“The Simple Art of Flying” by Cory Leonardo isn’t a simple book at all. It’s filled with an erudite African grey parrot, a feisty octogenarian, an adolescent wanna-be medical doctor, and a pet store owner who shouldn’t be allowed to own even a goldfish. This middle grade tale is filled with quirky characters — both human and not — and a sweet message of acceptance and family. And family can certainly include our non-human family members.
When African greys Alastair and Aggie, his sister, are born in the back of Pete’s Pet Store, they are lucky to live through the experience. Pete views all the animals as merchandise, not as living, breathing creatures capable of affection and love. But Fritz, young and eager to work with animals (and make a buck), cares for the birds, and even more importantly, he educates Alastair. Aggie is not the erudite type, but what she lacks in brains, she more than makes up in heart and sweetness.
Alastair realizes that they are destined to be sold separately, never to see each other again. He is determined to escape, but his plans prove fruitless. When Fritz buys Aggie, Alastair, who bites every hand that tries to feed him, is more difficult to place. But Bertie, a lonely widow living with a grumpy cat named Tiger and a 20-year-old goldfish named Humpty, decides she needs a friend. She also sees that Alastair does not look happy. He has started to pick at his feathers, and she thinks that together, they will both be happier.
Alastair has one extremely unusual trait for a bird. When he eats paper, he feels — or tastes — what he is eating. A story about a lemon will taste like citrus. But it’s poetry that he really loves to eat because by eating the poems, he digests them. Like the book “Love that Dog,” Leonardo takes some classic poetry and rewrites it as Alastair might have: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “This is Just to Say” (William Carlos Williams), and “Jabberwocky.” One touch of humor is when Humpty, the goldfish who has been silent, decides to explain “Jabberplopky!” in detail. It’s brillig, er, brilliant.
The story unfolds through a series of creative devices: Bertie’s letters to her late husband telling about her life, Fritz’ medical journal detailing his adventures and medical status, the narration by Alastair in first person, and the poems. It all works wonderfully well together.
What kids will find fascinating is that the main character is really the bird, Alastair. While Fritz and Bertie both experience change over the course of the book, it’s really Alastair who comes to an understanding of a life lesson about happiness and family and acceptance. The ending is beautiful, touching, and completely satisfying.
This is a fabulous book to use as a read aloud for fifth grade through middle school, and it would also be a great book to use for a discussion group. It’s the kind of book that really needs to be talked about to be fully appreciated, especially by children, because while they will enjoy the story, they won’t appreciate the depth and the cleverness of the writing until they participate in an informative discussion of this marvelous piece of work.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by the publisher, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, for review purposes.