The Crowstarver by Dick King-Smith

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The Crowstarver by Dick King-Smith

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: One of the better offerings from this prolific author, The Crowstarver is a book about difference and how we treat people who are different. It's a serious book but not a depressing or patronising one. Best suited to children in late primary school, Bookbag recommends it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: July 1999
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 0552546038

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John Joseph Sparrow is a sweet-natured child. He smiles often and his disposition is always sunny. Animals, even shy, wild animals are drawn to this gentle boy. But John Joseph, known as Spider, because of the strange way he walks, is different in many ways. He speaks poorly, walks with a peculiar gait and it is obvious, even to his loving parents, Kathie and Tom, that he is not "normal". It's a relief really, when the local school refuses to take him. In the farming community in which Spider lives, his difference provokes some unkind reactions:

"Betty Ogle, the poultryman's wife, sharp-eyed and blunt-spoken, summed it up one Sunday morning as she came out of church, despite having just listened to the vicar's sermon which took as its text St Matthew's dictum 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'. 'Tom and Kath Sparrow's baby?' she said to a group of others as they walked down the churchyard path. 'I'll tell you what I think. He's queer in the head. They've only got themselves to blame. Same as I said to Stan at the time, they'd have been better off letting the child be took to the orphanage.'"

Tom and Kath and, to their credit, others in the community do not think so. They see Spider's strengths, not his weaknesses. And Spider has many strengths. He is one of those open, gentle souls who have more of value to teach the world than the world has to teach them. Spider is a foundling; left in a sheep shed for Tom, a shepherd, to find. To Tom and Kath he is a special gift. And gradually, Spider, with his special talent for communicating with animals, wins the trust and admiration of all in his community. He tames foxes, scares away crows from the farm fields and even gentles American broncos bought by the squire. Spider is happy in his small world, surrounded by wildlife and people who love and care for him. Yet in the background, threats do lurk for this different child: bigotry; war; his own fragile health...

I think, perhaps, when they're reading alone, The Crowstarver is best suited for children in the later years of primary school. There is a lot of dialogue - most of it in a rural dialect - and children under nine or so may become discouraged and fail to persevere. It is, however, very simply written with an admirably short sentence and chapter structure, and perhaps would not present enough of a technical challenge to hold the interest of the over elevens. But these sorts of recommendations are all very relative. I read The Crowstarver first and am happy to tell you that it made me cry.

Dick King-Smith is a prolific writer, probably better known for his more whimsical offerings for very young children in which the animals themselves are the protagonists - you almost certainly know of The Sheep-Pig, later made into the film Babe. More recently, he's been writing for much older children in books with some strong allegorical messages. His work is always direct, vivid and moving, but like many writers who seem to have an endless store of tales to tell, he can be patchy. The Crowstarver is not patchy. It is a lovely story, beautifully written, with a strong message preaching not tolerance, but acceptance. There's a world of difference between those two things. The structure is simple, but the theme is not. It's not a patronising book and as such, is more than worth the afternoon an adult would spend reading it. I wonder oftentimes, if it's the adults who have most to gain!

Life presents many challenges. We none of us are perfect. For most of us, our challenges are relatively private and mundane: we struggle with relationships, with careers, with money. But for others, the challenges are much tougher and more basic. And with disability, the challenges presented are not only tough, but also public. It is for all of us as decent human beings to recognise that fine line between genuine and prurient concern, and walk it well. It is also for all of us as decent parents to teach our children to do the same. With this gentle, wistful, beautiful tale of Spider, given to us by Dick King-Smith, the task of teaching our children is made an easy one. It says on the book's dust jacket that The Crowstarver "comes straight from the heart". And it does.

As Spider would say, "Good 'un".

For a book about difference for the older bookworm, try our review of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time by Mark Haddon.

Buy The Crowstarver by Dick King-Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Crowstarver by Dick King-Smith at

Buy The Crowstarver by Dick King-Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Crowstarver by Dick King-Smith at


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