My teenage daughter was less than thrilled when I told her that I was thinking about chaperoning an overnight school trip so I could listen to the kids talk. It would help with the y/a novel I’m writing, I explained. I would never get their inside jokes she countered (and what fun is it to have your mom come along anyway?) When I thought about it, I realized the inside jokes didn’t matter. Well, it didn’t matter if I got them or not. What mattered is that they have them, just like my friends and I did when we were teenagers. The heart of a story comes, for me, from my own childhood and adolescence. The rest is window-dressing.
My new parakeet, Winky Blue, was the first pet that was solely and deliciously my own. Like a typical stage mom; I had huge ambitions for him. I wanted him to be a hero and catch crooks and save people from drowning. He would have his own TV show, like the famous collie, Lassie. To help structure the story in my mind, I went to the library in search of a book about a little girl or boy and a parakeet. But I couldn’t find one, so I bought a small spiral notebook from the dime store and began to write the adventures of Winky Blue. I never dreamed that I would one day write a series of six books about Winky and his little girl, Rosie, in which I described just how I felt about my beloved bird:
“Rosie felt proud and happy to be in charge of Winky’s life, and his future. She got up three times during the night just to make sure he was all right. Each time Winky was sleeping soundly under his birdcage cover. Finally, Rosie fell asleep and dreamed of a magical land with a brightly-covered Ferris wheel and a shining lake. And in the middle of all this was a treasure, something warm and real and alive. Winky Blue.”
My first real-life adventure with Winky was to teach him talk. The instructions that came with my “Teach Your Parakeet to Talk” record said all you had to do was put on the recording and leave your parakeet alone for a while, and presto! He’d be talking like a pro. I couldn’t wait to get started. On Saturday morning, I set up the record player next to Winky’s cage and carefully put on the record.
“Congratulations, boys and girls!” boomed a man’s deep voice. “You have taken the first step in teaching your parakeet to talk.”
“Cheep. Goofunkle!” chattered Winky, hopping back and forth on his perch.
“Teaching your parakeet to talk will take a little time,” continued the voice, more serious now.
I hope it doesn’t take too long, I thought. I want to start having exciting adventures with Winky right away.
“I will repeat one phrase over and over so that your parakeet will learn to say it,” the voice on the record went on. “And now I suggest you leave your bird alone for half an hour so it can pay attention to the lesson.”
“Hello, how are you?” the man said slowly. I tiptoed out of my room, carefully closing the door behind me, while the recording droned on and Winky chattered away in parakeet language. I decided to give him a full hour to let the lesson really sink in.
I opened the door later in high hopes. I just knew Winky Blue would be a quick learner.
“Hello, how are you?” a voice greeted me.
It was the man on the record.
“Cheep!” chirped Winky, pecking at his mirror. “Woofitz-woopstum. Nootfunkle!”
My face fell. Winky hadn’t learn a single word!
At the time I was terribly disappointed, but looking back I saw something funny in the high expectations of a little girl for her very ordinary parakeet, and for the possibility of drama (like me, Rosie is not a patient person) when illusion collided full-speed into reality. When I wrote the first Winky book, No Way, Winky Blue! I dropped the talking episode into it, just the way it happened.