Peggy Williams was not ready to stop helping children, even when a serious illness forced her to leave her family therapy practice. Even in retirement, Peggy sees herself as an educator. Early in her career Peggy set a goal to use the concepts she learned in her studies to create books that teach children needed social skills. She wanted to write easy-to-read stories that would engage a variety of audiences. Friends in the Meadow – Birds is her first attempt at this goal. She found that when both children and parents do things together, they have opportunities for sharing and bonding. According to Peggy, bird watching offers the benefit of building the child’s self-esteem and can help to form a closer parent-child relationship.
RT: Good morning Peggy, and welcome to the Reading Tub®. Congratulations on Friends in the Meadow: Birds, your first book. Could you tell us about how you decided to write this story?
Peggy: My life’s work has always centered on helping others. As a mom, licensed therapist, and wife of a Methodist minister, I am surrounded by children every day. What I see is that many children today are hurting for quality time and closer relationships with adults who offer positive guidance. The best way I’ve found that parents can provide this for their children is to plan and take the time to be with their children and enjoy activities together. This provides time not only for hobbies or whatever activity but also for the much needed conversations to take place between parent and child that helps to form closer, trusting relationships. This goes a long way in getting through the teen years for both of them. I decided to use the children’s book genre to share with the children while encouraging parent participation as well.
RT: One of the things that I enjoyed about the book were all of the pictures of birds. Are these pictures of birds in your back yard? You even got picture of the brand new baby birds in their nests. How were you able to do that safely? Did you need a special camera?
Peggy: All the pictures are from my yard. I try not to go far away without my camera, because I always seem to miss a good shot when I do. Some of the photos I took from inside the house through the window. I try to keep feeders and water close by so that I have plenty of birds and photo opportunities. The photos of the bird eggs and newly hatched birds were taken from a shrub just beside our deck. The Mockingbird mom chose a very close and busy place to make her nest. I was able to get very close shots using the zoom without disturbing the nest or bird family. I have upgraded my camera once, and am getting ready to do it again so that I can start digi-scoping, a fairly new method of attaching a digital camera to a high powered spotting scope. This gives a very detailed picture, even very fine feather patterns, from a much greater distance. I hope to use digi-scoped images in the next book of the series so the pictures will be a better quality.
RT: Friends in the Meadow is part story, part nature guide. You have given some of the birds distinct names, like Tuffy Titmouse and Melodie (a Northern Mockingbird). Can you tell when Melodie or Tuffy return to your yard, not just a titmouse our mockingbird?
Peggy: I can recognize some of the birds that remain year round because of certain markings or sometimes by behavior. When I go out to fill the feeders “the regulars” begin to chatter and sing. They also let me know when I go outside and the feeders are completely empty. So we have our little relationship going. There are some migrants that I have recognized a few years in a row; one hummingbird in particular comes to mind. I named the birds in the book more to describe their personalities or behaviors rather than a particular bird. I chose names that hopefully will help the children remember a particular bird as they are learning to identify them.
RT: In addition to keeping Bird and Nature Friends, a blog about Friends in the Meadow, you also author Grow Green Kids. Do you envision writing children’s books about responsible living?
Peggy: To my way of thinking, Friends in the Meadow – Birds, is a children’s book that not only introduces kids to a great hobby, but also talks about nature and the need to be responsible for our planet. Many adults move slower toward an environmental consciousness than the younger generations due to better environmental education opportunities during the last 20 years or so. The adults get there by reconnecting with the great outdoors, like they did as kids. When they start to enjoy nature, then they start to care about it and begin to think and act responsibility. Kids relate to birds and other animals with wide-eyed enthusiasm. It pretty much comes naturally with just a little effort on the parent’s part. It’s not hard for the kids. They easily understand that animals and birds need clean water and environment in order to live, just like they do. They are being taught it in school, the TV shows they watch, and the Internet, too. In many cases it is the adults in the children’s lives who need convincing to act responsibility and be an example for their children. I try to encourage parents to participate in birding activities with their children first to spend time and assist the child with learning the hobby, but more importantly, to get us all to work together and become more environmentally aware.
RT: Staying with the theme of being responsible stewards, what do you think is the most difficult – but important message – to convey to children through books?
