Will Sparrow's Road
by Karen Cushman
Houghton Mifflin, 2012
Karen Cushman has a gift for bringing the past to life. In her newest book, we travel to Elizabethan England and meet Will Sparrow, self-proclaimed liar and thief, who, in the first chapter of the story, runs away from the innkeeper to whom his father sold him to pay a bartab.
Throughout his journey, Will tries hard not to trust people or become too attached to them, but it is just not in his nature. He falls in with a sort of Elizabethan freak show that travel from fair to fair. The man who "owns" the a midget, the cat-faced girl, and a variety of real and conjured oddities in bottles that fair-goers pay to see, turns out to be the right person to mistrust. But by the end of the book (after the "owner" has been dispatched),
"...Will walked right up to them as if he belonged there. Which, he supposed, he did. Oddities, all of them -- a liar and a thief, a disagreeable little man, and a girl with the face of a cat -- belonging nowhere but with each other."
One of my fifth graders (I'll call her Suzy) read Will Sparrow's Road and shared her thoughts and questions with me.
The character Suzy was most taken with was Grace Wyse, the cat-faced girl. Suzy imagined her as "pretty and brave, but she didn't really trust sometimes." I had wondered as I read whether a modern young reader would be able to visualize from Cushman's descriptions of Grace, a child with the condition (Cushman explains it a bit in the author's notes) hypertrichosis.
Suzy found that visualizing the story was difficult. Everything is so different -- "strange language, weird foods, and no electronics!" This seems to me to be the challenge of historical fiction for young readers. It's a conundrum. They don't have the background knowledge for historical periods that helps to make historical fiction come alive, and yet, historical fiction is often the best way to get a feel for a historical period that helps it to come alive! When my two language arts classes totalled up the number of books they'd read in the first trimester, the genre of historical fiction was a weakness in both classes. We'll be launching a fiction unit after break -- the perfect opportunity to dig into historical fiction!
Suzy and I had these questions for Ms. Cushman:
I like to metaphorically look around a place and see the things my character would notice: clothing, music, houses, food, herbs and trees and birds. I deliberately try to include all five senses—not just what a setting looks like. How does it smell? What sounds might one hear? And how does the character know? Where does he feel it in his body? What does that sound do to his ears? His heart? Does it remind him of something? Somebody? How does that make him feel?
Equally important are attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions of the past. These are harder to identify but critical. People of the past are not just us in different clothing. There are very real differences in what we believe, value, and think true.
Was there a journey story that inspired you as a young reader?
No, not as a young reader but as a 22-year old, in a children’s literature class, I discovered Dawn Wind by the British historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff. This journey story is set from the last stand of the Romans in Britain through invasion and settlement of the Saxons. It was a very different time and place from my own but drew me in with its gorgeous prose and characters I could relate to. I saw how good historical fiction transcends the difficulties of language, place, and time.
What messages or learnings do you hope a modern child takes away from Will Sparrow's Road?
I would like modern children to see the importance of looking beyond appearance and to try to treat everyone as we would like to be treated. I’d also hope they draw encouragement from seeing a boy overcome his bad beginning with pluck and determination. If Will Sparrow can succeed with all his problems, I think we all can.
The publisher was kind enough to provide a copy of Will Sparrow's Road for us to give away. Leave a comment that includes one (or more!) of your favorite books of historical fiction (picture book, chapter book, graphic novel, poetry...you name it) and I will put your name in a hat for a drawing. DEADLINE: Midnight, December 31. Be sure that your comment includes a way for me to find you, in the event that you win! And thanks, in advance, for helping me to plan a fabulous historical fiction unit!
BLOG TOUR THURSDAY:
Tomorrow, check out Random Musings of a Bibliophile for Karen Cushman's next stop.
BLOG TOUR: TUESDAY
If you are interested in why Karen Cushman chose a boy main character for the first time, she has a guest post at GreenBean TeenQueen.
BLOG TOUR: MONDAY
For a fabulously complete author-to-author interview, check out Kirby Larson's Kirby's Lane.