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The Simple Art of Flying

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Simple Art of Flying Book Poster Image
Odd, battered characters find one another in quirky tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Between the fact that Alastair absorbs all the content of the books he devours and Fritz's obsession with scientific detail, there's a lot of information packed into this story, from the habits of African grey parrots to great works of world literature. Also lots of Latin proverbs, and a TV cooking show host who exclaims "Perfetto!" a lot.

Positive Messages

Strong messages of how things may not turn out the way you want or the way you've planned -- but what happens might turn out to be pretty great also. Strong messages of friendship, family, loyalty, and sticking together. Along the way, as characters deal with their struggles, the story invites a lot of empathy as readers learn what's behind a lot of quirky behavior that at first glance just seems a little strange.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Some characters (notably Pete the pet shop owner) are pretty awful people, and others (like Fritz's forever absent father) are a big disappointment. But the characters we come to care about -- Alastair, Aggie, Fritz, and Birdie -- are all odd, frail, impaired, but remarkably determined souls who often get something wrong but manage to keep finding ways to be there for each other.

Violence

As story opens, Alastair and Aggie's nestmate is found dead emerging from his egg, and the sad little corpse is buried at the cemetery. Not once but twice, Alastair gets thrown against a wall by the human he's just bitten, and gets his wing broken. In addition, he falls prey to feather-picking and gradually pulls out every feather on his body due to stress. Aggie is always in poor health because the pet shop is a dismal place where the animals are often unfed or neglected, and sometimes die (or get devoured). Some characters are scarred and grieving over deaths of loved ones.

Sex
Language

From time to time, animals pee, poop, and sniff each other's butts.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that like its lead characters, The Simple Art of Flying, by Cory Leonardo, is stubbornly odd, stuffed with off-the-wall literary and cultural references -- and a strong statement that yeah, some pretty awful stuff happens in life, but friends and family help each other out, and sometimes things turn out better than you could have imagined, if you give them a chance. It's a tale told by Alastair, an increasingly battered (sometimes thanks to his fondness for biting), increasingly bald (thanks to his feather-picking habit) African grey parrot, who loves his sweet sister Aggie and wants to live in a tree with her, instead of in a dismal pet shop where they're about to be sold and never see each other again. It's also told by 12-year-old weird kid and budding doctor Fritz, who's struggling with the loss of his family-ditching father and the death of his beloved grandfather, and who loves and cares for all the animals but especially for Aggie. A third narrator is eccentric old lady Birdie, who writes letters to her late husband, Everett, and never hears from her son except when he's trying to get her to leave her longtime home and move to a retirement community. As their lives become intertwined, there are plenty of poignant moments, hilarious moments, desperate moments, surprising moments. There's also a lot of science (Fritz's notes) and literature (as Alastair's book-devouring causes him to start writing poetry), in addition to peeing, pooping, and butt-sniffing by pet shop residents.

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What's the story?

Alastair, a strong-minded young African grey parrot, is determined to perfect THE SIMPLE ART OF FLYING so that he and his sweet sister Aggie can escape the dismal pet shop for a life of freedom and happiness before they get sold and never see each other again. Unfortunately, there are problems, starting with Alastair's habit of biting people when stressed, which causes them to wave their hands wildly and fling him against a wall, so now one of his wings is permanently crippled. Also, Aggie seems to be in love with Fritz, the 12-year-old kid who works at the pet store and is saving every dime to take her home. Then there's Birdie, the strange old lady who talks to her dead husband, and who seems to be taking an alarming interest in Alastair. It's enough to make a bird pull out all his feathers, so Alastair does, but there's plenty of stress to go around as these four damaged but determined souls are thrown together and make some unexpected discoveries. Like poetry.

Is it any good?

There's a lot of heart and sweetness in Cory Leonardo's quirkily soulful tale of African grey parrots, smart lonely people, and their intertwined lives. Also a lot of literature (as young parrot Alastair gets inspired by the poetry books he eats) and scientific detail as 12-year-old budding doctor Fritz takes notes. The Simple Art of Flying brings unforgettable characters facing troubles that will resonate with many readers, from grief, loss, jealousy, and betrayal to self-harm -- and encouragement from unexpected places.

Here, 12-year-old Fritz, on "just seeing what happens":

"Sometimes, what happens is ... you end up crying in the bathroom during seventh period because you wrote a whole lot of ideas on how to get your dad to move back, and after James and the kids at your lunch table tell you that they won't work, you go to the office to call your mom because you need to know if they're right, and by the way she sounds when she answers your questions, you realize he's never coming home.

"Sometimes you might break a parrot's wing.

"Or a person could be sitting next to you. You're getting some practice filling out a medical chart, and he's talking to you about the time he was flipping burgers and a squirrel ran right up and got caught in his pant leg. And you tell yourself he's probably just tired and needs a nap, because he can't even talk right. But later, you watch from your window as a bunch of  paramedics load him into an ambulance and drive away.

"Sometimes it's the bad things that happen. My stomach hurts just thinking about it."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories told by several different narrators, as The Simple Art of Flying does with Alastair, Fritz, and Birdie. Do you know other stories that take that approach? Do you like to hear from several different characters, who are experiencing different things as the story unfolds, or would you rather stick with one viewpoint?

  • How would you feel if someone were about to separate you and your siblings forever? Do you think there's anything you could do about it?

  • Do you know anyone who's dealing with loss right now? How are they coping? Is there anything you can think of that might make things easier for that person?

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