The first book I wrote took about 9 years from conception to publication. It's called Aviary Wonders Inc., Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual. It began with a drawing of a catalog cover that I sketched while listening to coverage of Hurricane Katrina. I spent the next four or five years working on the project sporadically, writing it as a novella, a screenplay, a "found journal," and a fake scrapbook before returning to the original idea of a catalog.
(hand-colored etching of original idea)
I'm a bird-lover and an expert worrier. I can imagine worst case scenarios in full detail in record time. I had lived in New Orleans for 12 years and left the year before the storm devastated the city. In its aftermath, as I agonized over the destruction from afar, I heard an interview with a couple that had stayed in town for the whole thing. They described the eerie silence. In particular, they mentioned how strange it was not to hear the birds outside the window in the morning.
Because I had escaped the loss that affected so many in New Orleans, I didn't feel it was my place to address the human impact. It was too huge, I didn't know how, and I didn't feel it would be appropriate for someone who had escaped such a thing to address it.
There was once a rookery for snowy and white egrets and heron in Audobon Park in New Orleans and I spent many evenings walking around the park, listening to hundreds of birds making a racket. The thought of the city without them was unbearable. I had spent a few months in Brazil hiking and bird-watching and was aware of the habitat loss and subsequent species decline there. And I am well aware of the reckless things we humans are doing to damage bio-diversity. The idea for the bird catalog was born from the notion that when there is a profit to be made, we hesitate to change harmful behavior. And we are working under the assumption that scientists will find some way to clean up our mess. So why couldn't someone make birds to replace the ones that are gone or disappearing?
I studied painting at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, founded by the extraordinary painter and teacher, Auseklis Ozols. It is a small but impressive school that emphasizes drawing and painting from life (and is an atelier, not a degree program). I formed close friendships with him and a handful of my classmates and we spent a lot of time painting and socializing together. This group of passionate artists served as the inspiration for the imaginary company of Aviary Wonders. I imagined that the group lived in a humongous Victorian house tucked away in the woods of upstate New York (where my mother's side of the family is from), making birds in secret and releasing them discreetly.
The founder of the company is named Alfred Wallis, an allusion to Alfred Wallace, the British naturalist and explorer, who (among other things) collected birds in Brazil. I changed the spelling so that he wouldn't be confused for the original Wallace or a descendant.
As I said, the book went through many changes. I was earning a bachelor's degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art while working on it. Since I was majoring in printmaking, I had planned to create the whole book as a series of lithographs. I brought the prints and sketches and piles of notes to an illustration class. My teacher loved the idea and told me that when I settled on a format to let him know, and then he introduced me to the perfect editor, who loved the project and helped me make it stronger and more coherent.
(sketch from the book proposal submitted to the editor/agent and page of the published book)
This book was my introduction to illustrating a "children's book," in quotes because I didn't originally intend for the book to be for children, but for bird and nature lovers and for artists. However, there are very few illustrated books for adults- not including graphic novels and the occasional exception written by established writers/illustrators. I learned a ton from the process, especially about the importance of finding the right editor (and agent).
It can be challenging for some artists to accept input, but as an illustrator, you'll have to get used to this or you won't be able to work in the field. Fortunately, my editor, Marcia Leonard, understood the dark humor and the concept from the beginning, and we discussed my vision at the beginning of the process so that she could guide me in the right direction. In order to get this published, it was important to make it more kid-friendly, which meant making a couple of minor changes. For example, I needed to change the bird that looked dead in the instruction pages to look like he was sleeping, which I did by giving him a pillow made of a sponge and changing his body language. I call the bird a "him" because these don't reproduce.
She also suggested that I include a few details about birds that have gone extinct so that the purpose of the catalog would be clear. I used as few of these details as I felt possible to get the point across but not be heavy-handed.
At one point, she suggested that I use all realistic bird parts, but I felt that would take away the fantasy element and repeat the hundreds of bird books that are already out there. Also, I had named the crests and collars after artists, writers, and musicians that I admired, but she pointed out that these names should reflect Alfred's tastes, not mine. At this point, I realized how important it is to have a clear understanding of your art and intention and to listen to input with an open mind. She helped me make the book stronger, but I needed to truly understand my vision of the project so that I wouldn't be steered in the wrong direction.
Because I knew even less about using a computer than I do now, I created the lettering by hand. I assumed it would be replaced by the graphic designer but the publisher felt it added an important element to the book. I agree, though I think it was the most time-consuming part.
I did a ton of research and spent lots of time drawing birds from the collection of the incredible and highly recommended Wagner Free Institute in Philadelphia. All of the bird parts in the book are in the shape of actual ones, even the wattle and comb and crests. Nature is full of surprises! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an excellent online resource for bird-lovers and beginners and has an impression collection of recordings to help you identify bird calls.
Ultimately, there was only one page that got cut and that I wish had remained. I don't remember why we left it out. It was this: a pledge not to keep your Aviary Wonders bird in a cage. What more cruelty can a person inflict on a "pet," than to imprison it? Not to mention, the exotic pet trade is a great contributor to species decline.