The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya
  • Alternative view 1 of The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya
  • Alternative view 2 of The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya

5.0 2
by Jane Kelley

View All Available Formats & Editions

An orphaned African grey parrot who can speak 127 words. A girl so sick she has forgotten what it means to try. Fate––and a banana nut muffin––bring them together. Will their shared encounter help them journey through storms inside and out? Will they lose their way, or will they find what really matters?

Here is a story that will remind


An orphaned African grey parrot who can speak 127 words. A girl so sick she has forgotten what it means to try. Fate––and a banana nut muffin––bring them together. Will their shared encounter help them journey through storms inside and out? Will they lose their way, or will they find what really matters?

Here is a story that will remind readers how navigating so many of life's desperate adventures requires friendship and, above all, hope.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Two hurting souls—a newly homeless African grey parrot nervously plucking out its feathers, and an 11-year-old Brooklyn girl enduring endless treatments for leukemia—cross paths briefly, recognize themselves as kindred spirits, and understand that somehow they must find each other again. Zeno knows he is a “Booful, briyant bird,” because his late “servant,” Dr. Agard, told him so. Alya, too, knows her family loves her (“Mrs. Logan hugged Alya and stroked the top of her forehead for the 9,595th time”). However, the physical and emotional stress of their respective situations demands extraordinary hope. In one moving scene, a frail Alya manages to open her window in case Zeno should return because “believing was absolutely essential when you had a battle to fight.” Kelley (The Girl Behind the Glass) moves seamlessly between Zeno and Alya’s perspectives, capturing their humor, fear, desperation, and hope, while occasionally offering the viewpoints of supporters like Alya’s brother and Zeno’s new bird acquaintances, who convey the message that “Girl wants Zeno.” An uplifting story of courage, resilience, and cross-species friendship. Ages 8–12. Agent: Linda Pratt, Wernick & Pratt. (Oct.)
School Library Journal
Gr 3–7—Zeno, an African grey parrot, knows 127 words, but when his human suddenly dies, his advanced vocabulary does nothing to prepare him for life outside his Brooklyn apartment. Not comprehending what has happened to Dr. Agard, he embarks upon a journey to find food, friendship, and understanding. In another part of Brooklyn, a girl named Alya has all but given up hope as she battles leukemia. In a desperate search to find his favorite food, banana-nut muffins, Zeno appears at her window where he sees his beloved food within. Bedridden, Alya fantasizes that the mysterious talking bird can give her strength. Zeno, unfortunately, is facing his own obstacles as he is famished, lost, and kidnapped by an evil woman, and he has frustrating encounters with birds that can't comprehend his words. Alya's older brother, Parker, sets out on his own journey to try to find Zeno to bring him back to Alya, in a frantic attempt to save his ailing sister. The story is alternately told in Zeno's and Alya's voices, and both characters are compelling, believable, and likable. Sprinkled with humor, particularly with Zeno's gaps in vocabulary, the plot is fast paced and will appeal to a wide range of readers as they root for a satisfying ending for both the bird and the young girl.—Michele Shaw, Quail Run Elementary School, San Ramon, CA
From the Publisher

“The story is alternately told in Zeno's and Alya's voices, and both characters are compelling, believable, and likable. Sprinkled with humor, particularly with Zeno's gaps in vocabulary, the plot is fast paced and will appeal to a wide range of readers as they root for a satisfying ending for both the bird and the young girl.” —School Library Journal

“For animal lovers looking for something unique, this story of true friends missing each other will fit the bill.” —Booklist

“An uplifting story of courage, resilience, and cross-species friendship.” —Publishers Weekly

Children's Literature - Carrie Hane Hung
Two characters intersect at a critical moment in their respective lives. Zeno is an African grey parrot that speaks over 120 words and imitates over 60 sounds; he loves banana nut muffins. He suddenly must fend for himself in a world outside of his home due to his owner’s death. Alya is an eleven-year-old girl who is diagnosed with leukemia. She is undergoing chemotherapy. Her world is limited to her bedroom because she is too weak to walk. When Zeno and Alya both feel down, the two meet. While searching for food, Zeno spots Alya’s banana nut muffins and perches on the window bars outside her window. This initial meeting begins the glimmer of hope for both characters. During the events of the story Zeno and Alya reveal their inner thoughts and perspectives about the events around them. Individually, they face their personal challenges. The story has a satisfying ending that seems to stop short. Some readers may want to know more about the bond that continues to grow between Zeno and Alya. Reviewer: Carrie Hane Hung; Ages 8 to 12.

