Cover image for January's sparrow
January's sparrow
Publication Information:
New York : Philomel Books, c2009.
Physical Description:
94 p. : col. ill. ; 29 cm.
Reading Level:
760 L Lexile
After a fellow slave is beaten to death, Sadie and her family flee the plantation for freedom through the Underground Railroad.


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Patricia Polacco's most powerful book since Pink and Say.

In the middle of the night, The Crosswhites'including young Sadie'must flee the Kentucky plantation they work on. Dear January has been beaten and killed by the plantation master, and they fear who may be next. But Sadie must leave behind her most valuable possession, the wooden sparrow carved for her by January. Through the Underground Railroad, the Crosswhites make the slow and arduous journey to Marshall, Michigan, where they finally live in freedom. And there they stay, happily, until the day a mysterious package shows up on their doorsteps. It is January's sparrow, with a note that reads, ?I found you.'

How the Crosswhites, and the whole town of Marshall, face this threat will leave readers empowered and enthralled. This is a Polacco adventure that will live in the minds of children for years.

Author Notes

Patricia Polacco was born in Lansing, Michigan on July 11, 1944. She attended Oakland Tech High School in Oakland, California before heading off to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, then Laney Community College in Oakland. She then set off for Monash University, Mulgrave, Australia and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Melbourne, Australia where she received a Ph.D in Art History, Emphasis on Iconography.

After college, she restored ancient pieces of art for museums. She didn't start writing children's books until she was 41 years old. She began writing down the stories that were in her head, and was then encouraged to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. There she learned how to put together a dummy and get a story into the form of a children's picture book. Her mother paid for a trip to New York, where the two visited 16 publishers in one week. She submitted everything she had to more than one house. By the time she returned home the following week, she had sold just about everything.

Polacco has won the 1988 Sydney Taylor Book Award for The Keeping Quilt, and the 1989 International Reading Association Award for Rechenka's Eggs. She was inducted into the Author's Hall of Fame by the Santa Clara Reading Council in 1990, and received the Commonwealth Club of California's Recognition of Excellence that same year for Babushka's Doll, and again in 1992 for Chicken Sunday. She also won the Golden Kite Award for Illustration from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for Chicken Sunday in 1992, as well as the Boston Area Educators for Social Responsibility Children's Literature and Social Responsibility Award. In 1993, she won the Jane Adams Peace Assoc. and Women's Intl. League for Peace and Freedom Honor award for Mrs. Katz and Tush for its effective contribution to peace and social justice. She has won Parent's Choice Honors for Some Birthday in 1991, the video Dream Keeper in 1997 and Thank You Mr. Falker in 1998. In 1996, she won the Jo Osborne Award for Humor in Children's Literature. Her titles The Art of Miss. Chew and The Blessing Cup made The New York Times Best Seller List.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Based on actual events, Polacco's (In Our Mothers' House) story is at once horrifying and heartening. It centers on the Crosswhite family, slaves who flee their Kentucky plantation after witnessing the merciless whipping of January, a slave caught while attempting escape. Led to believe that January died from his wounds, Sadie Crosswhite is heartbroken when she inadvertently leaves behind the wooden sparrow he carved for her. Writing in credible dialect, Polacco conveys the family's fear and fortitude as they follow the North Star, "trackin' through cornfields, climbin' up bluffs, rollin' through muck and mud." They take refuge in Marshall, Mich., a sanctuary on the Underground Railroad, where they remain until slave chasers track them down. After a confrontation in which the town rallies behind them, the Crosswhites steal away for Canada, accompanied by January, who has shown up unexpectedly. Like Polacco's prose, her dynamic and sometimes brutal pictures, rendered in pencils and markers, hold nothing back-be it the Crosswhites' anguish and terror while under pursuit or their affection for each other and those who harbor them. An illuminating and trenchant account. Ages 8-up. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

