Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dick King-Smith and the Lives of Everyday People 

Crows, Corn and a Boy Called Spider in Spider Sparrow

Dick King-Smith is the author of The Sheep-Pig, which I have yet to read. The Sheep-Pig was the basis for the film Babe, which I have yet to see.  The Sheep-Pig was first published in1983 in Great Britain, and two years later it was released in the United States with the title Babe, The Gallant Pig. In 1984, King-Smith won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a one time in a lifetime award for The Sheep-Pig.

This is an impressive accomplishment for a man who only began writing in his fifties, following his careers as a farmer and then as a teacher.

It's that farming background that comes through loud and clear in today's review for Spider Sparrow.

Book #37:  Spider Sparrow (1998) by Dick King-Smith, illustrated by Peter Bailey. 163 pages. 

Spider Sparrow's proper name is John Joseph Sparrow. Abandoned at birth, he is discovered, wrapped in an old woolen shawl, in an empty pen meant for sheep by the shepherd Tom Sparrow. Inside the folds of the shawl is a note, "PLEASE SAVE THIS LAMB". 

Tom and his wife, Kathie, have no children of their own, and with the assistance of Tom's employer, the farm-owner Major Yorke, they adopt the baby. 

It quickly becomes obvious that the child is "different".  Long, thin and sickly as an infant, he is still unable at the age of two to walk or talk. Instead, he moves on all fours, using his very long arms and legs, scurrying about like a spider, hence the nickname. And while he cannot talk, or seem to understand most of what is said to him, he possesses an uncanny ability to mimic the sounds of birds and animals, who respond to him as if he were one of their own.

Eventually, Spider masters a few phrases, his favorite being "Good un!".  His parents finally admit to each other that Spider isn't like other children.  In the language of the time, the boy is "simple", and everyone in the village knows it. In the words of the farm's manager, Percy, in discussion with Tom:

...all the village knows by now. Some'll be kind about it and some'll be cruel and some won't care - that's human nature for you. But I'll tell you one thing, Tom. Your Spider is a lucky little boy.

When Tom asks Percy just how Spider is lucky, Percy replied that the boy's got Tom and his wife for parents, and that he's happy.

By the time Spider is school age he can walk, but it's a splayed flat-footed gait, very slow, with his arms dangling before him.  He's the subject of mockery by a certain group of village boys, and one day they chase him and attack him when he falls to the ground. After that, Spider is only comfortable in his home or wandering the farm.  When he is denied entrance to the village school, his parents are secretly relieved that he won't be subject to the strain of dealing with others.

Spider continues to grow into a tall, thin teenager, but he is never strong, and always slow.  Happy to stay in his house and the farm, he is given the occasional job by Percy, who is impressed by the boy's ability with animals.

Most farm work is beyond him, but Spider excels at crowstarving, chasing away crows and other birds that try to feed on newly planted fields. Out on the farm, he's alone with the animals and at his happiest.

Spider's role at the farm expands with the advent of World War II, when many of the young men are called for military service. Percy's son is killed in action, and Major Yorke's is taken captive.

Aside from the lack of men, live goes on as before in the countryside, until one day a German plane crash lands near the farm, and the pilot is taken prisoner. But even after that event, life goes back to its old patterns of animal care and crops.

When Spider is sixteen, he catches a terrible cold and the doctor is called in. The doctor tells Kathie that Spider will be fine, but then afterwards takes Tom aside to warn him that Spider has a weak heart, and to be prepared. Shortly after, when Spider goes for a walk but doesn't return, Tom looks for him, and finds him in a shelter used during planting season. After sixteen years, Spider's heart finally gave out, but even in death, he was smiling.

Spider was happy.

Spider is the type of book I love to read but find less and less available. It's a quiet book, with nothing much really happening, where the focus is on people, and the natural rhythm of their lives.  In that it reminds me of Alcott's Little Women, a book I will read and reread just to spend time with Jo and Beth and Amy and Meg. I don't care what they're doing; I just want to see how they are.

Spider is set in a rural English village, beginning in the years following the Great War, a war that affected a good many of its inhabitants, and ending somewhere in the midst of World War II.  In his depiction of the time, place and people, King-Smith avoids any sentimentality; there is not some much as a whiff of nostalgia for some golden, simpler time which in reality only exists in revisionist memories.

People can be kind, but they can also be cruel. Life and death are a matter of course on a farm. Animals die. People die. We mourn, but life goes on. We do the best that we can.

Spider could walk, slowly, and talk almost not at all, but he was loved, and he was happy, and that is what truly mattered.

Dick King-Smith was a prolific writer, with something in the neighborhood of 125 books to his credit. The majority of the books focused on animal characters. Several of these books were adapted for film and television, most notably Babe.

King-Smith was born Ronald Gordon King-Smith in England in 1922 and died in 2011. He came from a well-to-do family that owned and operated a number of paper mills, and served in Italy in World War II. In 1943 he married Myrle, a childhood friend, while they were both in the service and they remained married until her death in 2000.

The Guardian ran an obituary on King-Smith when he died, and I'm providing the link here.  It pretty much sums up everything I've read on the man, and does a wonderful job.

I read another book by King-Smith titled The Catlady.  At some point I'll write a review, but if you get the chance to read it, do so. It's worth your time.

Dick King-Smith website.

Peter Bailey was born in India and grew up in London.  Read his biography at the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.  Included is an online portfolio. Glorious!

Peter Bailey maintains a blog at Peter Bailey Illustrations.


  1. I've read several by the author and loved them all. I've not heard of this; my library system might not have it and I'll have to buy it.

  2. Strange strange strange. But oddly appealing. I shall keep my eye out for this one.