Book Review: An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden, originally published in 1955 and re-issued in 2016 in The New York Review Children's Collection. Recommended for Grades 5-9 or 10-14 years, Lexile 810 Please note: this book is not yet in the Pageturner library and will require student requests in order for purchases to be made.
“The really important people in this book are not grown-ups but children. What is more, the children give one a curious sense of being rather bigger than the grown-ups; they feel more intensely, they are more brightly coloured, and they have, in fact, more common sense.” – By Beverley Nichols,
I first read An Episode of Sparrows about a millennia ago. There are passages I have never forgotten, although the writing is neither theatrical nor extravagant. This one, so visually expressed, I’ve kept sheltered in my heart for decades:
…[S]he had a ridge of very fine short hairs on the back of her neck, soft as down, mouse-coloured but tipped with gold; they looked as if they were protecting the tender knobs of her spine; gently Tip put out his finger and felt those little bones. It was no good; even when Lovejoy was difficult and ungrateful he found it impossible to be angry...”  More on this in just a paragraph or two (or 5).
Our story takes place in the bombed ruins of post-WWII London, where the well-to-do live cheek by jowl with society’s poorest.  Now, a great book should start with a great sentence; it’s such a formidable rule among literary critics that people actually make money deciding whose are the best--and the worst.  (This is completely outside the purview of this review but worth more than a glance.  For some of the best, see: first-lines-in-books And for some of the side-splitting, hilarious worst (there are, in fact, contests to write the worst), see:
An Episode of Sparrows begins with a carefully composed hook: "The Garden Committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square.”  
In this one sentence, we learn that the Garden Committee (capitalized) is comprised of adults whose narrow focus homes in on trivialities expressed as earth-shaking problems.  (Ok, yes, pun intended, my bad.) The reader immediately understands that these people are not to be given full credit as serious folk.  We next meet two of the individuals on this self-exalted committee, who are sisters: the younger being Angela, with her large-and-in-charge, me-first attitude augmented by an avenging angel’s hat replete with a blue feather making her appear even more prominent. The older is Olivia, a shrinking violet, whose perceptive abilities far outweigh Angela’s but who is dismissed as fragile. In society, of course, fragility is weakness exposed and mustn’t be acknowledged, lest it prove infectious and spread. Angela keeps saying that soil can be purchased at the Army-Navy store, citing its price. (She knows the price of everything, can you finish the other half of this famous adage, and do you know its origin?*) Angela insists this is a theft by a “criminal street gang” selling precious Mortimer Square soil for profit.  Not so, Olivia: 
“I think,” said Olivia, “it’s a little boy or girl.” “Nonsense,” said Angela. “No little boy or girl could carry all that earth.” But Olivia knew they had; while the others were talking she had seen, under a bush, a footprint that no one had smoothed away. It was a very small footprint. Olivia had scuffed it out with her shoe.”  At once, Olivia sides with the “sparrows” of Catford Street.
So who is TIP, in our first highlight? Before we meet him, we need to meet Lovejoy Mason.  Lovejoy is being cared for by a Mrs. Combie and her nobly idealistic but ever impractical husband, Vincent, who own a restaurant on the poor side of the Square.  Lovejoy’s mother is a traveling singer/bawd who is most often away and who rarely provides a stipend for her care.  Lovejoy’s circumstances have forced her to become a street urchin despite her mother having inculcated in her high notions of fashion--but not morals.  She can no longer button her coat, it’s tight under her arms and she’s had to let down the hem; she walks with blistered feet because her shoes are too small.  Still, she brushes her mousey hair to a sheen every day.  Author Godden describes her as “a little marauder.”
Lovejoy, age 11, sees 5-year old Sparkey--the newspaper boy so frail no one expects him to live to adulthood--holding a little envelope.  She has no idea what it is but wrestles him for it, snatching it away with a sucker punch to his gut.  Finding a better hiding place than his, she examines her find to see a blue flower on the front.  She can barely read but figures out these are seeds.  She seeks out Mr. Ister, a local gardener always out gardening, who barely talks but begins to teach her about his avocation.  And Lovejoy determines she must have a garden.
She finds a quiet place she thinks abandoned, one no one will find.  It hurts to dig with fingers; she gets a fork from Mrs. Combie, whose tines are soon deformed.  Again and again, she finds ways to garden in the face of all odds.  She even burgles Father Lambert’s ruined Catholic Church of St. Sion, espying an unlocked candle donation box.  She sees Mary’s statue mournfully watching her, but she’s irreligious. Sparkey, however, sees everything, and she’s made him an implacable enemy. Unknown to her, Lovejoy has invaded the camp of Tip Malone’s gang.  Tip, already man-sized at 13, is revered in Catford Street as the most intimidating gang leader of them all; alerted to the presence of a girl, they descend on Lovejoy’s garden with steel-toed boots as she kneels there, overwhelmed and silent. In a moment the garden is destroyed. “Get OUT,” Tip yells. She Bites. His. Hand.
Tip, however, is also a devout Irish Catholic boy who loves his mom and dad, all of his brothers and five sisters. He possesses a rare generosity of spirit, even to baby-sitting Sparkey. As the storm descends on her garden, he sees in a flash what it is/was, and how clean she is--her hair shines. He also sees the trembling of her chin. He’s flummoxed--and intrigued--by Lovejoy’s utter quiet.  His sisters are all sturdy brawlers who scream bloody murder when anyone approaches with a hairbrush! When his gang has dispersed, he returns to her.  You can build another, he advises.  I’ll show you a better place.  Lovejoy, who never cries, is stymied by her continual crying with Tip.  And Tip, both fascinated and frustrated, becomes her sometimes reluctant but ever more engrossed gardening partner: “…[H]e was beginning to feel that it was the time he spent away from her that was wasted.”  When more dirt is required, Tip decides dirt is common and therefore cannot be stolen.  He even enlists worshipful Sparkey to help haul it from the Square in the middle of the night--it’s Sparkey’s footprints Olivia sees in the first scenes. It will take all that’s left of Olivia, with Father Lambert’s eyewitness testimony, to set things straight (and put Angela in her place)--even to rescuing Lovejoy from Angela’s orphanage and remaking Vincent’s failed Italian restaurant as a promise of greatness. 
*Oscar Wilde once said that "A fool is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

“Rumer Godden (1907-1998) was an English author who led a fascinating life worthy of a novel in and of itself… A prolific writer throughout her life, Rumer was born in England but spent her childhood in India running wild on the river banks and writing tales of adventure along with her three sisters.” She had turned to writing after being abandoned by her husband & left penniless in India with two daughters.

“Publishing over 60 works throughout her lifetime, nine of which were made into feature films, Ms. Godden was represented by publishing companies both in the UK and the US. She moved frequently, at one point living in the same house that Henry James once occupied, and traveled to the US frequently to consult with movie companies on the film adaptations of her books… The winner of several literary awards throughout her life, a new interest in Rumer's books have brought her back into the literary spotlight through a series of republications in the 2000s.”