A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Will Sparrow's Road takes place mainly in the fairs of Elizabethan-era England. Readers will learn about the ways of life of entertainers and vendors who traveled from fair to fair, earning a meager living. Types of food and drink, clothing, living conditions, and types of occupations are presented as part of Will Sparrow's world. Novelist Karen Cushman also includes an Author's Note that includes historical background and a list of additional fiction and nonfiction resources for English history.
Will Sparrow, and readers, learn not to judge people by their appearance, as many of the most unusual-looking people Will meets at the fair turn out to be the most giving friends. Once Will begins to make true connections with people, his values also improve as well; the book shows how when a child receives kindness, he begins to think of others and is less likely to do hurtful things.
Positive Role Models
When the novel begins, Will has already been discarded by his parents -- a mother who abandoned him and a father who traded him for ale. The young man occasionally places his trust in the wrong person, but he also encounters a couple of adults who surprise him with their kindness. Samuel Knobby, who travels the fairs and entertains people with his trained pig, Duchess, is generous to Will, and Will is moved by the sweet relationship between man and pig. Will also comes to trust and respect Fitz,a little person who shows Will a great example of loyalty.
Violence & Scariness
Will witnesses fights that leave Fitz bruised and bleeding. Another man Will meets threatens, or hits people, with a walking stick. Late in the novel, a man falls and hits his head on a rock. The book also includes a couple of incidents of adult cruelty to children: A man strikes a young girl and locks her in a wagon, and he forcibly drags her from place to place.
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There's a lot of name-calling in the book, actually, but it's all along the lines of one of those Shakespearean Insults calendars. People are called "varlet," "wheyfaced," "writhled shrimp," etc. Some of the cruelest insults are directed at a little person.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Ale is the favored drink of adults and children, and some men consume quite a lot. Will's father is a drunkard who traded his son to an innkeeper for ale. One vendor smokes a pipe.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Will Sparrow's Road is the latest historical novel by Karen Cushman, who won the Newbery medal for The Midwife's Apprentice. The book, which takes place in England at the end of the 16th century, is about a young boy who has escaped from the innkeeper to whom his father traded him for ale. Will endures physical and emotional hardships. He tries to harden himself against the world, lying and stealing to survive. Will winds up traveling from fair to fair, and he meets some kind people as well as some cheats and abusers. There are incidents of adults fist-fighting, resulting in bruises and minor injuries, as well as occurrences of adult-on-child violence. One man uses a walking stick as a weapon. The novel also includes a great deal of ale consumption by drinkers of all ages. Also note that a little person is laughed at and verbally abused.
Is It Any Good?
Will Sparrow's Road isn't the fantastical, action-packed novel that many modern middle-grade readers are accustomed to. There's some tension and suspense when Will and his friends find themselves in sticky situations, but mainly this is a touching, fascinating story about some colorful characters, and about a historical time and place. Boys and rirls will identify with Will; they'll worry about him when he's hungry or in danger, and feel his sadness when he says good-bye to Duchess. This is a sweet book that will give kids a little history lesson as well as an enjoyable read.
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