Writing Penguin Bloom: The odd little bird who saved a family

Anyone who has ever owned a pet will know the incredible power and impact they have on our lives. 

In 2013, the Bloom family’s life was irretrievably changed when an accident in Thailand left mother to three boys Sam Bloom a paraplegic and unable to feel below the chest. 

When Penguin the magpie joined the Bloom family as an injured chick, no one was to know the enormous role she would play as they struggled to come to terms with the catastrophic accident. 

Bradley Trevor Greive, a Tasmanian-born author who grew up on the East Coast, captured the unique story of how Penguin became central to Sam and the family’s recovery and healing, both physically and mentally. 

It was a story that in the telling would change the author's life.

Perhaps best known for his book The Blue Day Book, Greive was initially unsure if he was the best person for the job. 

When he was approached by Sam’s husband Cameron Bloom to write it, he said he would think it over for a fortnight. 

“In just those two weeks I fell completely in love with Penguin and I was deeply moved by Sam’s courage and Cameron’s compassion,” Greive said.

“By the time we spoke again I had come to the immodest conclusion that I actually was the best choice to write this book and that I absolutely had to do it.”

Writing the book wasn’t to be an easy journey, and Greive said he found it enormously challenging.

“As a human being, and as a friend, I felt terrible digging up all the painful memories from the past so I could examine them slowly and carefully – and while it has been a wonderful creative journey, and I think also a cathartic process for Sam, Cameron and their three boys, it was certainly very emotionally draining for all concerned,” he said, adding it was impossible to maintain an emotional distance from the story.

“I kept a smile on my face during our hundreds of interviews, but as soon as we said goodbye that upbeat facade would break, and as I struggled to translate these painful events into prose the tears would flow.

“As my wife will tell you, I wept every day for a year while writing this book.”

Penguin has redefined what family means, and helped us appreciate how powerful love and compassion can be. In the beginning we thought we were rescuing Penguin, but now we feel this remarkable bird has made us feel stronger, brought us closer and also helped to heal our family during a very difficult time, so in a way Penguin rescued us.

Cameron Bloom (on the Penguin the Magpie website)

But from the shared journey also stemmed laughter, and something even more precious.

“The most rewarding part of writing this book is that the Blooms have become my family. I think of Cam and Sam as my younger siblings – and I want to do whatever I can to celebrate them, help share their story and bring them as many positive opportunities as possible,” Greive said. 

Approaching the story in a way that hit the right balance was crucial. It forced Grieve to work in a way he hadn’t previously and to dig deep as a writer.

“The key for me was realising that Sam’s story and Penguin’s story were one and the same – My creative breakthrough, my epiphany if you will, came when I knew, beyond any doubt, that the best way to tell this very challenging and emotionally charged story was to use Penguin as a vessel for Sam’s journey,” he said. 

“In essence, the fragile and broken yet brave and resilient native bird is the Australian woman - Penguin the magpie is Sam Bloom.”

The completed book, Penguin Bloom, uses a combination of Cameron Bloom’s intimate and striking photos and Greives’ words. Grieves said the book is exactly the way he and Cameron wanted it to be. 

“I remain very grateful for the opportunity to tell this extraordinary true story the way I felt it should be told,” Greive said. 

The story has captured hearts around the world. When you purchase it, it comes with the shop assistant’s advice, “keep a box of tissues handy”.

A tale such as this was never going to fly under the radar for long.

Naomi Watts and Reese Witherspoon, along with renowned Australian producer Bruna Papandrea have optioned the rights to make the Blooms’ story into a film. 

Greive said it was no accident they were the ones to pick up the story. 

“For over a year Cameron and I talked about what an ideal movie adaptation might look like, and we kept coming back to how wonderful it would be if Naomi Watts could play Sam,” he said. 

So, Grieve passed the book along to someone he knew who could place it in Ms Watts’ hands. 

“Within 24 hours the news came back that not only did Naomi love the book but she also wanted to produce the movie and, best of all, she wanted to play Sam,” Greive said. 

Deciding not to write the screenplay was a difficult choice for Greive, who chose to relinquish creative control in the interests of the story. 

“I have enormous faith in our producers, I’m smart enough to know that there are people who are better at this than I am, and I certainly didn’t want my ego to get in the way of the filmmaking process,” he said. 

“No one can ever know for sure how these things will turn out, but I wanted to give Penguin Bloom every chance to be the best possible film it can be.”

But Greive, along with Sam and Cameron Bloom, will remain involved in the process as executive producers. 

“My main responsibility will be to support the screenwriter and director in regards to the story – Having spent so long getting to know every aspect of Sam and Penguin’s narrative I’ll be on hand to offer scene suggestions, revisions and alternatives,” Greive said. 

AUTHOR: Bradley Trevor Greive wrote the words for the book Penguin Bloom, about the Bloom family and a magpie. Picture: Courtney Lindberg

AUTHOR: Bradley Trevor Greive wrote the words for the book Penguin Bloom, about the Bloom family and a magpie. Picture: Courtney Lindberg

Greive is “truly delighted” with the international response to Penguin Bloom, but said he is not surprised. 

“Penguin Bloom is a story that will break your heart into a thousand pieces and also make you laugh till you cry,” he said. 

“It’s the most beautiful book I’ve ever written and it has changed my life in the most meaningful way possible.”

Sam Bloom continues on her journey of rehabilitation and recovery, and has taken up kayaking – competing in the Canoe World Championships in 2015.