By Maureen Tai, 20 January 2020
“They’re like teardrops. The sky is crying birds.” – Ming-Li
True-life, historical disasters rarely inspire picture books for young children. Sparrow Girl is an exception. From the long-forgotten ashes of China’s disastrous “Four Pests” campaign waged in the late 1950s, Sara Pennypacker (author of the gut-wrenching middle grade novel Pax) has plucked a sliver of hope, turning it into a redemptive fictional account of a child’s compassion and courage. Alas, we know that in reality, the ending was much, much darker.
Ming-Li is a farmer’s daughter. She lives in rural China with her parents, her Older Brother and pet Pigeon. Farm folk in straw hats toil in lush, green fields and the blue skies are bird-speckled. The distant mountains are calming silhouettes. This first scene is idyllic, despite being depicted in muted, dusky colours.
Everything changes when Older Brother shows his sister a bag of firecrackers. Once lit, the firecrackers will explode in alarmingly loud bangs. This is their weaponry against the common brown sparrow, one of the enemies in their Leader’s newly proclaimed “Four Pests” war, the other three villains being flies, mosquitoes and rats. The rationale is straightforward. By destroying all the seed-guzzling sparrows, the farmers’ crops will be secure and grain – for human consumption – will be plentiful. As simple as that.
But Ming-Li is troubled by doubts. Why not plant more seeds and increase crop yields that way instead? Won’t the loud noises traumatize other birds too, and not just sparrows? “Our Leader’s plans are always perfect,” snaps Older Brother. Belief in Chairman Mao is absolute, and final.
The next day, the villagers arm themselves with drums, gongs and other noise-making implements and vigorously execute their murderous plan. The loud noises frighten and exhaust the sparrows. The day turns into night and back into day again as lifeless sparrows fall from the sky and litter the ground. Heartbreakingly, Ming-Li’s pet also falls victim to the madness. Distraught, the little girl ultimately comes up with a clever plan to save her feathered friends and to reverse the folly of her elders. There is a happy ending in Sparrow Girl.
But not in real life. The ecological balance was knocked completely off-kilter by the campaign, with dire consequences. In the wake of this unprecedented annihilation of sparrows, insect populations grew to plague proportions and devastated crops. This, in turn, contributed to the Great Famine of 1959 – 1961 in which an estimated 30 to 40 million Chinese perished. If only the real people had been as successful as Ming-Li.
To an older child, Sparrow Girl is about respecting the ecologically-balanced world that we do, and could continue to live in, if we only took the time to observe and listen to nature. To the adult, it is a cautionary tale, a sobering reminder of how one misguided decision by a powerful leader can go horrifically awry, at the cost of countless lives.
For ages 7 and up.