Kozo the Sparrow

HarperCollins/Clarion. Oct. 2023. 40p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780063248465.
Gr 2-6–A heart-wrenching tale of a sensitive Japanese boy around elementary school age who, when he sees “three bad boys” with a baby sparrow, trades his most treasured possessions to rescue it from their malice. Taking the bird home, the nameless protagonist makes a nest for it and learns how to feed it, until it becomes a beloved pet he names Kozo, or Little Boy. When Kozo is again threatened, the protagonist must make a difficult sacrifice, with the touching climax related solely through images. The world the book presents is a poignant, but not a comforting one, with cruelty a continuing threat and adults not to be depended upon to provide security: the protagonist’s mother almost lets Kozo escape, and a teacher who promises she will control the class is impotent when the children’s behavior scares the tiny bird. The text has a vividness and immediacy which arrests readers from the opening line, with first-person narration with short sentences and simple language evoking the child’s perspective. The evocative illustrations are created with pencil, watercolor, and dip pen and brush, and demonstrate a range of different styles: Kozo is rendered in naturalistic detail, the protagonist within his domestic sphere is depicted in soft pastels, while the bullies have a grotesque, goblin-like quality reminiscent of the work of Armin Gred. Say’s author’s note explains that the tale is based on his experiences as a child in Kyushu.
VERDICT A mature and moving story replete with both tenderness and cruelty. Highly recommended as a picture book for older elementary students and all those with an interest in illustration.

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