Product Details

Feiwel & Friends
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
520L (what's this?)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya

By Jane Kelley

Feiwel and Friends

Copyright © 2013 Jane Kelley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4854-2


An alarm buzzed. A phone rang. Theme music from a news program played. A clock chimed ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen times. The alarm buzzed again louder and louder. And louder. No one turned it off. No one got up and put food in the shiny aluminum bowl that was, alas, completely empty.

The source of all these sounds rapped his beak on top of the bookcase. The house was silent for a moment, as if everything in it, even the walls of leather-bound books, hoped for a response. There was none. So the alarm buzzed, the phone rang, the music played, the clock chimed, the alarm buzzed, and a raucous voice proclaimed, "Zeno wants!"

Zeno was an African grey parrot. He could imitate sixty-three sounds and speak 127 words. Since those two were by far his favorites, he repeated them again, "Zeno wants!"

He flapped his gray wings and spread his tail that was as scarlet as the lining of a magician's cape. Then he flew over to the shiny aluminum bowl. He cocked his head to one side to see if his servant had filled it with food. There were no nuts, no fruits, no greens — nothing except Zeno's own reflection. He admired his sleek gray head and the sharp curve of his dark beak. Then he carefully lifted his left foot, grasped the rim of the bowl with his long gray toes, and flipped the bowl onto the floor. The metal clattered so delightfully on the hard wood that Zeno repeated the sound himself.

Then he paused, waiting to be praised and rewarded. No one said, "Brilliant bird." No one gave him an apple chunk. No one recorded the sound and the date in the notebook. No one said, "That makes sixty-four distinct sounds." And no one started a discussion of whether words should count as sounds. What was the difference between a sound and a word? Sounds had meanings, too. Didn't the buzz of the alarm mean "wake up"?

"Zeno wants," Zeno muttered mournfully. He flew over to perch on the desk so he could look down at his servant.

Dr. Agard was still sleeping on the floor. Zeno didn't understand this. Dr. Agard was a man of regular habits. He had never lain down on the floor for even a moment in the twenty years that he had been Zeno's servant. He had certainly never slept there.

The real phone rang. Zeno cocked his head and glared at the black rectangle. It rang seventeen times. Dr. Agard didn't get up to answer it.

Zeno made the sound of the buzzing alarm again. This was always very effective at waking up Dr. Agard, even when it was the middle of the night. However, nothing was as it should be.

Dr. Agard hadn't even put away his papers before taking his nap. He was always careful to keep them where Zeno couldn't get them. Several stacks were on the desk, including one that Dr. Agard had described as final exams. You see, in addition to being Zeno's servant, Dr. Agard was also a professor of Greek literature at Brooklyn College. He had named Zeno after a Greek philosopher. He often quoted the human Zeno to the parrot Zeno.

"Extravagance is its own destroyer," Zeno squawked. He waited for Dr. Agard to reward him for saying what the human Zeno said. There was no response. Surely it was extravagant of Dr. Agard to lie on the floor instead of feeding Zeno.

"Pfft," Zeno muttered. He put his foot on the stack of final exams and used his beak to tear a long strip off the top paper. This was one of Zeno's favorite things to do. He loved the feel of the paper in his mouth, loved the little bit of resistance from the paper, and then the soft sighing sound as the paper abandoned itself to Zeno's will. Rip, rip, rip, rip. What could be more satisfying than to turn a flat white sheet into a muddle of curls?

Zeno glanced at Dr. Agard again. He still hadn't moved. Zeno didn't understand this. Usually Dr. Agard would rush over at the first little rip, waving his hands and shouting, "Those are my papers, Zeno. Mine."

