Lesson Plan: “Sparrow Girl” (Sara Pennypacker)


Sparrow Girl 
Written by Sara Pennypacker
Illustrated by Yuko Tanaka

Based on China’s “Great Sparrow War” in 1958, Sparrow Girl tells the story of Ming Li, one young girl’s effort to save innocent birds that were hailed as the farmers’ enemies.

Discussion Questions/Classroom Connections:

  • Define “food chain” and discuss different examples of food chains in nature.  Are different links in the food chain equally important?  Why or why not?  Have students create a poster of a food chain (allow for research time) and present it to their class.  (Incorporate digital technology by letting students create food chains using a diagram or chart tool in Word or similar programs.)
  • How does this story illustrate the importance of maintaining nature’s food chain?  List some of the ways sparrows are important in the story.
  • Read the author’s note about the real-life event that inspired this book.  Why did Chairman Mao declare war on the sparrows?  What did he want the villagers to do?
  • Discuss how, in the book, even though Ming Li felt that destroying all the sparrows was a bad idea, she didn’t speak up, and neither did Older Brother.  Why didn’t they?  Talk about different kinds of governments and leadership.  What kind of government/leadership do we have in the United States?  Can people speak up against something they might disagree with?  (Is this freedom true for all people across the US, or are there some groups that might be more oppressed?)
  • Compare the US government/leadership to the kind we read about in the book.  Have students research different types of governments around the world and present findings in class.  Is there a “best” kind of government?  What are some pros and cons of each type?
  • Why is “being able to speak up” important?  Have students discuss different ways this might apply in their lives.  For example: do they feel like they can speak up if they felt a rule at home or school was unfair?  Should they be able to speak up against a parent or teacher if they thought it was unfair?  Why or why not?
  • Discuss various imagery used in the book: Ming Li’s father describing her brain as being small as a sparrow’s, her worries scratching at her like a monkey, sparrows falling from the sky like raindrops/teardrops.  Why does the author (or anyone) use imagery like this rather than just describe something plainly?  Have students start with a piece of narrative writing, and make it richer by adding some imagery throughout.

Other Resources:





Reading & Teaching Esperanza

My daughter is reading Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan in her 6th grade ELA class and since it’s been on my list of books to read for a couple of YEARS I decided to read it with her.  It is a story that draws readers in almost immediately, and one that many can identify with and that many of us can learn from.  I found the audiobook version on YouTube (see below) and plan on playing it for my younger daughter.

You can find numerous teaching resources online (here’s one from Scholastic) and it would be perfect for lessons in character, perseverance, historical fiction, immigration, the Great Depression, or Mexican culture.  I love that my daughter’s ELA teacher has parents bring in various food items that serve as chapter titles so students can try different foods.  (A more elaborate activity could be to have students/parents bring in food items for a fiesta like the one detailed in the book.  Guest speakers from the community can also be invited to talk about their immigration experience or any personal connections they might have to this time in history.)

Other topics mentioned in the book that can be further discussed

  • Class divides: Why does Esperanza say that in Mexico there’s a river between her and Miguel?  Does the same divide exist in the US?
  • Immigration, migrant workers
  • Working conditions for migrant workers: Why do workers strike? What are pros and cons of striking?
  • Segregation
  • Dust storms
  • Discussion of various symbols in the book — the mountains and valleys in the blanket Esperanza is crocheting, the meaning behind her name, etc.
  • Other books about characters that had to persevere through difficult circumstances… For example, read Listening for Lions (Gloria Whelan) or The Higher Power of Lucky (Susan Patron) and discuss similarities and differences between the stories and characters.

Listening for Lions: Gloria Whelan

Listening for Lions

Author: Gloria Whelan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Year: 2005

Brief Summary: This historical novel tells the story of 13-year-old Rachel, whose missionary parents died in the 1919 influenza epidemic of East Africa.  Orphaned and alone, she is tricked into living a lie by the Pritchards, who forced Rachel to assume the identity of their dead daughter in order to receive a handsome inheritance.  Rachel has dreams of her own — including returning to Africa as a woman doctor.  Will she outsmart the Pritchards and their wicked scheme, or is she doomed to become prey to others’ traps?

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Great Lakes Great Books Award, 2007 Honor Book Grades 4-5 Michigan
Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2005 ; Bank Street College of Education
Booklist Book Review Stars , May 15, 2005 ; American Library Association
Children’s Books 2005: One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2005 ; New York Public Library
Children’s Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Ninth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson Company

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library; brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core/etc.

  • Discussion of British colonialism in Africa.  What does this mean for the Brits?  For the natives?  What are some of its implications?  Older students can do further research about the history of colonialism in Africa and discuss this part of history from different perspectives.
  • Discuss the theme of “freedom” and what it may mean to various characters in the book.  What kind of metaphors for freedom can you find in the book?
  • Discuss the history of women in medicine…why do you think women were not allowed to practice medicine earlier in history?  The book discusses some of the reasons…do you agree with these or not?  Hold a mock debate with students researching and arguing from both sides.
  • What are some ways Rachel is able to overcome the adversity in her life?  Discuss goal-setting and practical ways to achieve your goals.
  • What lessons does Rachel learn about truth vs. dishonesty?  How did she feel when she pretended to be Valerie?  How did she feel when she finally revealed the truth?
  • Students may be encouraged to do further research on one of the animals/plants mentioned in this book.  The class could read the novel together and go onto do individual research projects on animals/plants in Africa/Britain…perhaps discussing how animals/plants are same/different in Africa and Britain (due to climate, habitat, people’s philosophies, etc.).  For example, animals roam free in Africa but are held captive in Britain; flowers grow wild in Africa vs. formal English gardens; flowers that grow in Britain cannot survive in Africa, etc.  How does Whelan use these differences to support the themes in this book?
  • Students can be encouraged to read other orphan stories or other stories about Africa.
  • Author’s note and glossary are included in the back of the book.
  • Link to HarperCollins teaching guide.  
  • Recommended for readers 10 and up.  Will primarily appeal to girls, students interested in Africa, students who like mysteries/suspense, and reluctant/struggling readers.  Would work well as a class read-aloud.

