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Review of the Day: The Greedy Sparrow by Lucine Kasbarian

The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale
By Lucine Kasbarian
Illustrated by Maria Zaikina
Marshall Cavendish Children
ISBN: 978-0-7614-5821-0
Ages 4-8
On shelves now.

As a children’s librarian in New York City I am expected to have a full knowledge of existing children’s literature as it pertains, not just to the American publishing industry, but to the world at large. If a group of unusually tall Norwegian women come in asking for children’s books by their countrymen, I am supposed to know how to locate the nearest Jo Nesbo/P.C. Abjorsen title. I have gaps, though. Whole swaths of continents where my knowledge is lacking or useless. For example, let’s say you walked up to my desk and asked me to produce as many Armenian children’s folktales as possible. I could do it, I suppose, if I did a catalog search. We might have some. But I wouldn’t be able to name them off the top of my head. The Greedy Sparrow fills in that gap nicely. An original composition based on a classic Armenian oral tale, author Lucine Kasbarian and Russian illustrator Maria Zaikina bring to life a story unfamiliar but to a few Americans. Want to bulk up your Armenian folklore for a spell? Seek ye no further than this.

A little Author’s Note appears on the publication page of this book, which I appreciated. It states right from the start, “Armenian fables begin with ‘Once there was and was not’.” After we read these words we begin our tale. A sparrow with a thorn in its foot asks a baker to remove it. The woman does so gladly, burning it up afterwards, but when the sparrow returns and asks for his thorn back she has nothing to give him. Pleased, he takes some bread instead. Next, he visits a shepherd with a flock and asks the man to look after his bread. The fellow does for a time, but eats the bread when hunger overtakes him. As payment, the sparrow takes a sheep. Through these sneaky methods the sparrow exchanges a sheep for a human bride, a human bride for a lute, and finally he loses the lute, his ultimate prize, when he falls from a thorn tree. Lute gone. New thorn in his foot.

I have a tendency to lament the death of the picture book folktale on a nice and regular bi-annual schedule. Compared to the last few decades, folktales and fables are publishing at the lowest ebb seen in years. Each season I scramble to find as many as I can, often disappointed by the results. Maybe that’s why I glommed onto The Greedy Sparrow as quickly as I did. Here we have an honest-to-goodness folktale, retold for contemporary audiences, and unknown to a whole chunk of them. Kasbarian says in her bookflap that she learned to recite this story from her father who learned it from his grandmother, an Armenian storyteller. Clearly such talents are genetic since Kasbarian’s writing flows easily. You leap effortlessly from situation to situation until the end. Happily, the author sees no need to put some kind of moral capper on the tale. All she needs to write is the final sentence: “But as the sparrow rocked in glee, he lost his footing, and the lute fell, too, leaving the sparrow as he began … with nothing but a thorn in his foot!” Batta bing, batta boom. Nothing more need be said.

Part of what I find intriguing in this story is that at the beginning the sparrow is entirely in the wrong and the baker woman completely in the right. A thorn in the sparrow’s foot is removed by the woman, which in most stories would constitute a good deed. Many a story would reward the woman for her kindness, maybe granting her a wish or two. This story, in contrast, repays good with ill. The sparrow, perhaps seeing an opportunity to improve his lot by whatever means necessary, asks for the thorn back. There is no reason for this. In fact, I’m pretty sure the crafty bird knew from the start that the woman would have gotten rid of it. But using the logic that she took something of his so he may take something of hers, she is forced to comply. What’s more, we never hear or see of her again. Though the sparrow does receive a kind of comeuppance by the end, it’s of the minor variety. Sure some of the people who take advantage of the sparrow’s lending are to blame, but since you get the feeling that the sparrow is just running a long con you’re just sort of waiting for it to overstep itself. This is a folktale for those who want to feel good when avarice gets thwarted.

Writing a good story is all well and good, but if your art is subpar then don’t bother getting me out of bed. In a picture book the quality of the art makes or breaks the reading experience. You can pour ambrosia-dipped words from pen to paper, captivating all who read and hear them, but throw in some awful art and the experience is instantly tainted. I was unfamiliar with the work of Russian artist Maria Zaikina until now, but having discovered her I can only hope to see more of her work in the future. According to her bio, Zaikina “researched Armenian costumes, culture, and customs before she completed the illustrations for this book.” Well played there. For the art, she then rendered it with layers of wax and oil paint. After that the layers were “cut away to reveal the colors underneath”. As a result, we’ve paintings that have a rough textured feel to them, spotted with bits of unexpected black paint. Such a technique would inevitably lead to images that were dull or static, but this is not the case. In fact, I found myself really seriously amused by what Zaikina has done here. First off, there are the speech bubbles in the text. They work perfectly in the story, but considering the classic feel of the artistic style, they are by no means a given.

Then there’s the visual humor that Zaikina’s so good at producing. It’s hard not to find the image of a tiny sparrow lugging a large, morose, doomed sheep through the air. Even better is when he takes a human bride (though, to suspend at least a little disbelief, the woman just rides a horse with the sparrow perched on her head). Take a look at the sparrow too. Until the end of the book it always appears from the side, never from the front or the back. On the side of its head is a single unpitying eye. Only at the end when the sparrow falls from the tree with his lute and a new thorn in his foot, do we see that eye widen in surprise. Just desserts accompany a truly shocked antihero. A perfect pairing of the two.

Parents tend to ask librarians for recommendations of one version or another of the fairy and folktales they already know. “Can you recommend a good Hansel and Gretel?” That sort of thing. It’s the clever ‘rents who think to expand their offsprings’ horizons beyond the usual Grimm/Galdone fare. And once in a rare while I will get a parent who asks for “folktales”. That needlessly vague term is all the invitation I need. I like to keep track of my favorites from one year or another, and this year The Greedy Sparrow will be topping the list. Fun to read. Fun to look at. This one’s a beauty through and through that’ll sink into obscurity unless you pluck it up yourself. Give it a gander, won’t you?

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Other Blog Reviews:

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: Lucine Kasbarian speaks with Asbarez Armenian News.

Misc: Download this study guide PDF.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Dear Elizabeth:

    It was a great honor to read your review of my book today. Thank you!

    I knew of your love for folk tales and so am doubly honored by your praise. You perceived so well what Marshall Cavendish, Maria and I tried to convey.

    In case the need arises (as you mentioned in your review) to recommend other Armenian folk tales to library visitors, I am pleased to share a list from my personal library:

    The NYPL has my gratitude for circulating throughout the NYC boroughs more than 30 copies of my children’s book about the country of Armenia.

    Kindest regards,

    Lucine Kasbarian, author
    *The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale
    *Armenia: A Rugged Land, an Enduring People

  2. Does it read aloud well? Because I don’t know about anyone else, but I keep thinking “One World, Many Stories,” and how well little-known folktales fit the theme…

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I’m going to say yes to this. The text is actually pretty sparing, considering the meat of the matter. Plus the regular repetition makes it a natural oral presentation. I’d like to try it out on a class of 2nd graders just to be absolutely certain, but a children’s librarian can usually eyeball a potential readaloud, and that’s what I think we have here.