In 1977, graduate student Irene Pepperberg walked into a pet store and bought a year-old African grey parrot. Because she was going to study him, she decided to call him Alex--short for Avian Learning EXperiment. At that time, most scientists thought that the bigger the brain, the smarter the creature; they studied great apes and dolphins. African greys, with their walnut-sized "birdbrains," were pretty much ignored--until Alex.
His intelligence surprised everyone, including Irene. He learned to count, add, and subtract; to recognize shapes, sizes, and colors; and to speak, and understand, hundreds of words. These were things no other animal could do. Alex wasn't supposed to have the brainpower to do them, either. But he did them anyway.
Accompanied by Meilo So's stunning illustrations, Alex and Irene's story is one of groundbreaking discoveries about animal intelligence, hard work, and the loving bonds of a unique friendship.
Alex, as adult readers may recall, was indeed no ordinary bird: for 30 years, this African grey parrot, purchased in a pet shop, was the research subject of animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, who taught Alex how to count and do simple arithmetic; recognize shapes, materials, sizes, and colors; and speak and understand hundreds of words upending the conventional wisdom about animal intelligence and proving that birdbrain could actually be a compliment. Alex died suddenly in 2007 and was mourned worldwide, but his life is well-served by Spinner (Aliens for Breakfast) and especially by So, whose fans will no doubt cheer her having found another bird story (after 2008 s Pale Male) that s a perfect match for her artistry. Together they dive into the details of Alex and Pepperberg s work, giving Alex s larger than-life personality its full due ( He let everybody know what he wanted, pretty much all the time ), and showing, with admirable restraint, how an experiment also became an expression of love and deepest respect. It s a remarkable story with a sad ending but it s a good kind of sad. Ages 8 12.