Friday, November 8, 2013

Why did I write about an African grey parrot?

Last week I participated in an event called "The Inside Story." It was sponsored by the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Bank Street Bookstore. 
It's one of the best children's bookstores in New York City.

Eleven middle-grade authors were each given the chance to share a story about their story.  I decided to answer a question that many have wondered about. 

Why did I write a book about an African grey parrot?

The answer is simple. I had to. I was obsessed.

I’m fascinated by how brains work. Several years ago, I read about Dr. Pepperberg’s intelligence studies with her African grey parrot, Alex.

Before she did her research, many people believed that parrots were only good at, well, parroting. Dr. Pepperberg proved that Alex knew what he was saying. He could correctly identify shapes, colors, and quantities. He wasn’t just good at recognition, he also invented words. He called an apple a “banerry” – a banana cherry.

Dr. Pepperberg used Alex’s emotions to keep him on task. If he got bored, she praised her assistant for learning so quickly. Alex always got back to work––he had to be the smartest one in the room.

After reading about Alex, I really wanted my own parrot. I knew that our cat Blackberry would never allow that. Luckily I had another option. If I couldn’t own an African grey, I could write about one.

Obsessions are useful. Writing a novel is a long process. Being passionate about something––anything––can help you keep going. I had a lot of fun imagining what a parrot would do after he lost his owner and flew out into the great wild world of Brooklyn. The first thing he wants is food, of course. That’s why he flies to Alya’s bedroom window. She’s a girl who’s having treatments for leukemia. She’s gotten so weak that she’s lost her sense of self.

When I envisioned the novel, I didn’t expect that the parrot and the girl would have much in common. But I learned that when parrots are bored, they pluck their own feathers. Zeno imprisoned in the pet store loses his identity in much the same way that Alya has. What a triumph for them both at the end when his feathers and her hair grow back.

My obsession with parrots enabled me to explore many of the ideas I wanted to write about. There was another benefit. When I spoke for Zeno and other parrots – I could definitively answer the age-old question. Polly does NOT want a cracker.