Sparrow Jack

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A lively twist on the immigrant story

When John Bardsley leaves England to seek his fortune in America, he finds that his new city, Philadelphia, is crawling with inchworms! No one seems to know how to get rid of them, and the American birds turn up their beaks at the thought of eating any. Recalling his rescue of a very hungry baby sparrow when he was a boy, John comes up with a novel way to solve the problem, and he once again sets sail ...

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A lively twist on the immigrant story

When John Bardsley leaves England to seek his fortune in America, he finds that his new city, Philadelphia, is crawling with inchworms! No one seems to know how to get rid of them, and the American birds turn up their beaks at the thought of eating any. Recalling his rescue of a very hungry baby sparrow when he was a boy, John comes up with a novel way to solve the problem, and he once again sets sail across the ocean in order to save his new city – with some help from his feathered friends.

Using detailed illustrations, Mordicai Gerstein tells the little-known story of how sparrows came to America and how John Bardsley came to be known as Sparrow Jack.


Sparrow Jack is a 2004 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

In 1868, John Bardsley, an immigrant from England, brought one thousand sparrows from his home country back to Philadelphia, where he hoped they would help save the trees from the inch-worms that were destroying them. Based on a true story.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"...pleasing blend of history and legend...Gerstein's whimsical illustrations capture the spirited energy of this intriguing story...[Sparrow Jack] is portrayed as a determined, ingenious, and endearing figure...the fact-based story includes pleasing touches of imagination...An enjoyable and unusual bit of history" —School Library Journal
Publishers Weekly
With the same gusto he brought to What Charlie Heard, Gerstein celebrates the accomplishments of another out-of-the-box thinker, John Bardsley. In 1868, the Englishman, newly transported to Philadelphia, imported 1,000 sparrows to the United States, averting the destruction of his new hometown's foliage by inchworms. This odd historical tidbit, in Gerstein's skilled hands, shapes up into a funny and engrossing tale. While a boy, Bardsley befriends a baby sparrow-one of a species viewed by the English as "greedy, noisy pests, but tasty snacks when roasted." The hero's fondness for the birds sparks his unusual idea about how to get Philadelphia's inchworm population into balance. Like composer Charlie Ives, Bardsley follows his vision despite naysayers. He transports the birds without the funding of the city council and shelters 1,000 sparrows in his home through the winter months. A living room scene, showing "Sparrow Jack" calmly reading a newspaper with birds perched on him from head to toe, embodies the whimsy of this story and the good nature of its hero. Humor and fancy augment every lightly hued, cross-hatched illustration. Gerstein decorates a number of scenes with a border of the ubiquitous inchworms, for example, and includes a dream sequence in which the birds debate the impending move ("Face facts. We're despised and hunted here"). Such playful touches make these humble little creatures soar. Ages 4-8. (May) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
Author-artist Mordicai Gerstein is known for his thoughtful stories and illuminating illustrations. His newest picture book is Sparrow Jack. This unique and unusual immigrant tale tells how the common house sparrow arrived in America. It is based on a real person plus scraps of history, old news clippings and bits of sparrow legend and gossip. John Bardsley, the book's intriguing human hero, was once an English sparrow hunter, but rescuing a baby bird turned him into a sparrow-lover. As the bird rode in his hat, he saw it was "cheerful, brave, and loyal." Gerstein sets up a subtle parallel, for these traits describe John's approach to life and are revealed by the story that follows. John leaves England to seek his fortune in America and faces "a long stormy voyage" and is "seasick all the way." Each time John crosses the ocean, Gerstein repeats this refrain and accompanies it with a full-page image of a dark and squally night and a ship buffeted by waves. He does not tell us of John's courage, he shows us! John rids America of an inchworm infestation with the help of his hungry feathered friends and there are plenty of lessons along the way. Happily, none of them are explicit! John is caring, ingenious, and determined, but Gerstein does not take time to lecture. He is caught up in his spirited telling, word play and the humor etched into his words and watercolors. 2003, Farrar Straus Giroux,
— Susie Wilde
School Library Journal
K-Gr 2-In 1868, John Bardsley, an immigrant from England, returns to his boyhood home to corral 1000 sparrows, hoping that they will eat the inchworms that are plaguing Philadelphia. Based on fact, this amusing slice of history is embellished by whimsical twists of imagination and illustrated with wry artwork. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Gerstein reworks a historical anecdote about an Englishman who transplanted himself-and a thousand house sparrows-to this country in 1868. Strange as it may seem, the birds were unknown here before the mid-19th century. One John Bardsley, seeing his adopted town of Philadelphia plagued every spring by inchworms that the local birds refuse to eat, recalls the voracious little pests of his youth, and returns to England to round up a flock. Gerstein depicts Bardsley as a smiling, slender gent in muttonchops and a bowler, surrounding him with both contemporaries in period dress and clouds of handsomely feathered sparrows. Adding a doubtless fanciful element to the tale (which isn't particularly close to fact anyway), he has Bardsley hear, or perhaps dream, that the sparrows talk it over, and volunteer to make the trip. They get a skeptical reception in Philadelphia, but once they have hatchlings to feed, the inchworm plague is history. Gerstein declines to take up a discussion of the now-controversial practice of importing alien species-but that just makes his tale a springboard for discussion, as well as an engaging take on an obscure bit of Americana. (foreword) (Picture book. 7-9)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374371395
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 5/1/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 32
  • Age range: 4 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: AD720L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 8.40 (w) x 10.66 (h) x 0.35 (d)

Meet the Author

Mordicai Gerstein

Mordicai Gerstein is the author and illustrator of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, winner of the Caldecott Medal, and has had four books named New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Gerstein was born in Los Angeles in 1935. He remembers being inspired as a child by images of fine art, which his mother cut out of Life magazine, and by children’s books from the library: “I looked at Rembrandt and Superman, Matisse and Bugs Bunny, and began to make my own pictures.”


He attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and then got a job in an animated cartoon studio that sent him to New York, where he designed characters and thought up ideas for TV commercials. When a writer named Elizabeth Levy asked him to illustrate a humorous mystery story about two girls and a dog, his book career began, and soon he moved on to writing as well as illustrating. “I’m still surprised to be an author,” he says. “I wonder what I’ll write next?” Gerstein lives in Westhampton, Massachusetts.


Mordicai Gerstein has always been an artist. As a child, he enjoyed painting and eventually graduated from art school in Los Angeles. He continued painting in New York City and supported himself and his family for 25 years by designing and directing animated television commercials. He says, "I had always loved cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, and I found I enjoyed making animated films. Even a 30-second commercial involved drawing and painting, storytelling, not to mention actors, music, and sound effects."

During the 1960s, Gerstein made several films that received critical acclaim. In 1966, The Room won the Award of the Film Clubs of France at the International Festival for Experimental Film, and in 1968, The Magic Ring won a CINE Golden Eagle.

His career took a dramatic turn when he met children's author Elizabeth Levy in 1970. He has illustrated her Something Queer Is Going On chapter books ever since, and it was Levy and her editor who encouraged Gerstein to write a book on his own. His debut came in 1983 with Arnold of the Ducks, the story of a young boy who gets lost in the wild and is raised by ducks. The New York Times hailed Gerstein's freshman effort as one of the year's best children's books, and he went on to write two more volumes exploring the theme of feral childhood. In 1998 he released The Wild Boy, a picture book based on the true story of a young 18th-century French boy who was found living in the woods and was put on display as an oddity, only to escape and be captured again years later. That same year, Gerstein released Victor, a young adult novel about the same boy.

Gerstein tells the story is of a Tibetan woodcutter who is given a choice between reincarnation or heaven in The Mountains of Tibet, which received the distinction of being one of 1987's ten best illustrated books of the year, according to The New York Times. Although the book is written for kids around age seven, Gerstein approaches the subject of death with a bold, sensitive plot and elegant illustrations. Spirituality is a major theme in many of Gerstein's books. He has interpreted tales from the Bible in Jonah and the Two Great Fish (1997), Noah and the Great Flood (1999), and Queen Esther the Morning Star (2001). Other titles such as The Seal Mother (1986), The Story of May (1993), and The Shadow of a Flying Bird (1994) also express Gerstein's reverential awe for the world.

Young readers can also stretch their imaginations with Gerstein's more playful books. Vocabulary is fun in The Absolutely Awful Alphabet (1999), where the letter P is actually a particularly putrid predator! Bedtime Everybody! (1996) has a young girl's stuffed animals planning a bedtime picnic. Behind the Couch (1996) takes readers on an exciting caper into an unknown world of grazing dust balls, Lost Coin Hill and the Valley of the Stuffed Animals. In Stop Those Pants (1998), a boy is forced to play hide-and-seek with his clothes as he gets ready for the day. Gerstein pays tribute to American composer Charles Ives in What Charlie Heard (2002), the story of a boy's unique talent for interpreting all the sounds of daily life.

Another biographical picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2003) tells the story of Philippe Petit, the daredevil who walked across a tightrope suspended between New York City's World Trade Center towers in 1974. The book won the Caldecott Medal in 2004, and parents have praised the book as an invaluable tool for talking to their children about the events of 9/11.

Many of Gerstein's children's books are destined to be classics. His style of writing and illustration brings each of his stories to life, shows a passion for adventure, and relishes the joy that comes from understanding the mysteries of the world.

Good To Know

Despite a successful career illustrating children's books, the first book Gerstein wrote, Arnold of the Ducks, was turned down by seven publishers. Eventually, The New York Times called it one of the best children's books of the year.

Gerstein was inspired to write The Mountains of Tibet after reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

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    1. Hometown:
      Northhampton, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 25, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      Chouinard Institute of Art
    2. Website:

Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2003


    With vibrantly enchanting illustrations the vaunted Mordicai Gerstein relates the surprising story of John Bardsley and the introduction of sparrows to America. It was the middle of the 19th century when Bardsley, like so many others, left his native land to find fortune in America. Philadelphia was his city of choice; house painting his work. To his amazement he found that his adopted city was literally crawling with inchworms. One of the little rascals even dove into his shirt, a tickling annoyance. Soon, the inchworms were devouring the leaves on bushes and trees. Birds that were native to Philadelphia, jays, wrens, robins, and thrushes didn't find the little wigglers appetizing. Even though people were hired to pick the inchworms off the trees it was a losing battle. No one had any idea what to do - except for Bardsley. He remembered the sparrows he had befriended when he was a boy in England, and believed that they could rid the city of inchworms. Off he went, across the ocean again, and seasick all the way. Yet, he was determined to bring his feathered friends to Philadelphia. Did the birds accompany him back to America? Did they save the city's greenery? You'll have to read this imaginative, amusing tale by the one and only Mordicai Gerstein to find out!

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