Will Sparrow's Road

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In his thirteenth year, Will Sparrow, liar and thief, becomes a runaway. On the road, he encounters a series of con artists—a pickpocket, a tooth puller, a pig trainer, a conjurer—and learns that others are more adept than he at lying and thieving. Then he reluctantly joins a traveling troupe of "oddities," including a dwarf and a cat-faced girl, holding himself apart from the "monsters" and resolving to be on guard against further deceptions. At last Will is forced to understand that ...

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In his thirteenth year, Will Sparrow, liar and thief, becomes a runaway. On the road, he encounters a series of con artists—a pickpocket, a tooth puller, a pig trainer, a conjurer—and learns that others are more adept than he at lying and thieving. Then he reluctantly joins a traveling troupe of "oddities," including a dwarf and a cat-faced girl, holding himself apart from the "monsters" and resolving to be on guard against further deceptions. At last Will is forced to understand that appearances are misleading and that  he has been his own worst deceiver. The rowdy world of market fairs in Elizabethan England is the colorful backdrop for Newbery medalist Cushman's new comic masterpiece. 

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
Each page of Will Sparrow's Road celebrates language and history…After creating suspense by dropping us into Will's world and making us care about him, Cushman ratchets up the entertainment level, allowing Will to fall in with a troupe of itinerant performers…Suddenly the story is populated with a hairy-faced girl, a dwarf, a blind juggler and a trained pig. Rather than use them for mere color, Cushman slowly unveils the history and individuality of each character, and at this point Will's tale turns from picaresque to bildungsroman.
—Michael Sims
Publishers Weekly
Impudent, headstrong, and “a liar and a thief,” 12-year-old Will Sparrow is also a hero to remember in this rousing story from Newbery Medalist Cushman (The Midwife’s Apprentice), set in Elizabethan England. Abandoned by his mother and sold by his alcoholic father to an abusive innkeeper in exchange for unlimited ale, Will soon winds up on the dangerous open road. Will tries to outsmart a stellar cast of thieves, tricksters, and con artists—underestimating all of them and getting taken advantage of repeatedly. He eventually finds a place on the circuit of fairs with Master Tidball and his caravan of “oddities and prodigies,” which includes “the world’s smartest pig” and a whiskered woman billed as half-cat (“It seemed to Will that Master Tidball made a good living for someone who did nothing but watch others work. Will himself could do that, he thought”). Offering action, humor, and heart in equal doses, Cushman’s story is, at its core, about creating and claiming a family of one’s own. Readers will be ready to follow Will anywhere from the very first page. Ages 10–14. Agent: Elizabeth Harding, Curtis Brown. (Nov.)
From the Publisher
"A compelling coming-of-age road trip."

"Set in Elizabethan England, the novel is built upon Cushman's thorough research and solid understanding of the period."

"[Cushman] manages the tricky balance of keeping her characters engaging and understandable for her audience while still making them very much of their time."
Horn Book

"Fascinating, sometimes seemingly preposterous, details are solidly corroborated in the informative author's note that reflects Cushman's extensive research."
School Library Journal

"Offering action, humor, and heart in equal doses, Cushman's story is, at its core, about creating and claiming a family of one's own."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Lively and amusing . . . . [Cushman's] details have the surprising aptness of an Elizabeth Enright story—or, to step outside children's books, a Raymond Chandler novel."
The New York Times Book Review

“Karen Cushman is a master of portraying personal transformation. . . . A warmhearted portrait of a boy coming to terms with himself and the world.”
Historical Novels Society

"As usual, Cushman is adept at bringing the past to vivid life, with evocative details from daily Elizabethan life and authentic, often humorous dialogue."

