May 22, 2018

The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow

Written and illustrated by Jan Thornhill
Groundwood Books
44 pp.
Ages 9-12
April 2018

If Jan Thornhill's winning of the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award last fall for The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk (Groundwood, 2016) and Jess Keating's winning of the Blue Spruce award this week for Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugenie Clark Became the Ocean's Most Fearless Scientist (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2017) tell us anything, it is that picture books are as beloved for telling non-fiction as they are for entertaining young readers. With her newest, The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow, Jan Thornhill again tells a compelling story of natural history which informs as well as entices us to learn more.

Jan Thornhill's story of the small brown bird which lacks flamboyance but teems with adaptability is a tale of survival, unlike that of the bird of her earlier book, The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk. She begins by telling of the House Sparrow's Middle Eastern ancestor beginning to rely on grain as a food source and losing the need for migration. With the spread of agriculture, the House Sparrow was soon designated a pest for raiding fields and orchards and breeding far too quickly, aiding in its spread. The small bird became such a nuisance that bounties and laws were enacted to speed its elimination.
From The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow by Jan Thornhill
But migrating Europeans saw the House Sparrow as a resourceful reminder of home, and the bird was introduced to New York City in the 1800s and then across the country, multiplying far more than expected. Again the exploding population of House Sparrows coupled with its aggressive pursuit of grain pitted the House Sparrow lovers and haters against each other.
From The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow by Jan Thornhill
However, it is the actions of humans which have had the most impact on the House Sparrow, though not always intentionally. With the onset of the automobile and the decline of horses, fed with grain, the House Sparrow's populations began to diminish again, and perhaps more so because of changes we've implemented in home construction, in farming, in keeping cats as pets and even in how we eat. Whether these impacts alone explain the decline of the House Sparrow is not known completely. But, it is certain that as much as the little bird may be an omen of our negative impact on the environment, it continues to find ways to adapt and survive.

The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow may tell the bird's story of proliferation and decline as an piece of non-fiction, supplemented with  a map of the bird's global distribution, an illustrated life cycle and a glossary, but it's Jan Thornhill's telling of that story that is the most compelling. Told as a narrative and strengthened by Jan Thornhill's realistic illustrations, The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow gives us lessons in ecology and adaptation, in history and in the impact of humans on the environment, and will be a valuable addition to science classrooms and school libraries everywhere.
From The Triumphant Tale of the House Sparrow by Jan Thornhill

1 comment: