BGHB at 50: The Adventures of Sparrowboy

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the fourth in the series to be published in The Horn Book Magazine (see Gregory Maguire on Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving, Tim Wynne-Jones on Chris Van Allsburg's The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, and Kathleen T. Horning on Virgina Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, the Great). Further installments will appear in the Magazine and on throughout 2017.

When Brian Pinkney’s The Adventures of Sparrowboy, winner of the 1997 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Picture Book, debuted, I had two children in elementary school. Then, as now, characters, stories, and creators of color were underrepresented in children’s and young adult books. Yet I sensed gains. As a mother browsing bookstores and libraries, I noticed that there were many more of what we then called “multicultural” books for my children than there had been for me, thirty years prior. My reading choices were far from diverse. In terms of African American subject matter, I was lucky to have Bright April, The Snowy Day, and the occasional biography or poetry anthology.

Turns out, in the 1990s the children’s publishing industry was experiencing a multicultural boom that would bring books by new writers and illustrators of color, myself included, into print. I was pleased to find informational books, biographies, contemporary and historical fiction, and even poetry focused on people of color. But there were few African American protagonists to be found in picture books with fantasy elements.

In 1991, my children and I first heard Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach read aloud at a library storyhour. When we borrowed the book, my son Jeffery and my daughter Caresse fought over it. Of course, my two preschoolers had tussled over toys before, but over a book! Purchasing Tar Beach was a small price to pay for a truce. With their own copies of Tar Beach, my children could fly alongside the young narrator Cassie Louise Lightfoot anytime they desired.

Good mother and literacy advocate that I was, I fed my children a steady diet of high-quality literature. For our home library, I snapped up new children’s titles, especially those with African American subject matter. But with the exception of Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky (1992), my children went five years — an eternity for a kid — without seeing another fantasy picture book with African American characters. In five years, a child can graduate from read-alouds to read-alones. A child’s interests can change. A child can even lose interest in books.

At age seven, my son devoured books about ghosts, magic, sharks, snakes, and cartooning. Planes were also on his radar because our home was beneath an airport’s flight paths, and North Carolina social studies included a unit on the Wright brothers, who had made aviation history at Kitty Hawk in 1903. In the window seat for his first airplane ride, Jeffery exclaimed at takeoff: “We’re blasting off!” (I, too, was fascinated by flying as a child. My family spent many a Sunday afternoon at Baltimore’s old Friendship Airport, watching planes take off and land.)

By the time The Adventures of Sparrowboy came out, my son had advanced to early chapter books, but still enjoyed a good picture book. To my dismay, he also doodled in class, sketching characters from the Japanese anime series Dragon Ball Z while forgetting to take important notes about tests or assignments. While my son’s classroom teacher vied with anime for his attention, at home books battled electronic media for his heart and mind.

If the printed word were to prevail over our hand-me-down Nintendo, I would need books with hooks. In The Adventures of Sparrowboy, I found the perfect bait. The story is for every child who rides a bike, fears dogs, or dreams of having a superpower.

First, there is a sequential narrative to lure young comic-book fans. Add to that the story-within-a-story about the superhero Falconman, the protagonist’s comic-book idol. Factor in the main character’s sudden superpower of flight and many a child’s fascination with planes and spacecraft. Combine those elements into a simple fable about bullying and heroism. Last but not least, cast an African American boy as the book’s hero. Henry is every child who’s been bullied or witnessed bullying, who loves comic books, and who looks up to superheroes.

Sparrowboy unfolds as a sequential narrative, with many of the conventions of comics including panels, onomatopoeia, and text boxes. The first spread introduces our protagonist, Henry, a newspaper boy whose route includes a community of modest clapboard homes. Except for the boy’s modern bicycle and helmet, the setting, especially the carless street, sets an idyllic, nostalgic mood. Before beginning his paper route, Henry reads the front page of the newspaper and then the funny pages: he’s a faithful follower of the Falconman comic strip, in which the eponymous superhero gains the power to fly from a magic falcon, and uses his power to “make things better.”

No sooner do we glimpse Henry’s funny pages than does a similar plot play out between Henry and a sparrow. After accidentally colliding on his bike with the little bird, Henry discovers that he can fly, enabling him to conquer the bully Bruno and banish the menacing dog Wolf. As Henry continues to act to restore peace in his neighborhood, he repeatedly saves the defenseless sparrow’s life. Rescuing the bird for the third time, he finally realizes that the creature had lost its ability to fly in the collision. Henry must choose between keeping his new superpower and the sparrow’s well-being. Ultimately, selfless sacrifice proves to be the mark of a true hero. And like Falconman, Henry has made his own small world a better place.

In a nod to campy 1960s comics, Pinkney goes whole hog with onomatopoeia. He sizes frames and arranges grids to pace the narrative. And he punches up his (now trademark) scratchboard illustrations with a vibrant palette.

The flight motif that is central to the narrative bears discussing. In African American folktales and spirituals, flight can symbolize transcendence or victory over oppression. From Virginia Hamilton’s masterful The People Could Fly to Christopher Myers’s mythic Wings, flight — as escape or as deliverance possible through faith — defines the hero’s journey.

The main character’s two names also point to African American oral traditions. The name Henry conjures the mighty John Henry, the tall-tale character inspired by an ex-slave who bored holes into mountains for the dynamite that would blast through them to make tunnels for the railroad. In 1995, Brian Pinkney’s father Jerry won a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations of Julius Lester’s retelling of the tale; John Henry was also the winner of the 1995 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Picture Book (like father, like son).

Likewise, the superhero name Sparrowboy and the boy’s nick-of-time rescues evoke the gospel hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” That hymn of assurance praises a compassionate, omniscient God. I wonder whether Brian Pinkney’s mother Gloria Jean, who authored the spiritual and hymn collection Music from Our Lord’s Holy Heaven, ever sang that song to him.

Through what Gloria Jean Pinkney would call “God-incidences,” my twenty-year saga with Sparrowboy has come full circle. Though my son Jeffery, now an artist and performance poet, outgrew Sparrowboy long ago, he still flies in his dreams, as do I. In 2016 we collaborated on a verse novel about flight: Jeffery illustrated the book, You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen, in scratchboard. At the American Library Association conference in Orlando, Florida, that year, Jeffery met Brian Pinkney, who shared trade secrets. Finally, Brian and I just finished our first collaboration, In Your Hands, an African American mother’s prayer for her son, which debuts this fall.

For all the advancements in the past twenty years — remember when a black man’s run for president was dismissed as a fairy tale? — I can count on one hand the fantasy picture books with African American protagonists I have seen since Sparrowboy flew onto my radar. Among those titles are Brian Pinkney’s own Cosmo and the Robot and Jerdine Nolen’s Raising Dragons and her original tall tales Big Jabe and Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life. And, with a comics-come-to-life premise like that of Sparrowboy, there is Marc Tauss’s Superhero.

Indeed, a superheroic push is needed to publish diverse books across diverse genres and subgenres. As Sparrowboy shows, diverse books provide not only mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (thank you, Rudine Sims Bishop) for young readers but also launch pads that lift ceilings off dreams and let imaginations soar.

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Carole Boston Weatherford

Carole Boston Weatherford received a 2023 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award for Picture Book for Standing in the Need of Prayer (Crown), illustrated by Frank Morrison. She won the 2022 CSK Author Award and a 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Honor for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (Carolrhoda), illustrated by Floyd Cooper. She has written many other children's books, including 2021 Newbery honoree Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom; 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Author honoree Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (both Candlewick); R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul (Atheneum); and Freedom in Congo Square (Little Bee). She teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. (Photo by Gerald Young.)

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