Winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature

Publishers Weekly, Spring 2014 Flying Starts: Kate Samworth, Nathalie op de Beeck, June 27 2014

Colin Dwyer, Washington City Paper, May 21, 2014

“…It would be easy for a book like this to be brought low by the weight of its message, by a preachy tone or a cynical eye. But Samworth manages to make the winged inventory soar by the force of her playful imagination. The paintings are exquisitely rendered, at once fanciful and carefully detailed. You won’t see any birds like these in the wild, cobbled as they are from so many distinctive pieces. Still, Samworth’s talents with the paintbrush—and her wry sense of humor—keep the animals semibelievable yet undeniably original…

…It all amounts to a combination that’s not easy to pin down. Sardonic, beautiful, laced with a morbid streak and a sense of humor, Aviary Wonders is a children’s book that gives kids an awful lot of credit, or just aims for their parents instead. In that respect, Samworth’s book shares much in common with the works of Roald Dahl—or, if we dispense with the kids’ theme altogether, Kurt Vonnegut…” 

Sarah Harrison Smith, New York Times, March 19, 2014

“…Kate Samworth’s “Aviary Wonders Inc.,” ostensibly a “spring catalog and instruction manual” for build-it-yourself bird parts, is perfect for older children with an appreciation for irony. An understanding of the environmental threats to species diversity would help, too, for there’s pathos to Samworth’s premise, thankfully offset by her brilliantly detailed and arresting illustrations.

The catalog conceit begins on the copyright page with a letter from one Alfred Wallis, who (in a style reminiscent of the J. Peterman catalog) introduces himself as the founder of Aviary Wonders Inc. “I …discovered a passion for bird watching while working for my family’s logging company, first in the Northeast and then in Brazil. I noticed that as the birds’ habitat disappeared, their numbers and species declined. As soon as I inherited the company, I shut down operations and devoted myself full time to building birds.” With evident regret, he concludes: “I know we can’t replace the birds that have been lost. But we can provide you with the opportunity to create an exquisite alternative: your very own bird, a work of art you’ll treasure for a lifetime.”

The catalog’s fictional inventory of feathers, wings, legs, bodies and bills available for readers to purchase combines actual bird facts (the laughing owl became extinct “around 1914, a few decades after settlers arrived in New Zealand with their cats”) with fantastical designs for anatomical parts. Shoppers can chose from a variety of beaks, shown carved and painted with patterns based on “ancient mosaics, illuminated manuscripts, art deco, abstract expressionism.” Extravagant embellishments include “display tails” called Geisha and Lyrebird, which, though beautiful, are “not recommended for flight.”

Flight is more of a problem for these man-made birds than it is for the real ones they replace. Once buyers attach the parts they’ve purchased to the basic (quite sad-looking) bird body, they must teach their birds to land and fly. Samworth warns: “The first several flights may be short and clumsy. Do not be critical!” And then there’s singing, which must also be taught with a degree of foresight: Birds that learn to sing “Old MacDonald” may prove very boring companions.

Not very subtly concealed beneath this extended flight of fancy is Samworth’s thesis: Humans who love birds would be better off protecting them now rather than trying to recreate them once they’re gone. Some children may love the pictures and relish the silliness of the project without feeling the pangs of anticipatory nostalgia too deeply; others may find “Aviary Wonders Inc.” an uncomfortably guilty pleasure.”

Kristi Elle Jemtegaard , Washington Post, March 11, 2014

“The chirpy introduction to this faux catalogue of the future zeroes in on the uneasy territory where possibility, probability and reality intersect. “Birds today face many dangers,” Kate Samworth writes. “Some species are disappearing. Others are already gone. Not to worry! Aviary Wonders Inc. has the solution.”

What follows is a gorgeous, page-by-page, bird-part-by-bird-part selection of possible purchases: 100 percent Indian silk feathers (“don’t fray with age”), fanciful beaks (“carved, engraved, and painted by hand in Turkey”), not to mention mechanical legs and feet (“engineered by Swiss clock-makers” and “covered in hand-tooled Italian leather”). Buyers are encouraged to assemble their own exotic pets using the nifty order form at the back. (“All parts are made to order. Allow 12-16 weeks for delivery.”) Touting the company motto (“Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031”), this neatly conceived package manages to be informative and eye-popping. Even casual browsers will note the differences in body types, beak shapes and flight patterns.

