Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird


Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird


Without a doubt, this is one of the best nonfiction children’s books I’ve ever read—and, with two big readers and one children’s book blog, I read heaps of children’s books.

Let me tell you about the book, and then I’ll tell you why you should buy it for your child or classroom, and make it your gift of choice for any 5 or 6-year old’s birthday.

Stephanie Spinner simply tells the unique friendship of Irene Pepperberg, a graduate student of biology at Purdue University, and Alex (short for Avian Learning Experiment), the African grey parrot she purchased and studied.  Their relationship began in 1977 when most people thought animals weren’t very smart—especially animals with small brains, like birds.  Irene soon taught Alex the names of shapes and how to count; Alex picked up how to say his favorite foods on his own.

Over the years, Irene wrote about Alex and all of the things that he could do, but it wasn’t until Alex was on TV that he started to get noticed.  His personality helped—he would bob his head and sway to music, he would stick his head in a mug and make silly noises and he’d stick his neck out and say “You tickle!” when he wanted to be tickled.  “Alex liked being tickled so much that his face would turn pink with pleasure.”  (How cute is that?!)

One night, Irene left Alex as she always did in the lab.  As she walked out the door, Alex said “I love you!” and asked “You’ll be in tomorrow?”  Irene replied yes, but Alex died of heart failure during the night—he was only 31 (African grey parrots often live to be over sixty).  

Here’s why I love this book so much:

First, Alex the Parrot gives an in-depth look at the intelligence of one animal, and his feelings, too.  I love how this book gets my kids to stop and think about what animals might be thinking, and how animals might be feeling. 

The book has sparked many interesting conversations about what our two dogs, the squirrels outside or the roaming deer might be thinking and feeling.  These conversations teach empathy—for animals, yes, but they add to the lessons we’ve taught (and will re-teach) about empathy for people.

Second, this is a book about a woman who is passionate about the study of animal intelligence—a scientist.  I love that my children’s eyes have been opened to this specific study (and love even more that the main character is a female scientist).  All kids love one animal or another, and many know about vets through personal experience.  But here’s one other way to have a career based on your passion for animals.

Third, Alex clearly has a big personality.  Spinner writes how Irene purchased a second African gray parrot, Griffin, in the hopes that Alex would befriend Griffin.  He eventually did, but only while constantly asserting himself as top parrot.  His perch would have to be higher and closer to Irene than Griffin’s perch. 

I’ve often been glad to have two dogs here at home; their different personalities illustrate how each animal is unique, just like the kids in their classes.  This book adds to that point, and I hope my kids keep respecting differences of personalities as they grow.

Fourth, the book is officially geared towards kids in grades 2 through 5.  It has five chapters and a whole lot of words, so it’s appropriate for strong readers or those kids who are transitioning out of picture books (hopefully not too soon!  At 36, I still love ‘em!).  I will be ordering a handful of these books to have on hand for birthday parties my kindergartner attends because most picture books seem too easy, and chapter books (i.e. Magic Treehouse series) are often too difficult.  This book is a fantastic bridge between those two genres.

Fifth, there are some fun videos to watch with your kids after they read this book.  We enjoyed this clip on the real Alex, but my kids laughed out loud again and again at this clip of another African grey parrot, named Einstein, making funny sounds with his trainer.  I was glad that my kids could hear these parrots talk and watch them move after reading the book.

I can’t say enough great things about this book!  


Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird

By Stephanie Spinner, Illustrated by Meilo So

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Random House  

Price: Available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books a Million! for approximately $13.50

Easy to Read  5
Quality of Illustrations
Appealed to Both Boys and Girls  5
Kept My Child(ren)’s interest  5
I Would Purchase This For My Family yes
I would Purchase This As A Gift  yes
 Overall Rating

All ratings on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being highest.

Meet the Reviewer!

Kate Schwarz is a full-time mom

and wife living in Great Falls, VA. 

In addition to reading to her three

small hildren, Kate runs marathons,

Crossfits, and blogs about raising

kids with books at





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