Well, perhaps they were Dr. Agard's. However, Zeno didn't see why he wanted them. He never did anything interesting with them. He just held them in his hand. Occasionally he made marks like bird tracks with that short stick, which Zeno wasn't supposed to gnaw, either. What was enjoyable about that? Nothing. In fact, Dr. Agard often moaned as he was marking the papers. Sometimes he would say things like, "You could have written a better essay than this, Zeno." And Zeno would nod his head several times yes yes yes. Even though he couldn't really claim to know the words "essay" or "written," he did know that he could have done a better job at whatever it was because he was, of course, Zeno.

Finally all the papers had been shredded. Dr. Agard hadn't rescued a single one.

"Mine?" Zeno said.

He turned his head upside down to stare at Dr. Agard. Then he turned his head the other way to ponder the situation from that point of view. What was Dr. Agard doing down there? Dr. Agard often told Zeno that Zeno had to control his emotions if he wanted to achieve wisdom. This was called being stoic. The human Zeno was supposed to be very good at that and at accepting his fate. The parrot Zeno wondered if that was why Dr. Agard was lying there? Had he found wisdom by not being angry at Zeno?

"Pfffft," Zeno muttered.

If that were true, being stoic didn't seem like a good thing. Of course Zeno was delighted that Dr. Agard wasn't angry. However, Dr. Agard didn't seem happy, either. And Dr. Agard seemed to have forgotten all about sharing their Sunday morning treat.

Unlike his human namesake, Zeno the bird never suffered in silence. "Zeno wants!" he squawked.

And what did Zeno want? Since you are no doubt much better at understanding your feelings than poor Zeno, you know that Zeno wanted Dr. Agard to get up. He wanted the life they had shared for twenty years to continue. He wanted not to feel alone in the house. He wanted to be rid of that little throbbing knot of fear and dread in his stomach. He wanted ...

"Banana nut!" Zeno squawked.

Well, he wasn't the only one who thought everything would be all right if he could just eat his favorite food.

Sharing banana-nut muffins was one of their rituals. Unfortunately Dr. Agard had decided to take a nap on the floor like a stoic instead of going out to get their special Sunday treat.

Zeno flapped down and stood right next to Dr. Agard's head.

Dr. Agard didn't move.

"Banana nut?" Zeno muttered mournfully.

The phone rang again.

Dr. Agard didn't move.

Zeno rubbed the side of his beak against Dr. Agard's finger — the one Dr. Agard used to scratch the top of Zeno's head, right in the dark gray patch of feathers, between the pale gray circles that surrounded his yellow eyes. Dr. Agard always stroked Zeno's head as he said that Zeno was the most beautiful, brilliant bird in all of Brooklyn.

"Booful, briyant bird," Zeno muttered.

The doorbell rang — the real one. Then someone knocked on the door. "Dr. Agard? Dr. Agard?"

The knocking turned to banging.

"Dr. Agard!"

Zeno recognized the voice of Dr. Agard's assistant. There had been many over the years. Zeno never liked them. They didn't seem to understand that since Dr. Agard was Zeno's servant, the servants of Dr. Agard must be Zeno's servants, too. The current assistant frequently referred to Zeno as "that bird." He had yelled at Zeno in a most un-stoic-like fashion just because Zeno had ripped open the assistant's backpack to help himself to a packet of mixed nuts.

"Dr. Agard? I'm opening the door."

The locks turned. The door opened. Zeno flapped his wings and flashed his scarlet tail feathers. "BRAWWWK!" Zeno squawked, ready to defend Dr. Agard against these intruders.

The assistant and two other men in blue clothes rushed into the room.

"Get that bird out of here," the assistant shouted.

That bird? The assistant should have learned Zeno's name by now. Dr. Agard had told the assistant often enough.

"Zeno," Zeno squawked. "Booful, briyant Zeno."

