Volume 7, Number 3, 1998

Finding Her Natural Calling

More than 30 years ago, Nancy Carol Willis, AS '74, spent hours exploring the Bringhurst Woods creekbed near her Wilmington, Del., home, collecting a treasure trove of quartz and mica, cicada shells and praying mantis cocoons.

Next came visits to a neighborhood artist who presented her with such classic books on nature as Walden by Henry David Thoreau and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, as well as an oriental art box from which she learned to sketch outdoor locations using brushes and sticks with ink.

Decades passed before Willis, who holds a degree in graphic design, decided to wed the elements of nature and art into her children's picture book, The Robins In Your Backyard.

"One March day, my dog and I startled a brooding robin from her nest in a boxwood bush," she says. "I began keeping a journal of bird activity around my home. I wanted to see if they did the same things year after year."

Equipped with a notebook, binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens, Willis chronicled a four-year study of robin behavior. Her 32-page book describes the activities that occur during a breeding season, including how robins establish a nesting territory, court a mate, build a nest and raise and protect their young.

Intended for children ages
4-7, the book-now in its third printing-has received the Parents Council Seal. The vividly colored pencil and crayon illustrations, along with fascinating facts, provide an excellent teaching tool for both parents and teachers.

"Robins build their nests right under people's noses," says Willis. "They commingle with people very well, and they're the first bird you see in the spring."

The Middletown, Del., resident previously worked for New Castle County (Del.) Parks and Recreation and later for the DuPont Co., where she supervised a graphic design group. In 1986, she dedicated her professional life to two of her greatest loves-art and nature.

"Besides the drastic pay cut, it hasn't been too bad," Willis says. "I'm able to chart my own course and that's a big advantage. I asked myself this question, 'If I play it safe, will I look back and regret the decision?' The answer was yes!"

Living in Middletown, Willis and her husband are surrounded by the Augustine Wildlife Area. She utilizes this environment to adapt elements of form, space, light and composition to the complexity of nature's patterns and shapes in her backyard.

The Robins in Your Backyard was first published in 1996 by Cucumber Island Storytellers of Montchanin, Del. "I acquired the rights to The Robins just as the book was selling out its second printing," says Willis. She formed her own publishing company, called Birdsong Books, and her book went into its third printing.

"Everything I've done in life has prepared me for this move," Willis says. In addition to her graphic design degree from UD, she earned an MBA from Wilmington College in 1987. While working with Cucumber Island Storytellers, she was sent to Korea to proof the company's line of children's books. "I had the technical knowledge and wanted the experience of working with an offshore company," she says.

Through tenacious marketing efforts, Willis was able to get The Robins in Your Backyard reviewed by Booklist, a publication of the American Library Association, which helped to place the book in libraries, schools and trade markets. She has appeared at more than 40 grade schools in the region and has found bookstores receptive to her author signings.

"My goal was to get children excited about wildlife that they see every day and to give parents and teachers helpful and useful information," says Willis, who also illustrates and writes "KIDS PAGE" for Outdoor Delaware magazine.

Her latest book project is based on her experience of rescuing two orphan raccoon babies from a tree on her property, documenting their rehabilitation and releasing them back to the tree where they were born. She also is working on a book that explains how to keep a nature diary.

"If these next two books do well," Willis says, "Birdsong Books will be in a position to consider publishing works by other authors and illustrators." Willis describes the fledgling company's market niche as juvenile nonfiction, nature and animals.

As a volunteer at Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research in Newark, Del., Willis rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds and provides a monitored release site for other raccoons. Meanwhile, she also shows her paintings in nationally juried exhibitions, and, as a member of the Council of Delaware Artists, she helped organize that organization's 40th anniversary celebration.

"Sometimes in the creative arts field, it's just luck and the lottery system. It's not a profession for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. But, I've always believed if you have the talent, stick with it. It's a very gratifying life," she says.

-Terry Conway