Kasbarian, Lucine. The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale. Illus. by Maria Zaikina. Marshall Cavendish, 2011.
The Greedy Sparrow is a joy to read aloud, from its traditional opening, “Once there was and was not,” to its humorous ending. In her debut picture book, Kasbarian draws on memories of her father telling her this old folktale, first written down by the Armenian poet Hovhannes Toumanian. Kasbarian’s clear-eyed and nuanced retelling makes for an appealing tale for young children.
The simple plot follows a sparrow that gets a thorn in its foot. He flies until he finds a baker, whom he asks to pull the thorn out. After she agrees “with pleasure,” the sparrow flies away, without even thanking the helpful baker. The baker flings the thorn in the oven and gets back to her work. Soon, the sparrow returns, with an angry-looking brow this time, demanding the baker hand over the thorn. Befuddled, the baker says she’s thrown it in the oven. If she can’t return the thorn, she must give him her fresh bread, he insists. Realizing that the sparrow will not listen to reason, she hands over some fat, round lavash.
Now the sparrow’s looking cheerful as he holds onto his undeserved reward. He meets a shepherd tending his sheep and asks politely enough if he will watch his bread. The shepherd, as did the baker, responds, “With pleasure!” As with all the characters, Zaikina uses thick black outlines and colors that gain texture from oil paint and layers of wax. Dialogue floats inside cartoonish balloons that emerge from each speaker. The shepherd, like the other characters in this book, wears traditional Armenian clothes — in this case, black wool, trimmed in red.
The Greedy Sparrow has an authentic flavor that distinguishes it from many picture books aimed at ages 4 to 8. The illustrator joins the author in pumping fun and telling details into this book. Zaikina’s palette exudes folksy, bright colors and images, including a range of traditional Armenian clothing styles for the various characters. Kasbarian roots her retelling in its homeland by her spare words, her traditional opening line, and her inclusion of specific Armenian customs and landmarks, such as Mount Ararat, encountered in the course of the sparrow’s wanderings.
Back comes the sparrow, demanding his bread from the shepherd – who has eaten it. This time, the bird demands a sheep instead. As did the baker, the shepherd sees “it was no use arguing” and gives in to his demands. If the ridiculous nature of this request doesn’t make the reader laugh, the illustration with the small bird carrying off a rotund sheep will.
Somehow the bird flies with the sheep over Mount Ararat and Lake Van to reach the island of Aghtamar, where an outdoor wedding reception is in full swing. The illustrator portrays a lively scene: brightly-garbed dancers link arms, and musicians strum a davul and a zurna, instruments common at traditional Armenian weddings. Then there is the wedding party seated at a table laden with jugs of wine, platters of shish-kabob, and mounds of purple grapes. If only Zaikina had chosen to integrate these two pages as one spread, the scene would have more visual impact. Still, she gives readers much to enjoy. A highlight of the book’s illustrations is the scene showing the bride in her traditional Armenian wedding gown of vivid green, red, and white, a dress the author says resembles her own. The next time we glimpse that lovely gown the bride is riding off with the bird – the tradeoff for the sheep they decided to slaughter for the feast.
As they reach the Arax River, they meet a minstrel playing his lute. Again, the pattern continues. The bride is sharp enough to escape when she sees the musician so entranced by his tune. The arrogant sparrow demands the lute and, again, gets his way.
How smug he looks as he lands on a thorny branch and tilts up his chin. There he perches, serenading himself with his brand-new bragging song about all he has managed to trick people into giving him. His pride gets the better of him, though, when he rocks just a little too much and at last gets his just reward – a thorn in his foot.
The tale of a self-centered character who gains nothing by cheating others is one that children and adults will relish. Kasbarian provides a fine discussion/activity guide on her Web site.
For More Armenian Folktales
Hogrogian, Nonny. One Fine Day. Aladdin, 1971. Ages 4-8. Not every Caldecott winner makes for a great read-aloud, but this fine cumulative tale is a don’t miss. A greedy fox steals an old woman’s milk and must make amends in a series of trades.
Marshall, Bonnie C. and Virginia Tashjiian. The Flower of Paradise and Other Armenian Tales. Libraries Unlimited, 2007. Recommended source for educators and folklorists, this collection of 50 tales includes such tales as “The Invincible Rooster” and “Seven Stars.” Cultural info and a bibliography included.
For More on Armenia
Kasbarian, Lucine. Armenia: A Rugged Land, An Enduring People. Dillon, 1998. Well-researched, illustrated, and organized, Kasbarian presents a fascinating portrait of her ancestral homeland. Part of the Discovering Our Heritage series, the book includes fast facts, maps, details on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the people’s legends and holidays, as well as info on Armenians in the U.S. and the changing nature of Armenia, now that the former Soviet republic is again independent. Also included: appendices on the Armenian language and on embassies in the U.S. and Canada; a glossary, a bibliography, an index, as well as a table of contents.