Gentle, nostalgic, and fueled with old-fashioned girl power, this involving orphan story will please fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden (1912) and Eva Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan (2004). (Booklist)

Listening for Lions is a quiet story that roars in its ability to help readers make sense of hardships that befall humankind. It speaks softly but leaves a lasting impression of strength of character and the wisdom of following one’s dreams. It will have lasting appeal and a ready audience. (VOYA)

Whelan’s formidable and appealing heroine will keep readers rooting for her dream of a home with the lions of Africa. (Publishers Weekly)

Accessed at: Personal Library

Out of the Easy: Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Publisher: Philomel

Publication Year: 2013

Brief Summary: Josie, 17-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute, can’t wait to escape the caged life she leads in the Big Easy.  She devises a plan to attend a prestigious college — working as a maid at the brothel her mother works in, and as a clerk at a bookstore during the day.  But, when she becomes entangled in the murder investigations of a wealthy architect, it seems all her dreams of a better life are about to be crushed.

Personal Comments: Out of the Easy is a captivating read and paints a vivid picture of 1950s New Orleans.  Sepetys’ characters are colorful and memorable, and readers will identify with the identity struggles that Josie (and some of her friends) go through.  Readers who enjoyed Sepetys’ Between Shades of Grey (2011) will like the author’s second novel, though the two books are significantly different in subject matter and tone.  For older readers (high school and up).

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library; brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core/etc.

  • Social Studies: New Orleans history, geography, traditions/culture
  • Discuss historical fiction and its characteristics.  Do you think this book is an example of historical fiction?  Why or why not?
  • Discussion on how our choices might affect the outcomes of our lives, and sometimes the lives of others.  How did the choices Josie make in the book affect her life?  How did her mom’s decisions affect Josie?  What are some other examples of life-changing choices that other characters in the book made?
  • Encourage students to read some of the works mentioned in this book: David Copperfield, Keats, etc.  Why do you think these works were so important to Josie?  What are some of the themes/quotes that she mentions throughout the book?
  • Thinking about different circumstances you might encounter in life or you might be born into.  Is there ever something that you can’t imagine ever getting out of no matter what you do?  Is there such thing as “fate”/”destiny”, or can all those be changed?  (Older students can hold a debate on this topic, or write a persuasive essay arguing either side.)

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Kirkus Book Review Stars, January 15, 2013
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, December 24, 2012 ; Cahners
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, March 2013 ; Cahners

The sights and sounds and characters are vivid and captivating. Her sense of timing is impeccable. Mystery, suspense, and a strong heroine all add up to one fine story. (Sharon Salluzzo, Children’s Literature)

With a rich and realistic setting, a compelling and entertaining first-person narration, a colorful cast of memorable characters and an intriguing storyline, this is a surefire winner. Immensely satisfying. (Kirkus)

Accessed at: Personal Library

Moses — When Harriet Tubman Led Her People To Freedom: Carole Boston Weatherford

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People To Freedom

Author: Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication Year: 2006
Brief Summary: The story of Harriet Tubman as she escapes the life of slavery and eventually comes to guide others to freedom.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • Discuss Harriet and what she thinks is her calling in life.  Why did people call her Moses?  Why does Harriet’s husband not want to escape?
  • Social studies: discuss this period of time in history; discuss the Civil War and why it broke out.
  • Discuss slavery and the types of hardships slaves endured.
  • On a map, trace the route Harriet possibly took.
  • Read a biography of Tubman’s life at  http://www.nyhistory.com/harriettubman/life.htm; create a timeline of major events of her life during this period.
  • Read about the Underground Railroad.

Special features included (if applicable) — index; timeline; author’s notes; further reading; etc.  

Accessed at: Capilano Library

Amelia and Eleanor Go For a Ride: Pam Muanoz Ryan


Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride: Based on a True Story

Author/Illustrator: Pam Muanoz Ryan
Publisher: Scholastic
Publication Year: 1999
Brief Summary: A glimpse into the friendship between Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Awards, Honors and Prizes: 

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • Social Studies: Discuss the lives of Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt; pair with informational books.  What are some key events in their lives?
  • Why do you think the two women were such good friends?

Special features included (if applicable) — index; timeline; author’s notes; further reading; etc.

Accessed at: Thrasher Elementary Library

Coolies: Yin



Author: Yin
Illustrator: Chris Soentpiet
Publisher: Philomel Books
Publication Year: 2001
Brief Summary: A little boy listens to the story of his ancestors, who were part of the Chinese work force that helped build the transcontinental railroad.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • Social studies: history of how the transcontinental railroad is built.  Who were the other immigrants used for the railroad building project?  Why do you think immigrants were the ones used?
  • Discuss the term “coolies”…what does it mean?  Why do you think it might be a derogatory/racist term to use?  How do you think the Chinese workers felt when they were called that?
  • Discuss the unfair treatment of workers back then.  Why do you think Chinese workers were paid less to work more?  How did the Americans judge them? (by their small stature)
  • Discuss Chinese culture.
  • Discuss immigration.  Do you know which culture your family might have descended from (most Americans come from immigrant families)?  How might the immigrant experience today differ from that of a long time ago?

Special features included (if applicable) — index; timeline; author’s notes; further reading; etc.  

Accessed at: Thrasher Elementary Library