“'There's cold chicken inside it,' replied the Rat briefly; 'coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrench

'O stop, stop,' cried the Mole in ecstacies: 'This is too much!'”
-- from
The Wind in the Willows

Monday, November 23, 2009

January's Sparrow • Nonfiction picture book

January's Sparrow
written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
Just out! Philomel, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group Nonfiction picture book Ages 8 and up
A tour de force of such emotional and dramatic impact that young readers will be forever changed in their understanding of the forces that led to the Civil War and the humanity and courage of the days before it.
Story:  In the middle of the dark night, the Crosswhites -- including young Sadie -- flee the Kentucky plantation they slave on, leaving everything they own behind, including the wooden sparrow January carved for Sadie.  Dear January  has been beaten and probably killed by the plantation master.  They fear they may be next.

Across the Ohio River and traveling the Underground Railroad, they make the slow and arduous journey north to Marshall, MI, where finally they are free!  Or are they? 

How the Crosswhite family and the whole town of Marshall face slave catchers in their midnight attack and stand up heroically for what is right is brought to life in art and words by the great storyteller Patricia Polacco.

Story behind the story:  Patricia Polacco is known for looking to real life for inspiration for her books -- and here she looked no further than her own backyard; she lives only twelve miles from Marshall, MI, where the Crosswhite saga took place.  Her very own home was once an inn and a safe haven along the Underground Railroad. Patricia Polacco is known throughout the country for her books that ask children to think of themselves as heroes, and to be courageous in life, as well as her motivating speeches.

Related topics include history, understanding differences, cause and effect, decision making, family relationships.

And be sure to see the curriculum guide -- featuring curriculum connections, discussion questions and classroom activities -- for January's Sparrow and all of Patricia Polacco's book at her publisher's website.


"Polacco at her best...undeniably vivid." -- The Horn Book

"Rooted in history, this is a masterly narrative that horrifies, moves and informs." -- Kirkus Reviews

"[T]his moving account effectively highlights a significant instance of nonviolent community resistance to injustice." -- School Library Journal

FYI:  all the review copies for this title have been sent; please check back and click on the "comments" link to read what your colleagues have to say.


Pat K. said...

Being a Patricia Polacco fan, I purchased this book as soon as it was published. As with her other upper grade picture books, this one is also a gem. I will be including this book, along with Pink and Say, when we study the Underground Railroad and slavery. Ms. Polacco's books are treasured in my third grade classroom. The students love how most of her stories are based on family or friends. They sit motionless as I read her stories aloud. Her illustrations capture the emotion of the story. I can teach the kids so much about the past through Ms. Polacco's books. This is definitely a picnic of the highest level - 5.
Pat Kramer
Palm Harbor, FL

Lisa Kennedy said...

Oh what a wonderful picnic I have just enjoyed! "January's Sparrow" combines suspense, terror, joy, and family while telling a story that covers a family's flight from the horrors of slavery. I am intrigued by the very real feeling of shivers as I read of January's beating. The fear felt by the Crosswhites during their escape is artfully shared with words by Ms. Polacco. As students study the history of the United States prior to the Civil War this is a must read! Thank you Patricia Polacco for sharing the story of the Crosswhite family and the town of Marshall, Michigan. I am proud that such a town exists today and in our country's history. This is definitely a 5+ on the Picnic Basket scale!

Susan Appleton said...

I absolutely LOVED reading this book! The artwork really helps you feel the emotions of the characters in the story and I found myself being held in the clutches of the suspense! This is a beautifully written account of a brave family who endured so much and you can't help but gasp at parts of it and cheer at other parts! I had tears in my eyes at times too! BEAUTIFUL BOOK!!!! I am a Patricia Polacco fan too and I think she has truly outdone herself with this wonderful book. It is DEFINITELY a 5 out of 5 and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to others! GREAT!!!!!

reedertwins said...

enjoyed reading this book. The story is well written,researched, and illustrated. Polacco cleverly paces the story, and keeps you in full anticipation for the next moment. This book will be a great resource for teachers looking for stories about the Underground Railroad. This story begs to be read aloud. I would definately give this book a picnic level of 5.
Kelly Reeder
Media Specialist, K-5
Charlotte, NC

Anonymous said...

This was a powerful story and one I would highly recommend. The illustrations are top notch, the story suspenseful and fast paced. You will love this book!

Linda said...