Children's Literature - Beverley Fahey
Will Sparrow, liar and thief, flees the wrath of his cruel master and goes in search of a better life. Wet, hungry and bootless his mantra of caring for no one but himself and a full belly is sorely tested by hardships of the open road. His naivete is revealed when he meets up with Nell Liftpurse who steals from him his blanket and a much-coveted button. His cheated again by a charlatan dentist and when he makes the acquaintance of Master Tidball and his collection of oddities and prodigies he thinks he has found a way to add a few coins to his empty purse. Will throws his lot in with this rag-tag group that includes a thieving dwarf named Fitz Lancelot, Benjamin, a blind juggler, the cat-faced girl Grace Wyse, a three-legged chicken and a mermaid baby. Even among this assortment of eccentrics, and with all the rigors traveling to various market fairs entails, it is difficult for Will to know just who to trust. Thinking himself a clever trickster, time and time again he is outwitted by duplicitous conmen. It is Benjamin who tells him that with all the sorrow and loss that life hands out you either let yourself be hit or stand together. Gradually Will begins to see the travelers as his family and when he runs into trouble and runs for the safety of the cart and not the road from town he allows himself to believe he has found a home. Set in Elizabethan England, Cushman's novel features a likeable young man coming of age in a difficult era. Filled with colorful rants and curses, language of the time and edifying Latin, readers will become immersed in Will's story and his journey both on the physical road and the metaphorical road to altruism and family. An author's note clarifies the history of the market fairs and their importance to the economic livelihood of the people as well as providing entertainment and much needed socializing.
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—"I care for no one but myself and nothing but my belly." Somewhere in England in the year 1599, this is the philosophy of 13-year-old Will Sparrow, abandoned by his mother, sold to an innkeeper by his father in exchange for unlimited ale, and on the run from his grim prospects as a chimney sweep. He is barefoot and hungry, and his naïveté and desperation make him a repeated target for ruthless folks along the way. When he hires on with an oddity show, traveling from fair to fair, Will thinks he's found a benefactor in its owner, Thomas Tidball, only to discover that things are not always as they seem. It may just be that the disagreeable dwarf, Lancelot Fitzgeoffrey, and the "creature" Greymalkin, a girl with the head of a cat, provide the care and friendship he seeks. Vivid description brings the period and setting to life, and colorful characters flesh out the simple plotline. Fascinating, sometimes seemingly preposterous, details are solidly corroborated in the informative author's note that reflects Cushman's extensive research. As she did in Catherine Called Birdy (1994) and The Midwife's Apprentice (1995, both Clarion), the author has skillfully evoked a period far outside readers' experience to tell a good and accessible story.Marie Orlando, formerly at Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Bellport, NY
Kirkus Reviews
In Elizabethan England, young Will hits the road with an assortment of human characters and Duchess, one smart pig. His mother deserted him, his father sold him to an innkeeper for his fill of ale and the innkeeper is about to sell him for a chimney sweep just for stealing a pie to feed his empty stomach. Will, a self-proclaimed liar and thief, is also bold and quick-witted and so runs away. On the road, he encounters a thief, a cheating dentist, an illusionist, a blind juggler, the smart pig and her owner and Master Tidball, a purveyor of oddities. Traveling with the last from fair to fair, he slowly befriends one of those oddities, a girl who is advertised as a cat. (She has hypertrichosis, a genetic disorder causing facial hair, as Cushman explains in her note.) The ragtag entourage also includes a dwarf. Along the way, readers get a flavor for Elizabethan foods, clothing and song. Cushman, a Newbery Award– and Honor–winning author for her historical novels featuring girls, now presents a boy as her protagonist. She sends him on an inner journey as well as a physical one, allowing him to grow in empathy and to see past people's physical appearances into their true character. A compelling coming-of-age road trip. (author's note, suggested reading, selected resources) (Historical fiction. 8-12)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544336322
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/4/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 672,388
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Cushman's acclaimed historical novels include Catherine, Called Birdy, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Midwife's Apprentice , which received the Newbery Medal. She lives on Vashon Island in Washington State. Her website is www.karencushmanbooks.com.

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Read an Excerpt



Will Sparrow was a liar and a thief, and hungry, so when he saw the chance to steal a cold rabbit pie from the inn’s kitchen and blame it on the dog, he took it—both the chance and the pie. But the innkeeper would have none of it: "And how did the wee dog open the door, scrabble onto the table, and fetch the pie out of the kitchen, all the while sitting on Mistress Grubb’s lap having his ears scratched, I would like to know?" He grabbed Will by the shoulders and shook him. Pie-crust crumbs fell like snow.

"Ye have stolen your last meal, boy. I paid too high a price for you," the innkeeper said with a spray of spittle. "Free drink for your lout of a father. I could easily hire me two boys for what he costs me in ale." Will struggled to escape, but the innkeeper held on tighter. "No, boy, you be liar and thief and not worth your keep. I mean to send you to the city. Sell you for a climbing boy."

Will’s heart thumped. A chimney sweep? "Nay," he said, still struggling. "Ne’er!"

"Aye, boy. There always be a market for such," the innkeeper continued. "Them don’t last long. They lungs go."

Will kicked his captor in the knee and, shoving the table aside, turned for the door, but the innkeeper stuck out a booted foot, sending Will tumbling to the ground.

"You be off with the carter in the morning," he said, lifting Will by the collar of his shirt.

Although Will struggled and kicked and tried to bite the innkeeper’s large and leathery arm, he could not escape and was locked in the stable—without his boots, lest he run. But it is difficult to keep a wiry, clever, sad, and angry lad locked up, and Will worked on the boards of the stable, making first a mousehole, and then a hole a weasel might fit through, and finally a hole large enough for a small but determined boy. He wrapped a blanket, prickly with horsehair and straw but not too tattered for warmth, around his shoulders. Exhaling loudly, he squeezed through the hole and ran into the night.

In the deepening dark, the boy could not see the road ahead, so he ran with his arms outstretched and waving wildly, lest he collide with a tree or a wagon or some unknown frightful thing. Such motions made running difficult and slow, but no one could follow him in the dark, so he ran.

Finally his arms and shoulders, not to mention his legs and feet, grew so tired and ached so fiercely that he had to take the risk and stop. Where he was he did not know. On the road or off, he did not know. The darkness and the strangeness frightened him, and his heart beat like a tambour. He moved forward until he felt something—a tree stump, he guessed—by which he could rest without fear of being overrun by a cart or trampled by a horse. Lying down, he snuggled into the blanket, his back against the stump, for that way he felt less lonesome and forlorn.

