From School Library Journal
Kindergarten-Grade 4—In 1958, in a stunning demonstration of unintended consequences, Mao Tse-tung decimated the sparrow population of China by compelling every able-bodied citizen to set off firecrackers, clang gongs, beat on drums, etc., over a three-day period. The frightened birds took wing until they dropped dead of exhaustion. Though this kept the sparrows from eating the wheat crop, it also prevented them from controlling the locust population, resulting in a famine. Pennypacker has imagined the thoughts and actions of a little girl who loves the sparrows and manages to rescue a few of them, keeping them safe in a barn and feeding them secretly in the months that follow. When the crops in her village are threatened by the insects, Ming-Li shows the farmers the birds she has tended and they release them, recognizing that the sparrows have always been their friends. While this picture book, with its murky folk-art-style illustrations, owes more to ecological concerns than historical fact, it will be useful in teaching about the potential of one person to make a difference in the world, and the potential of many humans to create disasters.—Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY
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In 1958, Chairman Mao declared war on sparrows. He blamed them for devouring the nation’s wheat crop, and he required all citizens, armed with pots and pans and firecrackers, to take to the streets and literally scare the birds to death. The successful campaign brought on a plague of locusts and a three-year famine that resulted in the deaths of almost 40 million Chinese. The author takes these actual events as inspiration for a resonant, contemporary fable about Ming-Li, a girl who feels for the sparrows under attack, defies the leader, and rescues seven birds as they fall from the sky. Pennypacker strikes a suitably moralistic tone and tells her story with rich, descriptive detail. Tanaka matches the somber elegance of the text with opaque, folk-inspired paintings in a subdued palette. An author’s note explains the difficult facts behind the story. Opposite the grave historical account, though, is an uplifitng image: on a field of white, a small nest with seven eggs promises the hope that springs from the simple actions of one empathetic heart. Grades K-3. --Thom Barthelmess