Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sparrow Girl

This story is based on Mao's Great Sparrow War in 1958 in which he "declared war" on sparrows because the birds ate their wheat.  They decided to try to eliminate the sparrow population.  I did a little research and the following excerpt is from a Shanghai newspaper with the headline "The Whole City is Attacking the Sparrows."  
     "On the early morning of December 13, the citywide battle to destroy the sparrows began.  In large and small streets, red flags were waving.  On the buildings and in the courtyards, open spaces, roads and rural farm fields, there were numerous scarecrows, sentries, elementary and middle school students, government office employees, factory workers, farmers and People's Liberation Army shouting their war cries.  In the Xincheng district, they produced more than 80,000 scarecrows and more than 100,000 colorful flags overnight.  The residents of Xietu road, Xuhui distrct and Yangpu road Yulin district also produced a large number of motion scarecrows.  In the city and the outskirts, almost half of the labor force was mobilized into the anti-sparrow army.  Usually, the young people were responsible for trapping, poisoning and attacking the sparrows while the old people and the children kept sentry watch.  The factories in the city committed themselves into the war effort even as they guaranteed that they would maintain production levels.  In the parks, cemeteries and nurseries (of young plants) where there are fewer people around, 150 free-fire zones were set up for shooting the sparrows.  The Nanyang Girls Middle School rifle team received training in the techniques of shooting birds.  Thus the citizens fought a total war against the sparrows.  By 8pm tonight, it is estimated that a total of 194,432 sparrows have been killed." (from The Chinese Sparrows of 1958. By Sha Yexin. August 31, 1997)
     In the picture book, Sparrow Girl, Ming-Li was quite upset because she liked sparrows.  When she talked to her older brother he said, "Our Leader's plans are always perfect.  They told us at school.  Now, go to sleep!"  The Chinese were declaring war against the sparrows, claiming they were their enemies.  But Ming-Li looked up and in her heart she couldn't imagine a sky empty of birds.  Although her country's leader called the birds enemies because they were eating the grain, she decided she didn't want to be a part of the annihilation.  Villagers scared birds away with firecrackers and gongs and guns, and the birds flew from the trees and fell to the ground "frightened to death."  Ming-Li decided she had to do something and vowed to save as many sparrows as she could... one at a time... and she saved seven sparrows in the barn she picked up from the ground, hoping one day they will again fly free.
     In fact, ultimately millions of people died because of this ecological mistake... because of the lack of sparrows the locust problem grew and contributed to a huge famine.

     I love the artwork by Yoko Tanaka...it's simple and beautiful and captures the mood of the story.   Sara Pennybacker's Sparrow Girl would be perfect during a study of synthesis... your thinking certainly changes as you read it (add actual pictures and accounts of the event and you'd have fodder for a great discussion).  There are many short articles available describing the "Chinese Sparrow War of 1958" and how it affected the environment at the time... this book is a perfect cousin text to Chris Van Allsburg's Just a Dream.

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