Audubon Park in New Orleans was a favorite haunt of painter Kate Samworth, the creator of Aviary Wonders Inc. (Clarion, Mar.). Between making art and teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts there, Samworth went to Audubon Park “pretty much every day,” she says. “I lived a couple of blocks away, so I would bike around the park and listen to the birds and frogs.” In particular, she marveled at snowy egrets nesting at the rookery.
Samworth’s interest in birds dated to a three-month camping trip in 1999, in Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina National Park, where she observed the disparity between ripe rainforest habitats and devastated clear-cuts. “That was the first time I made a true connection to environmental issues,” she recalls. “Before that, [ecological concerns] always seemed abstract. But through bird-watching I learned how the use of insecticides affects the ecosystem and made a personal connection to protecting natural habitats.”
Samworth left New Orleans and moved to Philadelphia in 2004, to be closer to her extended family. A native of Washington, D.C., a onetime Corcoran School student, and a former bass player in the late-1980s punk band Fire Party, Samworth never had finished her B.A. “I was interested in all those liberal arts classes I had missed out on by dropping out of college,” she says with a laugh, and she decided to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She worked toward a B.F.A. with a focus on printmaking: “I did lithography, etching, woodcut, a little bit of silk screen, a little bit of letterpress, but my main interest was mezzotint.”
While listening to news coverage after Hurricane Katrina and worrying about her former community, she recalls hearing a “couple describing the city without any birds. The thought of those birds being gone just seemed like a huge loss, although they did eventually return.” As Samworth contemplated the rookery, and thought back to Brazil’s unhealthy forestlands, the idea for Aviary Wonders Inc. took shape. She began crafting a catalogue from a bleak future in which bird species are extinct that offers shoppers the opportunity to build their very own bird, teach it to sing, and teach it to fly.
Several years passed before she brought the project to Caldecott Medalist David Wiesner, who was teaching a course at PAFA in sequential drawing. The concept “was going a little too sci-fi and it wasn’t working,” says Samworth. “[Wiesner] loved the idea but he said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you. Just call me when it feels complete.’ I had tons of notes and pictures and all these different ideas. I finally decided to go back in the original direction of the catalogue. So I met with him and he said, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ and he sent me to Marcia Leonard. That was very fortunate.”
Leonard, a freelance editor at Clarion Books, alerted agents Nancy Gallt and Marietta Zacker to Samworth’s project, and they in turn negotiated the sale with the publisher. Together, Samworth and Leonard tinkered with the final draft. “For example, when I showed her the assembly instructions, she thought the bird looked dead, and she said it was important to make the bird look like it was sleeping,” says Samworth, whose revised illustration depicts a bird-automaton on a soft pillow, calmly awaiting its beak and wings. “And the legs!” Samworth adds. “You used to just jam the legs into the hip sockets—it had a realistic hipbone shape with a ball at the end—and [Leonard] said, ‘That’s kind of gruesome—maybe you could find a gentler way to attach the legs.’ Now you just twist them in,” like screws.
The labels and language for the optional bird parts changed too. “I realized the names I had given the parts showed my taste more than the [fictional company] founder’s,” says Samworth. “It was a learning process to figure out how to make the tone consistent.” A decorative feather crest, which Samworth named the Vivienne Westwood in tongue-in-cheek homage to the punk designer, became the Centurion instead.
As these anecdotes suggest, Samworth maintains a sense of humor despite the grim subtext, and, in fact, the dark comedy has contributed to Aviary Wonders’ positive reception. “I’ve been thrilled with the response I’ve been getting in the media, and I’ve had a great time visiting schools,” she says, reflecting on a recent book tour with fellow authors Kwame Alexander and Marcia Wells. “Kwame read a book in verse, and watching him get the kids excited about poetry made me realize how much fun I could have with my presentation on Aviary Wonders. So I started to pretend I was just a representative of the company that was there to sell them the birds. I like to watch the kids figuring out if it’s real or not.”
She now feels gratified to see children “wondering how they would make their bird and how it would arrive in the mail,” she says. “One kid said his bird lived in the center of the earth, and the other kid said his bird made hummus with its feet. It’s been fun to see their humor and imagination.”