Chickadees in Newtown

ChickadeesatNightLeelanau author helps a town heal after unspeakable tragedy

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Just days after the Dec. 14, 2012, mass-shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Leelanau County author Bill Smith wrote to the Cyrenius H. Booth Library in Newtown, Conn., and offered to send copies of his children’s book, Chickadees at Night. Like the hundreds of thousands around the world who sent prayers and gifts to the devastated community, he wanted to help the town heal.

“When Newtown happened, everyone was reaching out from their minds and hearts,” Smith recalled. “Time heals wounds, but 20 children … that left a scar. Here I had this book, which is dedicated to those who sing in tough times. It’s not about grief in particular, but it’s certainly a book that can cheer up people.”

Aware that Newtown was being overrun by news media, a visit from President Obama, and 65,000 teddy bears, which prompted the city to open a warehouse in which to store gifts, Smith didn’t want to simply go and add his book to the pile. Then he received an email from part-time librarian Janice Bernard, who had arrived at work one day to find the head librarian at her desk, in tears over Chickadees at Night. The staff was overwhelmed by the worldwide civic response to the tragedy. Nevertheless, they invited Smith to Newtown.

The day after Christmas, Smith loaded his car with 10 boxes, containing 240 copies of the book, and drove to Connecticut. At the Booth Library, he performed a reading for the staff, signed the books and left his donation. Bernard left a stack in the library with a sign encouraging each family who visited to take a copy. Within a week, she called Smith and told him the books were gone. The author sent more boxes, and they, too, were picked up and read. Approximately 300 copies of Chickadees at Night currently grace schools, bookshelves and children’s nurseries in Newtown.

“What appealed to people, I think, is that this was a book that was reassuring to a kid,” said Smith. “The last line of the book is ‘We hear, little bird, your ancient song. Wherever you are is where you belong’. It’s a reassuring to know that there are chickadees out there.”

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? Read more about the book in our online archives.

Smith preferred not to draw attention to his gift, but two months after the tragedy, Newtown resident Winifred Brickmeier emailed the Glen Arbor Sun to report that she had enjoyed his book and sent Chickadees at Night across the country — to La Grange, Tex, to Anchorage, to Chicago, to Charlottesville, Va., and to Atlanta. “It is amazing that Bill took the time to come to Newtown and autograph the books,” she wrote. “When I went over to the Newtown Library yesterday afternoon, there was a flock of chickadees in the garden. By the time I left, they were gone.”

As the six-month anniversary of the tragedy approached, Smith wrote to Bernard and the library staff and reflected on National Book Award winner Colum McCann’s visit to Traverse City on June 6. McCann told a National Writer Series audience that his own visit with high schoolers in Newtown was the highlight of the year. “He spoke of how literature helped the kids ‘navigate through the darkness’ and discover light in unexpected ways,” wrote Smith.

“It has been a long six months of many books coming and going and coming again, however, your book was one that sparked a swift reaction … flying off to broken hearts in need of a sensitive read,” Bernard responded to Smith. “As soon as word spread of the chickadee book, families were coming in asking for a copy. We saved one for the children’s area so that those who missed the opportunity to experience the story could do so at least once or twice.

“We appreciated your generosity. This insightful, sweet book has encouraged smiles and helped (even if only momentarily) lighten heavy hearts.”

ChickadeeSpiritBill Smith will return to Newtown sometime this fall with his new book, The Chickadee Spirit, a children’s story about animals celebrating in the forest, which was edited out of Chickadees At Night because of space constraints. “It turns out that when human beings go indoors for the winter, chickadees invite the whole forest nation to a big shindig,” said Smith. “They weave the tops of pine trees into a big chickadee dome!”

The Chickadee Spirit won’t be officially released until Sept. 21, but Smith hopes to have copies available at the upcoming Glen Arbor Art Fair on July 17. He’ll hold a reading and chickadee celebration in the basement at Horizon Books in Traverse City in the fall.

“The first book was dedicated to those who sing in tough times,” said Smith. “Hopefully our little flight of fancy did help some ‘discover light in unexpected ways’. The dedication in the second book is ‘for families and communities everywhere, strong and kind’. It’s a joyous celebration about being together.” That’s a not-so-subtle reference to the “Newtown Strong” signs Smith saw posted around the grieving, but resilient community last December. “I felt privileged to be in a position to offer some snuggles and smiles at such a terrible time,” he reflected.

And snuggles he provided. The arrival of Chickadees At Night, and other books, to Newtown prompted the Booth Library to launch a “Books Heal Hearts” program in order to help the community cope with the tragedy and the void it created. Assistant director of reference Beryl Harrison reports that the program has distributed books, free of charge, to schools and to the community at large. Meanwhile, to cope with the pain of the one-year anniversary approaching this December, the Booth Library has reached out to libraries at Virginia Tech and Columbine — sites of previous mass shootings — for their assistance in digitizing and archiving news of the tragedy, and the national response to it, and retaining copies of all gifts sent to Newtown, for their town’s history.

“We want to express how the response was a worldwide response,” said Harrison. “We have a painting hanging in the children’s department that was made in Kenya.” And 65,000 teddy bears. And chickadees all over Newtown, thanks to Bill Smith.