In terms of sheer amusement, “Aviary Wonders Inc.” practically begs to become an interactive look-what-I-made ebook, if it weren’t for the fact that the somber questions it raises would then be lost. More than 50 years after “Silent Spring,” adults will detect the death knell of biodiversity; children, gleefully drawn into the book’s creative possibilities, may need a gentle prompt to understand the full impact of a book whose exquisitely beautiful surface shimmers above an achingly sad subtext.

–Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

“…Along the way, you might learn a bit about various birds of the world—a copyright page note indicates that many of the birds were real, or once were—but let me be clear: Samworth doesn’t seem at all to be teaching anyone a lesson here, despite the School Library Journal review that notes: “Although the book’s offbeat humor may puzzle many readers, the ecological subtext will resonate with some environmentally concerned children and adults who hope such a catalog will not become a necessary reality.” I mean, yes, there’s that environmental subtext—for one, she notes threats to extinction for many of these birds—but the offbeat humor they point out? That’s the name of the game here. (Think: Assembly instructions which guide those who have purchased bird legs in the ways of strapping those legs onto the bird’s body with cummerbunds and belts.) And that’s good. Anything really heavy-handed would have been a bit much. “

Publisher’s Weekly

“Unsettling and unforgettable, this faux-catalog purports to replace extinct bird species with build-a-bird automatons. Sub-subtitled “Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031,” the compendium opens with earnest words from its founder, who “discovered a passion for bird watching while working for my family’s logging company”: “We can’t replace the birds that have been lost. But we can provide you with the opportunity to create an exquisite alternative.” Samworth, making her debut, marries conventional sales language to florid multimedia illustrations of disembodied bird parts “handcrafted and made to order by world-class artisans.” Bird bodies (e.g., moa, swan, condor), sans beaks, wings, or feet, are presented as basic options. Shoppers choose from “hardwood or porcelain” strap-on beaks, screw-on legs, durable silk wings, and optional “embellishments” like the gaudy “Rockette” crest or the ocean-blue “Rachel Carson” wattles “made from recycled rubber.” A closing section on assembly, with instructions for teaching the robotic birds to fly and sing, only deepens the uncanny sense of loss. This cautionary guidebook mimes ads that fetishize wildlife; Samworth’s bracing irony will stimulate discussion among conservationists.”

Kirkus Reviews

“A catalog of bird parts and instructions for making your own in a sadly possible future in which living birds have nearly disappeared.

Feathers, beaks, legs and feet, bodies, tails and even flight styles can be ordered from this enterprising company, whose motto is “Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031.” Written and illustrated (in oil, ink, graphite and colored pencil) in the style of traditional mail-order inventories, this weaves in a surprising amount of genuine bird information while displaying the variety of interchangeable parts. Body and wing shapes fit different purposes. Legs and feet are adjusted for habitat, and beaks must match potential food. There are decorative streamers, collars and crests. The illustrations reflect actual birds; in spite of decorative coloration, beaks and wings are recognizable as identified. If a model is based on a bird now critically endangered or extinct (such as the slender-billed curlew, great auk and passenger pigeon), the label points it out. The author also enumerates actual bird threats: insecticides, habitat loss, the exotic pet trade and cats. Finally, careful instructions for assembly and training are included. Don’t teach your bird a song you don’t want to hear over and over!

For children and their bird-watching parents, who will appreciate the clever premise and the message of admiration.”

“This is an original, somewhat disturbing, and wholeheartedly bizarre (but in a good way!) picture book for older children. . . An impressive picture book debut.”
Booklist, starred review

“This futuristic mail-order catalog offers hand-crafted parts for ambitious do-it-yourselfers who want to assemble a customized bird. . . The ecological subtext will resonate with some environmentally concerned children and adults who hope such a catalog will not become a necessary reality.”
School Library Journal