A Q&A with Cory Leonardo, author of Call Me Alastair

It’s not often you read a novel told from the point of view of a bird. But that’s exactly what Cory Leonardo decided to do with her debut children’s novel, Call Me Alastair, which is part-narrated by an African grey parrot. With a bird’s-eye view of love, and a message about what it means to break free from our cages, the book interestingly mixes the genres of poetry and prose to tell Alastair’s story. The FCBG asked Cory Leonardo some questions about the book.

  • Describe Call Me Alastair in three words.

Hi-jinks. Heartache. Hope.

  • What inspired you to write Call Me Alastair?

Alastair’s story came in a flash one morning as I was willing myself to get out of bed. I had his voice in my head. I knew he was a parrot, and I knew instantly that he ate poetry—The Norton Anthology of Poetry, to be exact. His sister Aggie, Fritz, Bertie—they came tumbling in too, all before my feet hit the floor. Looking back, the inspiration for the book was just part of my own story, I suppose. A curmudgeonly voice in the head. Eating up that same book of poetry in college. Having a couple of spritely, opinionated grandmothers who had a few stories of their own. There were also the years spent at the dinner table, listening as my veterinarian mother regaled us with the day’s animal activities. In a way, I spent the last three years writing the book and the prior thirty-six collecting the inspiration for it.

  • Part of the book is told through the perspective of Alastair. What is it like writing from the perspective of a parrot?

Pure pleasure. The wonderful thing about writing from the perspective of animals is that everything is heightened. Funny things are funnier; the sweet is ever more so when staring into the big, blinking eyes of some furry fluffball; villains have literal teeth and claws. But a surly, suspicious parrot who doesn’t quite believe he isn’t human and has a compulsive feather-picking habit he’s terribly embarrassed about? Heaven.

  • Throughout the book, Alastair eats books and rewrites poetry. Why interlace poetry into this novel?

There’s something endearing about a cantankerous bird finding beauty in art, I think. And if not endearing, then certainly unlikely for a bird like him. Alastair has strong opinions about most things, the flavour of math worksheets and syrupy greeting cards included. But his first taste of poetry opens his eyes to something wonderful he didn’t know existed. Poetry gives him a language to speak from the deep places in his heart and an understanding about what’s really there without the protective wall he’s put up. You might also say it also opens his heart to finding beauty in other places he never expected to find it in.

The selfish answer however, is that reworking famous poems from Alastair’s perspective was a delicious puzzle, and the challenge was intoxicating. I’ll forever mourn all the poems that didn’t make it into the book!

  • What’s your favourite poem, and the most challenging poem to adapt for the book?

Alastair’s interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky was definitely the most fun to write, and I have a special place in my heart for it. But oh my, Alastair has a few originals that I love dearly! I think the most challenging was a rendition of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Each of the short stanzas had to tell its own story and pack just the right punch.

  • What was your favourite book to read as a child?

May I narrow it down to three? Jane Yolen’s tales of porcine butler, Piggins were a great favourite, as was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And finally, E.B. White’s perfect Charlotte’s Web. (Seems I’ve had a thing for talking animals the whole time.)

Call Me Alastair is published by Scholastic on February 7th and is available to purchase from all good bookstores at £6.99

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