Will Sparrow's Road

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Will Sparrow's Road Book Poster Image
Colorful characters bring Elizabethan fair to life.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

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.

Positive Messages

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 & Representations

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

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.

Sex
Language

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.

Consumerism
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.

What 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.

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What's the story?

Newbery medalist Karen Cushman's WILL SPARROW'S ROAD is a historical novel that takes place in Elizabethan England. Young Will's father exchanged his son for ale, and Will is on the run, having escaped the innkeeper who now owns him. Will has no family or friends, no boots, and no money. He vows to live as a liar and thief, telling himself he will trust no one and will care only for himself and his own belly. Fearful of being found and taken back to the innkeeper, or his father, Will tries to keep a low profile, eating whatever he can steal or find growing along his way. Eventually, he falls in with a troupe of hucksters led by Master Tidball, who hires Will to verbally advertise the "oddities and prodigies" (strange creatures in jars, a half-cat half-girl, a three-legged chicken) that fair-goers can view for a penny. Traveling from fair to fair, Will meets a host of colorful characters -- and learns to trust his true friends.

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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Will's assertion that he cares "for no one but myself and for nothing but my belly." Why does he try to be so hard and independent?

  • Will Sparrow's Road is Karen Cushman's first novel with a male main character. Do you think she writes realistically from a boy's point of view?

  • What developments surprise Will in the book? What surprised you?

Book details

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