Cynthia Rylant's "Papa's Parrot," published in 1985 in the short story collection Every Living Thing, is a simple narrative with a powerful message. The main characters are Harry Tillian and his father, who is "fat and merely owned a candy and nut shop." Harry liked his Papa, and when he was young, he would always stop by with his friends to see him at work on the way home from school. Mr. Tillian enjoyed seeing his son and his son's friends. When Harry turned twelve and entered junior high, he did not come by his father's shop very often anymore. He and his friends preferred to hang out in other places, where they could play video games or buy records. About this time, Mr. Tillian bought a parrot, and named it Rocky. Mr. Tillian talked to Rocky all the time, and Harry was embarrassed.
One day, Mr. Tillian has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital. Lying in his bed, he worries about his shop and his parrot, so Harry says he will take care of things. After school the next day, Harry stops at the shop and is cleaning up and restocking as Rocky looks on. Suddenly Rocky says, "Hello!", startling Harry, who had forgotten he was there. When Harry finished cleaning Rocky's cage, the bird said, "Where's Harry?" sending chills down the boy's back, and the parrot's next words, "Miss him! Miss him!", cut him to the heart. Harry sobs as he realizes that "someone had been saying, for a long time, "Where's Harry? Miss him.'" Finishing his work at the shop, Harry goes to visit his Papa.
Written for the middle school and junior high student, "Papa's Parrot" addresses issues specifically relevant to early adolescence. It is natural for a child to become a little embarrassed by a parent and to lose interest in the pastimes they used to share as he or she grows older, like Harry in the story. What the child often might not realize is how much the gift of time might mean to a parent who cares for the child deeply and from whom he or she is growing apart. In a simple tale suitable for class study, independent reading, or read-aloud that would appeal even to the most reluctant reader, Cynthia Rylant communicates the message of the undying love of a father and the hurt unknowingly inflicted by a child's innocent thoughtlessness.