The night was full of sounds. Leaves rustled and whispered, the wind moaned, branches creaked and snapped. Will could not sleep. He lay imagining the innkeeper catching him, his father finding him, or—worse—trolls and goblins, ogres and elves and evil dwarfs, come out of the forest to bedevil him. When he heard the direful hooting of an owl, he pulled the blanket over his head. Finally, comforted by the familiar smell of horse, he slept.

Dawn comes early in summer, so before long he woke to the sound of a cockcrow and opened his eyes. Fie upon it! In the dark he had doubled back and was now not an hour’s walk from where he’d started. He smiled a sour smile. Leastwise the innkeeper would not be looking for him here, so near to the inn.

He rubbed his eyes, washed his face, and drank deeply from a stream running warm and shallow. "You, Will Sparrow," he said to his face shimmering in the water, "are a sorry excuse for a runabout. Now you must start again."

When folk heard his name, they smiled at first, it being a fitting name for one so small and brown, but then, thinking "Sparrow? Sparrow?" some would remember his father, the drunken fool who sold his only son for ale, and would turn away in disgust. So Will ran, from the innkeeper and the carter, from his ale-sodden father, from the disapproving faces of folk, from his very life.

Will’s stomach was empty, his head fuzzy, his legs heavy. He could go no more until he fed them all. Slowly he picked his way along the road, careful to keep the hedgerow between himself and anyone’s eyes. It being late summer, he found a thorny thicket of blackberries, shiny and plump and smelling of sunshine, which he picked until his hands were purple and ate until his belly threatened to give them all up.

He wiped his hands on his breeches and stretched. While he ate, the road had grown busy with travelers in fancy cloaks and threadbare linen, carts and coaches and hay wagons, horses and sheep, merchants and beggars. Even with the shelter of the hedgerow, Will thought himself too easily seen and found. But where might he go? To his right was ploughland, golden with ripened grain, and to his left deep forest. In the forest he might be hidden from sight, but it was a dark and evil place, filled with demons and beasts and men who lived like beasts.

"You, boy," someone called, and without stopping to see who called or who was meant, Will hitched up his breeches and his courage and ran into the woods. Brambles tore at his legs, branches whipped his face and tugged at his hair, but fear drove him on, away from the inn and toward he knew not what.

Was he running east or west? Toward a town or away? Was the innkeeper still looking for him? Had he sent the carter to fetch Will back? And his father—did his father care enough to search for him? Was the man too codswalloped to follow? Or had he lost his chance at free ale when Will ran, which would leave him sober and storming? Will shivered at the thought. Being sober enraged his father, as did honking geese, beggars, bill collectors, and Will himself.

The innkeeper had been no easier than Will’s father, but at the inn Will was fed somewhat regularly and many an extra sausage found its way under his shirt and into his belly, so he had stayed while wet spring turned to high summer. He slept in the stable behind the inn and each morning turned the spit on which joints of meat roasted, scoured the pots the mutton stew simmered in, and gathered up the rushes befouled with bones, grease, and piss, until that pilfered rabbit pie undid him.

He ran all morning, eager to put as much distance as possible between himself and the inn. By midafternoon the day was so bright that streaks of sunshine found their way even through the trees. He would have to hide until evening. He found a small hollow to curl into, pulled the blanket over himself for cover, and fell soundly asleep.

He awoke not long after to whistles and shouts. "I am certain he went this way," a rumbly voice called.

Will froze.

"I will go this way and you that. He cannot get away," said a scratchy voice.

Will crouched lower under the branches. How could they have found him so easily?

"Come, boy. Come out," Rumbly Voice said.

Scratchy Voice shouted in triumph, "There he is! I see him! Come out. You cannot get away."

Will looked about for an escape. He would not be taken so easily, not end up a climbing boy and die sooty and coughing in a chimney.

"Come on, boy. Be not afeared," Scratchy Voice said.

As he dove into the brambles, Will heard a soft nickering. "Good boy," said Rumbly Voice. "I have a carrot for ye."

Will stopped and peeked through the bushes. A horse was poking its way toward two men. One of them slipped a halter over the horse’s neck and patted its rump. "Good boy, good. No one will hurt ye," the man rumbled. Will could hear the sound of carrot crunching. "Come, we will take ye home."

The two men and the horse turned and walked away.

Will slapped his head. A horse. It was a horse they were after and not him at all! He was dizzy with relief but did envy the horse the carrot, the gentle words, and the home. Will himself had no prospect for any of those. He turned back for his blanket and then walked on.

It appeared to Will as if the woods went on forever, even to the edge of the earth where there were monsters and dragons. He shivered but walked ahead. There was nothing for him behind.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2013

    Kelsey danielle

    I love this book so much and great work Karen Cushman!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2015

    Blurb does say this was a newberry e g kids book

    So go to editorial reviews for an english huck finn all blurbs should include cataloging and library of congress to avoid confusion of course old childrens books are so literary only college english majors read them lwith cliff notes

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2014



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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2013


    There's nothing needed to be said in private at the moment, so I'll just be at SL for now. Kay?

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2013

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2015

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