Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya by Jane Kelley

Image from
Feiwel and Friends, 2013

At first, Zeno doesn’t care at all about the sick girl in the bed. After all, Zeno is a “booful briyant” African grey parrot and he has one thing on his mind: banana nut muffins. So when he sees one sitting on the girl’s window sill, he knows it’s meant for him. This chance meeting is the beginning of a long, hopeful, and confusing journey to friendship. Zeno’s owner, a doctor of philosophy, has recently died and now the parrot is trying to figure out how this confusing place called Brooklyn works. More importantly, what kind of trees do banana nut muffins grow on? While Zeno is completely free for the first time in his life, the girl Alya feels like a prisoner in her own house. Alya has leukemia and her body is still struggling to deal with the chemo treatments. Day after day she lies in her bed, exhausted and losing hope. Through many desperate adventures – good and bad, happy and sad – Zeno and Alya find that life is better with a true friend and home. And some banana nut muffins, of course.

This gentle and thoughtful story tackles larger ideas than your average animal story. The importance of hope and how hope can be a gift from one person (or bird) to another, as well as the meanings of friendship and home are explored. Zeno is named after the Greek philosopher of the same name, which allows Kelley to incorporate bits of his wisdom in a graceful manner. Zeno and Alya are unique individuals and it is wonderful to see them develop in this character-driven story. Both characters begin thinking mostly of themselves, but by the end of the book their awareness and caring has expanded to include others. Kelley examines many different kinds of friendship, as Zeno meets new birds and Alya struggles to find common words with her old friends. Although this is a quiet story, short chapters keep the pacing of the story quick.  Written in third person, the chapters alternate between Zeno and Alya’s stories in a chronological fashion. Although cancer and death are a part of a the story, the story never becomes depressing as Kelley balances humor and seriousness.

*Do some bird watching and discuss the different ways birds communicate with one other (sounds, body language, etc.). You can do this just about anywhere (you’ll be surprised how many birds are around if you take the time to listen and look).

*What does home mean to you? Have kids write a paragraph, list, or poem about what home means to them. How it is different or the same as Zeno’s idea of home?

*Research the natural habitat of African grey parrots. How is it different or the same as Brooklyn? What would Zeno have eaten in his natural habitat?

*More books by Kelley:

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

Age 8+ / Grade 3+


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