Review: Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo
Aggie says Pete’s got a poster behind the register: miles of turquoise sea, palm trees and the bluest sky you’ve ever seen. Porky says the place in the picture’s Key West. Florida.
Probably a few flaps of the wings, tops.
It should all be quite simple, really. Birds have made an art of flying in its many forms, after all. Ever heard of the chicken who ‘flew the coop’?
Escape comes as natural as a pair of wings.
(Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo. P70.)
Alastair and Aggie are grey parrots born in a pet store. They dream of escaping and making a life together, but Aggie is bought by a boy called Fritz, while Alastair is adopted by a lonely widow called Bertie.
Although Bertie bakes cherry pies and keeps Alastair supplied with poetry books to rip up, Alastair remembers his promise to Aggie and vows to escape. Will he and Aggie find the palm fronds they dream of on the other side of the window?
A gentle story with a profound message about breaking free and staying put.
A story about a parrot seeking better places. This is a gentle story drew me in and worked its magic until I couldn’t possibly put it down until I found out what happened to the characters.
It is narrated in three voices. There’s Alastair, a grey parrot who tells his story through prose and poetry, imitating classic poems as he experiments with form. Fritz is a twelve-year-old boy who is set on being a doctor above anything else. He’s short on friends but big on compassion. Then there is Bertie. Bertie’s voice comes through the letters she writes to her late husband. Bertie is grieving but there is life in her yet. She’s forever trying to organise socials to entertain the elderly population. All three voices were so distinctive that by the end I felt as if I had lived a few months in the characters’ lives. This is a real book for empathy because it allows us to try on the experiences of a young boy, an elderly widow and an animal born in captivity.
Alastair’s poetry ranged from intentionally hilarious to downright beautiful. I loved his experimentations with form, and the conversation he holds about the Jabberwocky is one of the most insightful explanations I have heard about the poem’s use of language. Having the poems woven into the story reminds us that poems aren’t written in isolation. They too are about life experiences and observations of the world.
The ending left me with tears in my eyes. The kind of tears which are brought on when a character wins you over. When what they have taught you about the world is profound despite its apparent simplicity. When their story is relatable and they’ve taken the right step for themselves. We need more middle-grade like this. Despite its day-to-day settings and lack of major adventure, the story moves the reader and offers them a new worldview.
If you’re looking for a gentle and beautifully-written story, this one is for you. Give it time to build on you and the characters will work their way into your hearts. Tremendous.
Thanks to Scholastic UK for my gifted copy of Call Me Alastair. Opinions my own.