I don’t remember the last time I laughed out loud reading a picture book. So I bought it. Then I made my 20 year old and 17 year old read it. They chuckled and I laughed again and again.
Sparky! By Jenny Offill and illustrated by Chris Appelhans is my idea of a perfect picture book. Published by Schwartz and Wade I’ve really enjoyed reading it over and over trying to put into words why I like it so much.
On the cover, Sparky’s gesture is totally incongruous to his name and I am instantly intriqued. As an illustrator, I’m struck by the layout of the jacket. The tree going up the right hand side stops your eye. It puts up a wall on the right and usually the goal is to eliminate those to invite a page turn. We are taught whenever possible to direct the action, the flow from left to right. Yet, Sparky faces left and the tree blocks our path to the right. This seems yet another contradiction. Setting up the entire story of Sparky who is anything but sparky.
The premise is, “I want a pet”. A young girl pesters her mother who finally caves in saying,
“You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.”
And so, the young girl finds the only pet that meets all those requirements,
“My sloth arrived by Express Mail.”
This was my first real chuckle. The spread shows the girl on the left side of the page, standing with a happy gesture of joyful disbelief. The other side of the spread, facing her, is a sloth. Head, arms, legs cut out of the box. Staring at the girl with the same, unwavering expression that we will see in the illustrations to come.
Again, in this picture, Sparky faces to the left, and up the side of the right hand page is dark door. Like the tree on the cover, making our eye stop, stay still, and not keep going.
The humor here is so wonderfully subtle. The girl is trying to enjoy her pet and optimistically plays games with Sparky. Simply stating at the end of each example,
“and I won”.
The funnies go on and on. She tries to put on a production to showcase Sparky’s talents, but, as you can imagine, that doesn’t go so well. The girl never gives up on her pet. She accepts him how is, which is the lovely point of this very funny, sweetly slow, story.
The success of this book lies in what inherently makes any picture book good. It is in the marriage of the text and the illustrations. One can’t work without the other here. Jenny Offill’s text tells us the story from the girl’s perspective. While Chris Appelhans “shows” us the reality of a game of hide and seek with a sloth. His illustrations fill in the story and make it complete. The body posture of all of his characters is so simple, yet so telling. The palate is drab, browns, rusts, very little color, very sloth-like.
On the last page and also on the last page spread, the tree is now to the left and our right is wide open, leading our eye, and the story, to move forward to the page turn and hopefully, a happy future. For the first time in the whole book, Sparky’s expression on this last spread has finally changed—
to a very simple grin.
Have you read Sparky? What did you think?
The winner of the book giveaway, My Wilderness, by Claudia McGehee is
Rebecca J. Gomez!
Congratulations, Rebecca! If you would please go to my website, http://www.jbreinhardt.com, and contact me via email that would be great. Please give me your mailing information and any inscription you would like Claudia to make in the book.
I want to thank everyone for all your kind and supportive comments!