The humans weren't listening. One actually shoved Zeno away from Dr. Agard. Zeno was so shocked by this rough treatment that he flew up to the bookshelf. He pulled a book of Greek tragedies off the top shelf and dropped it to the floor. Plop. He kept pulling books until he had cleared the entire shelf. Plop, plop, plop, plop.

The men in blue knelt by Dr. Agard. They loosened his clothes, poked him with needles, stuck tubes in his arms, and covered his face with a mask.

And still Dr. Agard didn't move.

After several frantic moments, the men in blue stopped what they were doing and became almost as motionless as Dr. Agard. "That's all we can do," one said.

The assistant nodded and hid his mouth behind his hand.

The men in blue gently lifted Dr. Agard onto a little cot, covered him with a white cloth, and wheeled him out the front door.

Zeno was shocked. Where were they taking Dr. Agard?

"Mine!" he squawked, because of course Dr. Agard was his servant. He flew out the front door after them and perched on the lowest branch of an oak tree.

The assistant hovered close by as the men in blue put Dr. Agard in the back of a white van. They slammed the doors shut. Bang.

Zeno watched the van drive up the street and disappear around the corner. He looked at the door to the house. Should he go back inside? What for? His dishes were empty. The papers were shredded. And Dr. Agard, his devoted servant, had gone.

"Zeno want?" Zeno muttered.

No one responded to him. So Zeno flew off to make his own way in the great wide world.


Being outside was so exhilarating for Zeno that he got out of breath after only flying five blocks. He wasn't used to that much exercise. Of course, he had been free to fly wherever he wanted in Dr. Agard's house. However, he usually only wanted to fly the short distance between his stand and his aluminum dishes.

He perched on a tree branch and paused to look around him. The buildings in this part of Brooklyn were all very similar. They were made of brown stone, about four stories tall. Each one was squeezed against its neighbor, with a short flight of stairs between the front door and the sidewalk. The tiny front yards contained flower gardens. Tall trees arched their branches above the streets. These trees were just beginning to get their leaves. It was spring, although Zeno understood little about the seasons because the temperature was constant inside Dr. Agard's house.

A breeze ruffled his feathers. "Pfft," Zeno muttered. He would have to set them right again as soon as he found food. He was extremely hungry.

Zeno had never actually had to find his meals before. He had been fed first by his own parents, and then, after his capture, by various humans until Dr. Agard had been given the honor of becoming Zeno's servant.

Now Dr. Agard had gone away. This was not unusual. Dr. Agard took his papers and went away nearly every day. This time, Dr. Agard had left Zeno without making sure his dishes were full and Zeno had cardboard to gnaw — and without saying, "Good-bye, Zeno, you beautiful, brilliant bird."

"Booful, briyant," Zeno said. He would have to feed himself. He wasn't worried about that. For one thing, if he were in charge of finding his own food, he intended to eat only the things he liked. At the top of that list were banana-nut muffins.

"Banana nut!" Zeno squawked.

He examined the branch upon which he sat. Tiny green leaves had pushed their way up from the brown bark. Obviously this tree was not the source of the banana-nut muffins. He flew farther down the block. He saw trees with pink buds, old brown leaves, and white flowers. Where were the ones with banana-nut muffins?

He flew over a roof and perched in the branches of a pine tree that grew in the backyard between the rows of houses. From a distance, the large brown cones seemed promising, but they weren't muffins, either.

"Pffft," Zeno muttered. How could this be? Dr. Agard must have gotten the muffins from somewhere. And food grew on trees. Zeno was certain of this. Buried beneath his 127 words and sixty-three sounds was a parrot memory. It had been handed down for generations, along with the scarlet feathers of his tail and the ability to talk. Parrots found food on trees. Of course the food they found was a particular kind of palm nut that grew on a type of tree that would never survive the winter in Brooklyn. Still, Zeno felt confident that the food he craved also grew on trees. Where else could it be?

He flew on and on, trying to match the parrot memory to what he observed. Wasn't the row of buildings like a cliff? Wasn't the street with its rush of cars like a river? Wasn't the lamppost just as branchless as a palm tree?

