Call Me Alastair by Cory Leonardo

Call Me Alastair

A moving middle grade novel told in three distinct and original first person voices, including that of a highly-literate parrot who has a taste for poetry.

Alastair is an African grey parrot. He was born in the back of Pete’s Pet Store but he dreams of flying free. He’s determined to escape and promises his sister, Aggie, a new life – a nest high in a tree where they can watch the clouds, count the stars and never go hungry. Turning his promise into reality, however, proves more than a little challenging. A failed attempt to break out of the pet shop is followed by Aggie leaving for a new home with 12 year old Fritz. Then Alastair is adopted by a lonely widower, Albertina Plopky. To make matters worse, Alastair develops an anxious tendency to pluck his feathers while he’s plotting his next move so flying is out of the question. Despite all the set-backs, Alastair remains committed to keeping his promise to his sister. Only when he’s close to leading Aggie to freedom does he question whether it’s the right thing to do.

This is pitched as a novel with a bird’s eye view and it is immediately intriguing to start a story that’s written from a parrot’s perspective. The pitch is, however, slightly misleading as this is, in fact, a novel with three distinct first person voices – Alastair plus his and Aggie’s respective owners. Fortunately this is by no means a negative. If anything the three voices make the book stronger, especially as debut author, Cory Leonardo, adopts a different and very distinctive narrative approach for each character.

The story opens with a traditional first person narrative – albeit that of a parrot! Alastair describes the process of hatching in a two-page introduction that’s both gripping and beautifully written. (Although I couldn’t help reflecting that he appears to have been born with a grasp of language and vocabulary that’s better than the average human). In the chapters that follow, we quickly warm to Alastair and can’t help smiling at his observations of the life around him. As an avid reader, I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of the taste of various literary texts as he begins to chew his way through them. These literary tastes soon lead him to poetry and we’re treated to a number of Alastair’s own compositions.

While Alastair’s voice is immensely readable, I personally preferred the human characters – Fritz and Bertie (Aggie and Alastair’s respective new owners).

12 year old Fritz is a traditional middle-grade protagonist. He finds it hard to fit in and is struggling to come to terms with his parents’ separation and his Grandpa’s death. However, the inclusion of his point of view through the medical logbook that he keeps (he intends to be a doctor when he grows up) adds both interest and originality. I especially like the very last entry (sorry – you’ll have to read the book to find out why).

A more unusual protagonist – and by far my personal favourite – is the elderly Albertina Plopky (known as Bertie). We access Bertie’s viewpoint through a series of letters to her deceased husband and these spark the full range of emotions from laughter to tears. Indeed, the inclusion of two blank letters when we don’t know what has happened to Bertie are, perhaps, the most impactful pages I’ve ever (not) read in a novel. As a character Bertie is also responsible for pushing much of the plot forward and for underlining the book’s theme – about the importance of living life to the full and being thankful for what you have.

This book is so unique it’s hard to think of something similar to recommend. If you enjoyed the poetry, you might want to read the lyrically beautiful The Turnaway Girls by Hayley Chewins. Alternatively why not try Wonder by R J Palacio.

ISBN: 978-1407186719
Publication Date: February 2019
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 320
Author’s Website: Cory Leonardo

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