Friday, December 21, 2012

2013 Contenders: Will Sparrow's Road, by Karen Cushman

By the end of the first page of Will Sparrow's Road, it's established beyond question that twelve-year-old Will Sparrow has had a hard life, and that it's made him hard in return. Sold by his father, and about to be sold again by the innkeeper for whom he has worked, Will makes his escape and runs away. Where is he going? Will has no idea, only that he wants to be as far as possible from everywhere he's ever been.

Along the way, Will is repeatedly forced to ask himself questions about trust. Can you trust anyone? Should you try? And what if the people you think you can trust and the people you actually can trust aren't the same?

There's a long tradition in the Newbery of books that follow a boy traveling through a medieval world, from Elizabeth Janet Gray's 1943 winner, Adam of the Road, on to Avi's 2003 titleist, Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Although Will Sparrow's Road is certainly a solid book, I don't think it quite has the sense of youthful adventure of the former title, or the atmosphere of danger and paranoia that permeates the latter. By choosing this genre and setting, Karen Cushman has set a high bar for herself, and I'm not certain that she clears it.

Nor am I convinced that Will Sparrow's Road manages to pull itself above the more general pack of this year's books. Will himself is an engaging protagonist, but none of the supporting cast feels particularly deep -- particularly not if we're comparing them to the supporting characters in Wonder or Liar & Spy. The Elizabethan British setting is well-drawn, but doesn't come to life as vividly as the New England snowscape of Twelve Kinds of Ice, the quietly sterile hallways of Breathing Room, or the soot-covered streets of Splendors and Glooms. And even though the themes of trust and belonging are consistent and carefully explored, I don't think they're examined as thoroughly as the meaning of freedom and humanity in The One and Only Ivan, or the poisonous nature of power in Wooden Bones.

This all maybe makes Will Sparrow's Road sound worse than it is. It's a Karen Cushman novel, and as a member of the select group of active authors with both a Newbery Medal (The Midwife's Apprentice, 1996) and an Honor (Catherine, Called Birdy, 1995), she probably can't write a book that's less than above average. Kids who like historical fiction, or even who are interested in low fantasy, will likely take eagerly to Will Sparrow's Road. There's a good chance it will show up on the Notables list; I just don't think it quite has enough to make it out of the field for this year's Newbery.

Published in November by Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

P.S. Rachael and I are both off work until after the new year, so we'll catch you in January. Have a wonderful holiday season everyone!

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