On and on, he flew, and around and around. He didn't dare stray too far, just in case Dr. Agard came back. At any moment, Zeno expected Dr. Agard to appear, holding the white paper bag decorated with blue flowers. "So sorry to be late, old chum. Here's our Sunday treat. Banana-nut muffins!"

But that, as you know, wasn't going to happen.

"Banana nut," Zeno muttered mournfully. He flapped down to perch on the low branch of a pear tree and bent over to preen.

The dark gray feathers that adorned his neck had gotten quite ruffled. He always found comfort in stroking his beautiful feathers. He had never been in a situation quite as stressful as this. His hunger had reached an entirely new level of emptiness. He wasn't sure what to do about that. He might have to tug at every single feather before he felt like himself again.

A high-pitched voice below him said, "Look, Mom. It's a parrot."

Zeno turned sideways to look at the human. There were two of them, both female. Neither one had the glass circles in front of their eyes like Dr. Agard did. The smaller one had spoken to Zeno. She danced around and pointed at him with a purple circle on the end of a stick.

The girl put the circle in her mouth. Was this food? Would Zeno like to eat it? He never saw shiny purple food before. He leaned closer to get a better look.

"That looks like an African grey parrot," the woman said.

Zeno bobbed his head up and down several times, pleased to be recognized. Since Dr. Agard had gone, perhaps this human might enjoy being Zeno's servant?

"Can we take him home?" the girl said.

"Oh, no," the woman said quickly.

"Why not? He looks lonely," the girl said.

Zeno blinked. "Lonely" wasn't one of his one 127 words. He had no idea what it meant. He knew he preferred to be described as brilliant and beautiful.

"Polly want a cracker?" the girl said.

"Pfft," muttered Zeno. Why did humans always ask him about Polly? Who was Polly? Why on earth would Polly want crackers? The one Zeno tried had crumbled into tasteless powder with his first chomp.

"I'm sure he's someone's pet," the woman said.

"Pet?" Zeno squawked. Dr. Agard always scolded anyone who called Zeno a pet.

"He talked, Mommy, did you hear him say 'pet'?" the girl said. "Can we keep him?"

"No, dear, he didn't really talk. He just imitated what I said. He's a bird. He has no idea what words actually mean," the woman said.

"Brawwk!" Zeno flapped his wings vigorously. No idea? How dare the woman say that. He knew what words meant. He knew plenty of things. He was confident he knew much more than the woman. Even if he didn't exactly know where to find banana-nut muffins, she probably didn't, either.

"He can't really think for himself," the woman said.

"Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue." Zeno repeated one of the human Zeno's sayings. Dr. Agard often used that quote to scold his assistant for speaking foolishly.

"Did you hear that?" the girl said.

"That just proves my point. His owner taught him those words. A parrot couldn't possibly know what they mean," the woman said.

Of course Zeno knew. Sort of. Even if he couldn't explain it. Well, he knew that the quote always made the assistant shut up for a while.

"What does it mean?" the girl said.

"It means we better hurry or we'll be late for your violin lesson," the woman said.

She took the girl's hand — the one without the purple circle. Together they ran down the street.

As soon as the humans had gone, Zeno thought of what he should have said to them.

"Zeno not pet!" he squawked.


Excerpted from The Desperate Adventures of Zeno & Alya by Jane Kelley. Copyright © 2013 Jane Kelley. Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jane Kelley is the author of the middle-grade novels Nature Girl and The Girl Behind the Glass. The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya is her first novel for Feiwel and Friends. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their daughter.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was exceptional. I was a little leery of the parts told in the parrot's voice, but Zeno was quite charming, particularly as he grew in his understanding of the world. I loved Alya's character, so brave and also so genuine in her fears and her way of looking at the world. I thought the author did a particularly good job of capturing the complexities of a loving family in the midst of a stressful situation. I am a children's librarian and I'm hoping to use this book in my girls' book club in the spring. Usually I don't choose brand new titles because it can be hard to get enough copies from other libraries but in this case I think it will be worth the effort. Highly recommended, along with another title by Jane Kelley: Nature Girl.