Whenever I read a Patricia Polacco book, I feel as if I was granted a special gift. This book is a delight to read and treasure. I couldn't wait to share it with my colleagues. We marveled as we turned each page, carefully and passionately. It was like opening a family journal. The illustrations are breathtaking-a piece of art in itself. As you read the book, you could feel the fear felt by the Crosswhites. The way that she includes historic references in a way that leaves the reader wanting to read more is exceptional. This is definitely a 5 plus.

LifeLongLearner said...

Another 5 Strongly recommended book by Patricia Polacco.

As a library media specialist, this story will help our fourth and fifth graders understand the emotional trauma the African American families experienced prior to the civil war in the 1840s. I would not use with younger children. The themes are dramatic and emotional in nature. This moving account realistically portrays a nonviolent community standing up to injustice.

Strongly recommend for Grade 4 and 5 students

Margo Jantzi
Cub Run Elementary Library Media Specialist

Julia Pitau said...

January's Sparrow is intense and graphic. So graphic that I shared this book with various teachers to find out their opinion of this book. The illustrations compliment the subject matter; brutal! One thing all agreed on (male and female, conservative and liberal) was that the targeted audience should be set no lower than 7th grade. Third grade is too young to expose children to the details of skin being lifted from beatings. Let's keep the innoncence of our children intact for as long as possible.

Picnic Rating: 4 for Middle and High School. For Elementary I would not recommend having this book on the shelf.

Denair Charter Academy
Denair, CA

Megan B. said...

This story is so powerful! I think it's an amazing resource in teaching about African American history, the Underground Railroad and the battle for civil rights. I give this a 5.

Ann said...

Patricia Polacco doing what she does best--a fabulous new picture book for older readers--the narrative drawn from real life--in this case, the memoirs of the Michigan based Crosswhite family. A master storyteller, Polacco tells the story of the Crosswhite family's escape from slavery in Kentucky to Michigan on the underground railroad--narrated by January, it is told from young Sadie's point of view. I'm a huge Polacco fan--(can you tell?) and January's Sparrow is Polacco at her best; a warm, personal story of individuals and families dealing with issues of universal importance, full of humor and symbolism, truth and hope. The illustrations are classic Polacco-warm pencil sketches with an emphasis on people; she uses color to great effect. Even the unusual square shape of the book itself enhances the story. the publisher offers a curriculum guide as well. I have already promised it to a 5th grade teacher who cannot wait to get it for her class. Another winner from Polacco--5 of 5--no question.

Ann Langone
Children's Librarian
Boston Public Library/Mattapan

Terry said...

This is definitely a picnic level 5 book. It could be used as a wonderful jumping off point for further study of the Underground Railroad. The illustrations, while they certainly capture the story, may be a little scary for younger readers. Patricia Polacco is such a talented storyteller - and January's Sparrow is just more proof!

EShay said...

Such an honest, open account of a horrific time period of history belongs in every library. At first I was unsure as to how children would take the dialect, but after getting into the book, I believe upper elementary students would enjoy and should be educated in the realities of our country's history.

The pictures were tasteful and dominated the page, while the story was a page turner and had a great message of hope, friendship, and survival.

I give it a 5.

angel believer said...

January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco is a must read. Patricia Polacco is an amazing author. Her words can be gritty and then be gentle and sweet. The writing and illustrations are a perfect match in telling the story of one family’s plight with slavery. This book is based on historical events. A definite read aloud for every fifth grade classroom. This book has so many possible uses in a classroom. Please have a tissue box close by as you read this incredible story. I believe that it could and should win some of the upcoming book awards. It is a 5 out of 5.

reviewed by Mary Lou D.
Literacy facilitator
Cottonwood Heights, UT

Mrs. Stearns said...

January’s Sparrow is a realistic retelling of the escape of a slave family. Polacco’s illustrations add a vivid depiction of the cruelty of slavery. January’s Sparrow provides its readers with a piece of story that is rarely seen – the life of escaped slaves, their fear of capture, and the friendships they forged along their route to freedom. The content and the realistic portrayal of the beating of a slave relegate this book to a middle school level. The book is full of emotion and will be a memorable addition to any study of the underground railroad. I give this books a # 5 rating.
Louise Stearns SIU, Carbondale, IL

Natalie H. said...

Wow! This is a very powerful book about slavery, the Underground Railroad and a family's escape to freedom. I was deeply moved by the story. While the images portrayed in the story are quite vivid and horrific, I think it would be appropriate for upper elementary aged children and up. Absolutely fabulous -- 5 stars!