(Intermediate, Middle School) After an escaped slave has been found and returned to a Kentucky plantation to be whipped to death, young Sadie Crosswhite and her family decide they must escape themselves, making for the Ohio River, where they are taken across to Indiana by a "rowin' girl." The family eventually reaches a protective community in Michigan, where they live safely until found by their erstwhile owner; he demands their return, and the law is on his side. Like Polacco's Civil War story Pink and Say (rev. 11/94), this long picture book is based on a true historical incident, one that illuminates the necessity and strategies of the Underground Railroad. Polacco makes the history dramatic and compelling, writing with a minimum of dialect and sentimentality (the last being the bane of Pink and Say). Save for some cartooning in the faces, the pictures for January's Sparrow reveal Polacco at her best: fluid and confident drawing, and an impressive command of the use of the page. Generally filling two-thirds of each double-page spread (occasionally, effectively, spilling across the whole expanse), the pencil and marker illustrations convey the drama through the positions of bodies, leaning in or away, running or at peace. Mood and suspense are created by perspective: right up close as the waves of the dangerous Ohio threaten their boat, and on the next spread pulling back to reveal the calm moon- and starlit shore of the welcoming Indiana riverbank. The story and images alike are sometimes brutal (such as a picture of the scarred back of a whipped man) but undeniably vivid. From HORN BOOK, (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

Told from the viewpoint of Sadie Crosswhite, a young child who was born into slavery, this dramatic picture book is based on true events that took place in Marshall, Michigan, near where Polacco lives today. The narrative begins with shocking brutality on a Kentucky plantation: Sadie and her family watch while her foster brother, January, is whipped and kicked to death for trying to escape to freedom. With the threat of being auctioned off, the family members run away that night, bound for Canada, and the unframed pictures show their journey on the Underground Railroad, pursued by the slave catchers with savage dogs, until they find shelter in Marshall. Will they be safe there? Are there spies? Sadie goes to school and makes friends, but then the slave catchers come, and so does a surprising visitor. The characters' melodramatic expressions in the colored-pencil-and-marker artwork sometimes overstate and simplify the complex emotions in the words. Still, Sadie's first-person narrative, in modified dialect, captures the terror, excitement, and hope of the powerful history.--Rochman, Hazel Copyright 2009 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Gr 4-6-Fleshing out historical events with invented but credible details, Polacco retraces the 1840s flight of the Crosswhite family from slavery to freedom and the dramatic standoff between the residents (black and white both) of the Michigan town where they settled and a band of "paddy rollers" sent to fetch the fugitives back to Kentucky. In lightly idiomatic language ("'Hark now,' their daddy whispered. 'We is gonna cross water tonight!'"), the author relates most of the tale from the point of view of Sadie, the youngest Crosswhite, and threads the narrative with a typical depiction of strong family bonds-expanded here to include the loyalty displayed by a crowd of townfolk who not only held off the paddy rollers until the Crosswhites could escape to Canada, but later paid hefty fines for defying fugitive slave laws. The illustrations, which include scenes of a bloody whipping and a heavily scarred back, have an urgent, unsettled look that fully captures the sharply felt danger and terror of Sadie's experiences. Particularly telling is the contrast between the open, mobile, well-lit faces of the Crosswhites and the shadowed, menacing miens of their pursuers. An iffy claim near the end that Lincoln "gave all slaves their freedom" aside, this moving account effectively highlights a significant instance of nonviolent community resistance to injustice.-John Peters, New York Public Library (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

A voice in the prologue, in the dialect cadences of the slave narratives, introduces the stark opening image of a black man, roped and bloodied, dragged by two white men on horsebackthe paddy rollers. Eight-year-old Sadie Crosswhite is forced to watch with her parents and siblings as their beloved friend, January Drumm, is whipped and carried off for burial, the price for trying to run away. Sadie and her family run away that night, stopping in Marshall, Mich., with its free black community. They tell no one that they are runaways, as harboring them is against the law. The slave catchers track the Crosswhites down some four years later, in 1847, and in a blazing scene the townspeople of Marshall, black and white, defy them, even as January himself appears, baring his horribly scarred back. Polacco's passionately realized images use every tool in the artist's arsenal: pictures structured like Expressionist etchings or Mannerist saints; echoes of Delacroix and Ryder, Rembrandt and Goya. Rooted in history (a comprehensive bibliography is promised online), this is a masterly narrative that horrifies, moves and informs. (Illustrated fiction. 9-14) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.