Will Sparrow's Road
Clarion, 2012 208 pgs
Twelve-year-old Will Sparrows runs away from a cruel apprenticeship and drunken father and starts life anew. He vows to live by his wits and trust no one. Life proves dangerous and hunger-filled in Elizabethan England, until he happens upon a fair. After meeting such characters as a magician and a trained pig with a jolly owner, Will discovers an exhibit of "Oddities and Prodigies" filled with unseen wonders such as a monstrous girl with the face and hair of a cat and a baby mermaid in a bottle. Tired of a life of stealing and starving, Will joins the band of misfits and takes on gainful employment with the troop. At first put off by the cat-girl and gruff dwarf doorman Will eventually finds friendship with the two co-workers and learns to trust them. Contrarily, he discovers the unscrupulous nature of the owner of the show and plots with his new friends (including a blind juggler) how to break free.
I have been a long time fan of Karen Cushman and have been trying to get around to reading this book for two years. This is her first offering with a male protagonist and is aimed at a younger age group than she usually writes for. I personally love the Elizabethan setting, which is not often seen in children's fiction. Readers are exposed to the grittiness, danger, and discrimination of the times. Will is scrappy, funny, naive, and a great friend, despite his desire to not connect to anyone ever again. He has a great voice and It is fun to experience the times through his eyes. The traveling fair lifestyle is unique and unusual for the genre. All of the characters brought out at the fair are eccentric and colorful and make for an interesting read. The realities of the treatment of people with physicals abnormalities is shocking compared to the 21st century sensibilities of accepting those who are different. Will, though ignorant and superstitions, overcomes his initial fears and prejudices and develops true feelings for the both cat girl and the dwarf. Although the book is well written and would be enjoyed by young people, once they crack into it, it will have a hard time finding an audience. Elizabethan England is not a topic kids gravitate to.And I kinda-sorta hate the cover. Will looks a bit "hobbit-like". I think it was the cover that kept me procrastinate reading the book. Once I finally picked it up, I fell right into it, but I'm not sure that a child will get that far. That said, give it to smart readers who enjoyed Avi's Crispin books or Blackwood's Shakespeare series. Warning: Be prepared to want to run to the Renaissance Faire and tear into a turkey leg!