends that the chickadee, who toughs it out with the rest of us all winter, is far more deserving. “I mean really,” he reasons, “does the state tree uproot itself when it gets a little chilly?”
Smith, who receives no Super PAC money for his efforts, promises to NOT go negative on the robin. “But the American Spirit itself,” he argues, “generally does not bestow highest honors upon 50 percent effort.”
Readers can enjoy a complete reading of the story or order the book at ChickadeesAtNight.com. A percentage of all sales are donated to Leelanau County’s Raptor Rehabilitation Center. “$300 and rising,” says Smith.
Smith will be giving recitations, signing copies, and offering state bird petitions at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor (Wednesday, July 11, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.), at Dog Ears Books in Northport (Thursday, July 12, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.), Brilliant Books in Suttons Bay (Friday, July 13, 5-7 p.m.), and at Leelanau Books in Leland (Saturday, July 14, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.).
Chickadees At Night ($18.95, Sleepytime Press) is also available at Treeline Gallery and Gallery 22 in Suttons Bay, at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Visitor Center, at Blarney Castle, and, says Smith, “at my best-selling location in Empire, Rich’s Barber Shop.”