Heather Hill said...

"January's Sparrow" is another masterpiece by Patricia Polacco. The more you study the pictures and read the story, the more powerful it becomes. I loved that the story was complete. Too many times in other stories, once a former slave reached the North, we've not heard what happened. We got to live in fear with the Crosswhites for a brief period, nothing compared to the fear they lived with, but a taste of the terror. We also got to hear the rest of the story of survival.

This is a 5 out of 5 in my picnic basket.

Heather Hill, Reading Specialist
Enterprise Elementary
Woodbridge, VA

Anonymous said...

Patricia Polacco is a wonderful author. I use many of her books in my classroom instruction and am happy to have January's Sparrow to add to my collection. The illistrations in this book are beautiful they help to portray the feeling of the characters in this story. As with all of her books the students will enjoy the discussions we will have.
This is a must have in your picnic basket. It ranks more than a 5 for me.

Nikki Mills, Indian Creek Library, CA said...

5!5!5! What a beautiful book. The story is brought to life with illustrations that evoke emtions of fear, sorrow, and happiness. What a wonderful way to explain part of our history.

Barbara Duggan said...

January's Sparrow is a great book to use as an accompanying text when studying the Civil War and Underground Railroad. The illustrations are riveting and the emotional tugs of the characters are compelling.
Along with learning the "facts" of this time period in our middle school social studies classes, this book will help to fill in a human side of the story.

Rating: 5/5

Mrs. Horne said...

Patricia Polacco has done it again...she has created a truly beautiful, touching story about slavery and the Underground Railroad. Since my first read of Pink and Say I have been a fan of Polacco and the picture book hold up beautifully.

Not only do I as an adult love her books, they are great additions to my Civil War unit that I teach my 6th graders. There is nothing to hook their attention like a good story that connects with the time period. I plan on using this book this spring along with Pink and Say.

Thank you Picnic Basket!

Rating: 5/5

Lindsay Horne
New Kent Middle School
New Kent, VA

Lemon the Duck said...

Just when I thought when Patricia Polacco couldn't top herself, she proves me wrong. This book is right up there with her other moving title "Pink and Say". The illustrations alone convey the times of fear, desperation, joy, and comfort the family experiences.
Based on a true story, this is a beautifully written, amazing account of a strong family. It is sure to stir the heart and sole of all readers. This book is definitely a 5.
Laura Backman
Hathaway School

M Battista said...

What a beautiful and touching book this is. I am sending it to our middle school because I believe it is too graphic and disturbing for our elementary students. I give it a 5 for middle school and up.
Denair Elementary School
Denair, CA

Monica W. said...

What a powerfully written historical fiction. I am already a huge Patricia Polacco fan, and January's Sparrow did not let me down! This story takes the reader back to the time of slavery and gives them a taste of life for many black families. The story keeps you on the edge of your seat, wanting to see what is going to happen next. I am an elementary school library/media specialist and even though I loved this book I am reluctant to put it on my shelves due to the graphic nature of some of the story. It is something that a young student may not be ready to read/see. However, I do think for older readers it is a must read. A definite 5 in my picnic basket.
Monica Wilson
Roseville, CA

Tina's Blog said...

Every book I have ever read of Patricia Polacco's has been a good experience...each book seems to touch my heart in some way. Polacco's latest, January Sparrow, is another wonderful Polacco creation.

This story, set before the Civil War, shares what happens to Sadie and her family as they watch a friend and fellow slave beaten to death after he tried to escape. All Sadie has left to remind her of January is the small sparrow he carved from wood. When Sadie and her family flee in the night to go north via the Underground Railroad, the sparrow is left behind. Eventually Sadie and her family settle in a northern city, intending to continue to Canada, yet content to stay in this welcoming town for the time. Without giving away the actual events in this story, I will just say that the ending is heartwarming - a true example of friendship and loyalty, of looking beyond the color of someone's skin. The narrator is a bit of a surprise, too, in a very good way.

I meant to read this one right away after I received it from The Picnic Basket, and I have carried it around with me for a few weeks. My eight year old read it to herself....I think she understood parts of it, but I wish we could have read it together since the Underground Railroad and slavery are concepts and events that she is not familiar with as a second grader. As with most books, I enjoyed that Polacco wrote about an event in history- the Crosswhite saga- that really happened. And as usual, wonderful illustrations. This is a bit of a longer picture book - definitely for upper elementary or more advanced readers.

