Spider Sparrow (ages 7Ð10) is yet another winner from Dick King-Smith, author of Babe: The Gallant Pig and a slew of others. But here, instead of animals as central characters, the hero is an orphaned infant boy left among the baby lambs on an estate farm in England. The child is adopted by the shepherd and his wife, Tom and Kathie Sparrow, a poor childless couple who call their new son Spider because of the strange way he learns to crawl using his hands and legs.

But that's not all that's unusual about the foundling. Before long his parents and others around him realize that Spider is slow-witted, and the schoolmaster pronounces him unfit for teaching. Nonetheless, the boy has his own talents he can talk to animals, perfectly imitating their cries, drawing close even the wildest of the wild. Foxes eat out of his hand, as do otters and rabbits, and Spider even manages to tame a wild group of bucking broncos in true horse-whisperer style. Mrs. Yorke, the wife of the estate's landowner, proudly proclaims him an idiot savant.

Despite his limited vocabulary and intelligence, despite his frail health, Spider takes over several important jobs at Outoverdown Farm. With gusto he becomes a crowstarver, or human scarecrow, for instance. In his own little world, surrounded by a host of wild animals, dogs, parents, and people who care for him, he is the happiest of souls.

Here is an old-fashioned tale that starts between the two world wars and ends in the summer of 1942, taking Spider to early adulthood. Against the peaceable backdrop of the farm lurks a variety of threats: the horrors of World War II, gently alluded to; the taunts of those unkind to Spider; and, finally, the boy's delicate constitution. All cannot be happy in Spider's little kingdom forever, of course, as King-Smith leads us closer and closer to the tragedy that's bound to come.

King-Smith's novel is full of little ups and downs. In addition to the magic of Spider's relations with wild animals, there's a real fairytale-like quality to this story of an orphan adopted by two fiercely loving, kind-hearted souls. It's also a tale full of wisdom, a lesson about the important things in life and what makes a person truly happy. Spider is one of those simple souls who has a lot to teach the world. Alice Cary writes from her home in Groton, Massachusetts.

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