Peggy: It is difficult for children to understand the history and full impact of our negligence over the last 60+ years. We are now trying to repair a lot of damage that was the result of “progress.” Several generations of adults grew up without any knowledge of the harm that had come about and therefore did not teach their children. Now we are trying to do better, but still only about 40 percent of Americans recycle and our landfills continue to fill up. We take two steps forward and one step back; it is very slow progress. The big picture is certainly too complex for a children’s book. But the most important message – keep our earth healthy – they can get from a book. Similarly, they can learn personal responsibility. Each of us has a role and must do our part. As I continue the Friends in the Meadow series, I will bring this message out with the different animals we meet.
RT: You displayed Friends in the Meadow – Birds at the American Library Association (ALA) Conference in Chicago this past summer. Was this your first experience with a trade show? What did you learn during the event that you want to use in talking about your book at other venues?
Peggy: My book was on display at this conference, but I was not able to attend. It was part of the publisher’s display. I still have this venture to look forward to when the opportunity presents itself.
RT: One of your goals for the Friends in the Meadow series is that it can help children develop social skills. Is it difficult to create transitions using nonfiction content for more conceptual lessons?
Peggy: Some authors may find fiction easier for this task. I have the luxury of being able to draw on my experiences as a mental health therapist for children and families. My mind tends to stay in the real mode when thinking about children and their needs. My desire is to use animals and their real behaviors to get social skill points across, with some fictional conversation or circumstances mixed in to keep the interest of the child. For instance, in Friends in the Meadow – Birds, I make the point that all of Lovie Dove’s bird friends had things about themselves in common and things that were different. The point being that the differences make the group of birds more interesting and that everyone accepts each other as they are. I used hummingbirds to show selfishness. They are possessive, guard the feeder as if they owned it, and chase others away when they try to come near. But when so many hummingbirds were in need of a drink, the dominant hummer backed down and allowed the others to share his feeder. The social skills of decision making, problem solving, and sharing with others were present and of course can be discussed in more detail between the child and the parent as they read the book together. Such discussions can also take place using the book in a group setting at school, scouts, or wherever.
RT: What do you envision for the other books in the series? Will they continue with the stories of the birds or will you introduce other animals?
Peggy: Right now, I am going to use the Wilson’s small farm and meadow as my setting. There are lots of animal stories. For example, the next book tackles the constant battle between the squirrels, Mrs. Wilson, and the birds. As most of us have seen, squirrels create havoc at the feeders by robbing the birds of their food. They make a mess for the Wilsons in the process. Somehow, they need to work out their differences. Again, the use of non-fiction regarding circumstances and behaviors, but some fiction mixed in to make the story interesting for the child. I am purposely building in social skills lessons and plan to have some type of related activity to reinforce what they learned from the story. Friends in the Meadow – Birds has a life list in the back of the book so children can record the first 20 birds they have learned to recognize. Once an adult verifies the list, a certificate, also in the book, is completed and presented to the child. These activities will hopefully build the child’s self-esteem along with the birding skills.
RT: Learning about birds (e.g., being able to identify species) is the foundation of this book. Could you tell us how you got hooked on birding?
Peggy: I have always loved nature and living in a rural area. Birds have always been a pleasure to watch from afar. I didn’t get hooked, though, until I had to retire early due to an illness. I went from 20+ years of a very busy, long and stressful workday to being alone all day with little I could do. I began looking for something I could do that was interesting, not stressful, would keep my mind active, and would not interfere with my recovery. The birds got my attention because of their singing. I began to spend a lot of time at my windows just watching and enjoying the view. Someone gave me a bird field manual and I began studying the birds I was seeing every day. My husband then added a pair of binoculars. Not long after I asked for a good camera for Christmas. I was hooked. The birds came to my rescue!
RT: If you could do it all again, what would you change (if anything) about the process or the story?
Peggy: I am already doing it. This time I am spending a lot more time on research before moving into the publishing phase. With the first book, I learned so much about publishing and marketing processes – some of it good and some of it overwhelming and scary. My fear is that I have barely scratched the surface and that there is still a lot out there I need to figure out. Even so, I have learned a lot and the next go round will be easier because of it.
As for the story, while I might tweak it here and there to make it more readable, I wouldn’t change the plot that much. There is always room for improvement. I have written two books for local fund raisers, one a family history book and the other a history of our small community from the early 1800s onward. From those experiences, I learned that no matter how many times a book is proofed (even by different people), there will inevitably be some errors. I do the best I can and then move on.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Peggy:I really appreciate The Reading Tub® and its mission of helping children with literacy and providing them with books. This opens up the whole world to them and offers opportunities they would not have otherwise had living in a home with no books. I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts and to introduce Friends in the Meadow – Birds.
Ways you can connect with Peggy
Peggy Williams on Shelfari