Kate Samworth’s unconventional picture book debut, a faux catalog titled Aviary Wonders Inc., indirectly tells a troubling story of bird extinction circa 2032. According to the Aviary Wonders company founder, who inherited a logging business, “We can’t replace the birds that have been lost” due to habitat destruction. Instead, the founder invites readers to browse his exquisite catalog, order from a charming selection of bodies and wings, and assemble a realistic bird automaton that can learn to fly and sing. In an interview with PW from her home in Charlottesville, Va., Samworth explained how she combines dark humor and beautiful imagery to warn against the tragic consequences of environmental destruction.
How did this unusual project get off the ground?
I was studying at PAFA [Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia], and I got to take an illustration class with David Wiesner. I’d been working on the book for a number of years. He liked it, and he introduced me to [Clarion Books editor] Marcia Leonard, who in turn introduced me to the agents [Nancy Gallt and Marietta Zacker].
During the illustration course, did Wiesner view this as a children’s book?
He did see it as a picture book. I don’t know that he initially saw it as a kids’ picture book. I think he just liked how weird it was, and he appreciated the humor.
How did you come to design it as a book to be shared with children?
To be honest, my intention was just to write it for bird lovers. I was really happy when Marcia Leonard wanted to turn it into a children’s book. It’s my hope that if children are not already spending time outdoors, this will get them out looking for birds, spending time in their backyards, and taking an interest in protecting natural habitats.
How did the project evolve into a futuristic 2032 catalog?
I made the catalog cover in 2005. I was listening to coverage of Hurricane Katrina, because I had lived in New Orleans for a long time and had moved away the year before. I heard a couple talking about how quiet it was in the city because the birds hadn’t returned yet, and so I created a catalog cover and left it at that.
I tried to think about how this guy [Aviary Wonders’ founder] would go about making birds, and I wrote it in several formats: as a short story, as a series of journal entries, and as a series of advertisements found years after he passed away. I showed it to David in all those various forms, and he said, “I love your concept but it doesn’t feel complete yet. Come back to me when it feels complete.” I thought, why not return to the original catalog idea, because I wanted the viewer to participate in the project.
I was a printmaker at the time, and doing a lot of sculpture, so I was imagining how much fun it would be to make all these different birds. The catalog seemed like the best way to get the concept across, and to play up the artifice and the absurdity of it.
What is your approach to humor, given your serious ecological subtext?
My work is influenced by abiding concerns for the environment and for what we’re doing to our natural world. I think that humor plays an important role in art and in writing. These issues are hard to talk about, and people get tired of thinking and hearing about them. Humor can open up the conversation.
My favorite writers – Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain and Roald Dahl – had a huge influence on me, as a teenager especially. Their unapologetic darkness inspired me to be an artist. Edward Gorey did too.
Your eccentric imagination and visual style recall Shaun Tan as well.
Oh, I love him. I think maybe he approaches his art from the angle of the fine arts world versus the illustration world. I only had one class in illustration, and I think he and I are coming from a slightly different world than a lot of children’s book illustrators [who are trained in graphic design and illustration].
Did any other picture books or creators inform your process?
Chris Van Allsburg’s work is beautiful; of course, David Wiesner; of course, Peter Sís. [Aaron Becker’s] Journey is quite imaginative, and Peter Brown’s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is gorgeous. I like the humor of Oliver Jeffers. At the same time, I tried to keep a little bit of distance because I was afraid of being influenced. Because I’m so new at this, I felt I needed to keep my head down until my vision was complete.
My book was not necessarily created as a children’s book, either. Since I was just doing it for myself, I had planned to do all the pictures as lithographs. I never dreamt I would get it published! [laughs] So I wasn’t really thinking of a market when I created it. That takes the pressure off!
You worked in oil, ink, graphite, and colored pencils. Why did you choose these media for the art, and how did you collaborate with Clarion’s production team on book design?
I’m trained as an oil painter, so that to me feels like the most satisfying color medium to work in. We wanted the instructions part to look quite different, and so I chose graphite because I love the delicate effects you can get with a really sharp pencil.
Working with an art director – Clarion’s Kerry Martin – was new to me. I had spent months and months working on the hand lettering, and I presented it to Kerry as a complete catalog, with the little emblems and whatnot, because I had a clear idea of how I wanted the book to look. She moved things around a bit on a computer – for instance, the bodies were hard to fit on one page – and I realized I’d have to copy existing lettering to do the hand-lettering, because it’s another life’s work to make your own font. I now have a huge respect for people who design fonts because that’s an entirely different art form.
You frame Aviary Wonders Inc. with a letter from a timber magnate’s son, who addresses the audience in a salesperson’s voice. How did you arrive at your implied narrative and this promotional voice?
When I wrote the story, I wrote it as a man who was making the birds himself, and I based his passion for nature and art on one of my mentors, Auseklis Ozols. He’s taught so many of us how to paint, and I’m eternally grateful for all he taught us. So I imagined him in combination with some 19th-century natural history collector.
I wanted the character to be a sophisticated, cultured man who was interested not only in natural history but in ballet and music and opera. I had a very clear picture of who this person was, that he was a world traveler and appreciated fine crafts, and Marcia helped me to keep that in mind as I was writing.
Were there any details you chose not to include?
There was one extra page we couldn’t figure out how to fit in, and that was a pledge to never put a bird in a cage. If we are going to think about the environmental issues that birds face, the exotic pet trade is one we need to address. People love birds and want to keep them, but then they take away their bird-ness by not letting them fly. I wanted to balance elements of fiction and humor with the tragic component of taking birds out of the wild and threatening their natural populations.
The birds and bird parts pictured in the Aviary Wonders catalog “are real – or once were.” How did you expand upon your own knowledge of bird species and anatomy as you worked on this book?
I did a lot of research! Like the founder of the [fictional] company, I took an interest in birds when I was in Brazil, and I was surprised to discover how all of their parts – such as very specific beak shapes – were adapted to their environments. It all was fairly new to me when I began doing the research, and I found it all fascinating.
I loved discovering all the centuries of natural history illustration too. There was a time when we thought all these creatures were infinite and that we never could conquer any forest. Explorers just collected like mad. But look what we’ve done in 200 years.
Aviary Wonders Inc. invites readers to “embellish” birds’ natural beaks, feet, feathers, and so on. Are you concerned that readers might be so entertained by the construction process that they might miss, or dismiss, the environmental critique?
No – I was concerned with not becoming didactic. I’d rather have some people miss it than have too many people feel I was hitting them over the head with a hammer. So I tried to use restraint.
Do you have any concerns that this book could be too disturbing?
Personally, I don’t think so. I remember as a kid that I loved to be scared. I remember being terrified of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where they take the boat through the tunnel, and I’d watch it again and again. And, really, we need to act quickly to protect the environment. So it’s OK if they’re scared.
Do you anticipate creating more books for young readers? What work do you have under way?
I’m writing a story about natural history collector Charles Peale, a fictionalized account. Now that I’ve written for children and realized this is something I love to do, I’m keeping kids in mind. But I’m also writing for people who love painting and art history.
Meanwhile, how are you promoting Aviary Wonders Inc.?
At the end of April I’ll be doing a book tour to Miami, Atlanta, Raleigh, and Philadelphia. It’s been fun to see kids reacting to it, and I’ve heard a lot of giggling. One of the children was disappointed to find out he couldn’t really order the bird.
Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual by Kate Samworth. Clarion, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-547-97899-4