Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Karen Cushman Blog Tour

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:

How do you make another time period come to life for a reader? What kinds of specific details do you look for in your research? 

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.

See our Christmas Eve post for information Karen Cushman sent about Christmas in Elizabethan England.

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, 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!

Tomorrow, check out Random Musings of a Bibliophile for Karen Cushman's next stop.

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.

For a fabulously complete author-to-author interview, check out Kirby Larson's Kirby's Lane.



  2. Hi, I also love Karen Cushman's books - my favorite historical fiction would have to be: The Midwife's Apprentice, Dandelions by Eve Bunting, and Girl Wonder: a baseball story told in nine innings by Deborah Hopkinson.

  3. My favorite all-time historical fiction is "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare which is closely followed by "Constance" by Patricia Clapp.

  4. My 5th graders just finished Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, which they thought was the best book ever. The picture books Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki and Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsuchiya are other good ones about that time period. I just discovered your blog and am really enjoying it.

  5. Anonymous12:39 PM

    I love Christofer Paul Curtis like Elijah of buxton, Watsons go to Birmingham, and Bud not Buddy. Also have to throw in the Book Thief and the Boy in the Striped Pajamas as great reads in historical fiction. I had forgotten about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I will have to pull that one up again to revisit!!

  6. Our sixth grade class loves Cushman's wonderful books- Catherine, Called Birdy is our favor ite. We also love The Boy in the Striped Pajamas which we use to jump start our historical fiction genre study. Thank you for the author interview , too....we'll use the insights when we turn to our genre study.

  7. Some of my favorite historical fiction with my fifth and sixth graders: The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Choosing Up Sides, Elijah of Buxton, Patricia Polacco's The Butterfly and Pink and Say, A Long Way From Chicago, Fever, and Riding Freedom. I'd love to win. You can reach me at Thanks!

  8. I put all of your names on little slips of paper, folded each twice, tossed them in a cereal bowl and had my husband pick one out.

    Starwood Quilter, CONGRATULATIONS!! You are the winner!

    Thanks to all of you who gave me suggestions of favorite historical fiction. I'm off to the library tomorrow to gather books for our unit of study!

  9. I'm so excited that your husband drew my name! I can't wait to tell my 5th graders that I won a copy of Will Sparrow's Road. Thank you! Susan, Starwood Quilter


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