Sparrow Girl

Sara Pennypacker (Author) Yoko Tanaka (Illustrator)


Ming-Li looked up and tried to imagine the sky silent, empty of birds. It was a terrible thought. Her country's leader had called sparrows the enemy of the farmers--they were eating too much grain, he said. He announced a great "Sparrow War" to banish them from China, but Ming-Li did not want to chase the birds away.

As the people of her village gathered with firecrackers and gongs to scatter the sparrows, Ming-Li held her ears and watched in dismay. The birds were falling from the trees, frightened to death! Ming-Li knew she had to do something -- even if she couldn't stop the noise. Quietly, she vowed to save as many sparrows as she could, one by one...

Product Details

$16.98  $15.62
Publish Date
February 01, 2009
9.32 X 9.7 X 0.34 inches | 0.82 pounds
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About the Author

Sara Pennypacker splits her time between Florida and Massachusetts, were she feels lucky to be able to write every day. She is the author of many children's books, including Waylon! One Awesome Thing and Waylon! Even More Awesome, the New York Times #1 bestseller Pax; seven in the New York Times bestselling Clementine series; two in the Stuart series; Meet the Dullards; Summer of the Gypsy Moths; and Sparrow Girl. Her books have won numerous accolades, including a Golden Kite Award, a Christopher Award, and several children's choice state awards, and they have appeared on many Best Books of the Year lists. For more information, visit

Yoko Tanaka made her children's book debut with Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers. Before graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, Yoko won a Gold Award from the Society of Illustrators in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in several magazines, and in galleries across the globe. Sparrow Girl is her first picture book.


The so-called Sparrow War, declared by Mao in 1958, furnishes the basis for this grim story. Deciding that sparrows are eating too much grain, "our Leader" orders his people to drive them away, and Ming-Li's whole village turns out to "[make] so much noise the ground itself rumble[s]." Ming-Li objects, pointing out that other birds will leave along with the sparrows, but she is silenced; on her own, she creates a bird refuge in an abandoned barn and becomes a heroine the following year, when the birds are needed to control worms, grasshoppers and other pests. Fans hoping for the insouciance of Pennypacker's Clementine will look in vain; Ming-Li's determination rises up against the frightening images of marauding villagers and of dead birds raining from the sky. Debut artist Tanaka contributes skillful but unsettling pictures-her overcast palette, skewed perspectives and stylized faces create the atmosphere of a bad dream. PW"
Ming-Li is the youngest member of a farming family in China, and she's distressed when the country declares war on sparrows in an attempt to save the grain fields from the birds' depredations. As the villagers raise a clamor to drive the sparrows away from perches, the dead and dying birds drop to the ground. Even more concerned after her older brother's pet pigeon becomes one of the victims, Ming-Li convinces her brother to help her in rescuing the few sparrows who've survived their fall ("Seven sparrows," she says sadly. "When there used to be thousands"), tending them and hiding them through the winter; in the spring, the villagers discover their crops overrun by the pests the sparrows would formerly have eaten, and Ming-Li's secretly saved flock becomes the miracle that brings better days. This is a tender story smoothly told, based on China's misguided 1958 attempt to eradicate sparrows, and audiences will appreciate the heroism of the young protagonist. The relentless mowing down of the sparrows makes the account rather harrowing for its likely audience, though, and the story will leave them with a lot of questions, such as how noise kills the birds and how a mere seven sparrows can do the job of the lost flocks; the end, wherein Ming-Li's father proclaims Ming-Li a real farmer, is more random than satisfying. The illustrations have a smoothly grainy sweep that suggests oil pastels, and the controlled regularity of the modeling results in interestingly stylized scenes; the intricate and lovely sparrows, looking like delicate woodcrafting, stand out against the subdued background hues of misty landscape and dark barn. The combination distances the events somewhat (which may be for the better at its most heart-rending moments), but it's an original and elegant look. This might make for an unusual but dramatic addition to a unit on ecology, or it could simply provide listeners with a thoughtful example of youthful activism. A brief historical note is included. BCCB"
In this sober tale based on Mao Zedong's 1958 edict to eradicate China's sparrows to prevent crop damage, a compassionate little girl follows her heart instead of her Leader. When Ming-Li learns of Mao's plan to eliminate the sparrows by creating noise for three consecutive days, she prophetically fears the terrible din will kill all birds. As mindless mobs beat drums, clang gongs, crash cymbals and explode firecrackers, Ming-Li's worst fears are realized, but not before she hides seven sparrows, which she feeds and tends in secret. When spring arrives and shocked farmers watch helplessly as locusts decimate their crops, Ming-Li reveals her secret and saves her village from famine. Tanaka's quiet, simple illustrations in subdued tones match the somber mood. In her red suit, Ming-Li's solitary figure stands out from the villagers in their uniform blue jackets, reinforcing her individuality. Moving images, such as a double-page spread of dead sparrows falling like "teardrops" while a weeping Ming-Li cradles a limp bird, send a powerful message that one small person can make a big difference. (author's note) Kirkus"