Book Review | Sparrow Girl
by Sara Pennypacker

Score: 4

Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

© 2009, Disney-Hyperion Books.

In 1958, Mao Tse-Tung declared a war on four pests – rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows.  SPARROWS? Why, sparrows? Because sparrows ate grain and the population of China was starving. Sparrows were declared enemies of the people and a massive campaign was waged to eliminate them from the countryside so that the grain could be saved, planted, harvested and eaten by the human population.  Literally every peasant man, woman and child had to be outside banging pots, pans, lighting fire crackers anything to frighten the birds causing them to die on the spot of a heart attack or to fly away and die from exhaustion. When the birds were almost entirely eliminated, it was discovered that they ate more insects than grain. By then, it was too late to change course and locusts and other insects overran the country decimating the fields and the harvest and causing a famine in China that killed over 30 Million people.

Sparrow Girl is the story of Ming-Li, a child who refused to listen to “the Great Leader”  following her heart instead. The story, told as a folktale, yet based on true incidents, is powerful and full of emotion. The reader aches with Ming-Li and the sparrows, feels the change of heart in her brother as he realizes the real consequences of what he is doing when his pet pigeon dies during “the war” and rejoices in the elders wisdom when they appreciate what Ming-Li has done. Beautiful illustrations capture the dark, rough peasant village, the dismal task they were set and all the emotional upheavals previously described.

The message of this powerful picture book:  all actions have consequences. Even the “lowly” sparrow has an important role to play on this earth. As Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (§1 on 7:13) says: “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

Grades 1st- 4th

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