Rating 5/5

K. Stearns said...

I give this book a 5 for the middle school level. Due to the somewhat graphic beatings present in the beginning of the text, I do not think I would read it to children younger than that. It would be an excellent text to use when teaching the Civil War with middle school students, and depicts a place not often shown in social studies texts. Polacco excellently portrays the loss and separation present with slavery, as well as the ever-present fear of being found if an escaped slave. But as Polacco so often does, she shows the tenacity of the human spirit and the joy present when people unite to protect others.

Carol said...

Once again Patricia Polacco's writing leaves me bot in tears and in awe. Her beautiful story of hope, strength, devotion, loyalty and love, is a perfect model for discussions about the Civil War, Slavery, or The Underground Railroad. The voice she uses feels like the voice of someone the reader already knows and loves. They feel like family and you cannot help but worry about them and hope for them like the story is in the present! The use of dialect and other historically based research, make this as authentic as any "history book". This book is a 5-strongly recommended.

Miss K said...

January’s Sparrow is a book that I will be integrating into our class’ study of slavery. My students connect really well to picture books that contain the historical content we’re studying. The fact that they usually have a happy ending also helps temper the heavy topics. You don’t want eleven year olds to feel completely hopeless!

Patricia Polacco’s story is unique in that it encompasses a long period of time. The book actually seems to have several different plots, surrounding the lives of slaves who have escaped to Michigan from Kentucky. It is a sweet story, but also has gory details about the beating of a slave. Readers who are very young will be frightened and in need of explanation. This is definitely a book that you should read with a child.

The illustrations in January’s Sparrow are so special. The reader can see all of the strokes that went into the drawings. The expressions on the characters’ faces are beautifully rendered and remind me of the happiness I felt when I saw the recent “Curious George” movie. It’s nice to see artwork that is not computer-generated.

January’s Sparrow is a worthwhile addition to any classroom library.

janew said...

Polacco at her best...again. January's Sparrow is a must read.I do hope it gets the attention and honor it deserves.There is no better time than this to fill children with the sense of community and hope.

Kim Watson said...

This book takes you on a journey from slavery to freedom by means of the Underground Railroad. The illustrations coincide with the text beautifully. The reader experiences the emotions of the character with every turn of a page. This would be a great read aloud to students who are studying the Pre-Civil War Era. It will help students have a better understanding of the struggles that families had to endure during this horrific time in our nation's history. This is a must-read and share book for all educators who teach this material.
Rate: definitely 5/5

SunshienFamily said...

I feel fortunate to have been able to review this book and be introduced to this author, Patricia Polacco. Often times we see sanitized versions of autrocities that happened in our history and I think that is from the fear that we will scare children and take away their hope. However, this book provides us with a very realistic version of the life of a family of runaway slaves and though scary perhaps it also offers hope and truth. Violence, fear and unjustice are often depicted so often in movies, TV and the news but children have no connection to it. This book brings meaning to the historical truth of slavery, the need for the Underground Railroad and the jeapordy those who traveled on it and maintained it were in at all times. It was beautifully done and I would not hesitate to share it with students of any age. 5/5

juli said...

Who doesn't love Patricia Polacco? I know I do. I want to say "Thank You" to Ms. Polacco for writing January's Sparrow. This is certainly a well-written book that I will be able to share with my 5th grade students as we study that important period of our history. The subject of slavery and the brutal treatment of slaves is never easy to explain, but with the help of this well-written story it will make the task more approachable.

The highest of ratings!

5th grade teacher

Susan E said...

I am a K-4 library media specialist. I believe this book to be worthy of every picnic - a "5." Patricia Polacco's books are consistently used to demonstrate the writer's craft in our school's Readers'/Writers' Workshop model, and this book will be no exception.

The only dilemma for librarians is the size of the book coupled with the mature elements (slave beatings, bloody whippings, etc.) It's one of those "Oh my, where do we shelve it?" type books. This book is for fourth graders and above, in my opinion, and I actually think would create quite a wonderful class discussion if used in middle and high school classroom units on the Underground Railroad. The book is 96 pages - a thick picture book, not at all a traditional 32 pager. And the subject deserves such a lengthy book. But you gotta find a mature enough reader willing to tote home such a big book! :) That's the other catch - 2nd and 3rd grade fans of Patricia Polacco's other books may not be ready for the themes of this book.

But all in all, it's done with Polacco's traditional excellence.

Susan Eley
Hillside School
Mt Laurel, NJ

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