Sunday, April 27, 2014

Picture Book Review - Sparky! by Jenny Offill

My last post, on why I'll read nearly anything to Sprout (including books I hate), generated quite a lot of response. It seems some of you have quite a few feels on the subject of sub-standard kidlit, and what that looks like in your particular household. While I agree with most of the titles nominated, I am heartened to see that so many folks don't forbid the books but rather approach them creatively, whether that's making these titles something kids must read themselves or alternating a book that kiddo picks with one that mom or dad choose (that last is my own personal go-to).

I also found that it's mostly chapter books that cause the consternation, rather than picture books. I found that interesting mainly because we have only begun to dip our toes into chapter book waters with Sprout, and there are a few picture books he loved that I just could hardly tolerate. What is it about chapter books that makes it hard to get through one you don't like? The length, I'd guess - with a picture book, you can zip through it fairly quickly and even edit if need be. But with a chapter book, you're probably going to be there a while, making it a hard slog indeed. I'll admit that I'm guilty of talking Sprout into a marathon read-aloud session, just so we could knock out a chapter book he was digging that I was about to pitch across the room. :)

But today I'm sharing a book that I think adults and kids can both agree is a winner -- Sparky! by Jenny Offill & Chris Appelhans. Sparky! starts out like so many pet-themed books do, with a kid who wants a pet. In this case our heroine has been told by her mom that she can have whatever pet she wants, so long as it doesn't need to be walked, bathed or fed. Tall order, yes? Not for our girl, who does her due diligence with the school librarian and finds just the critter to solve her pet dilemma.

A sloth.

Of course we already knew Sparky would be a sloth, because he's on the front cover, but that hardly matters because the scene where he arrives via express mail, arms and legs poking out of a cardboard box, is a total winner. Immediately our girl is looking to play with her new pet, which in itself proves to be something of a debacle (Sparky's no good at Hide-and-Seek or Kung Fu Fighter, but he's aces at Statue.) Then neighborhood goodie-goodie Mary Potts comes over and gives Sparky a once-over, declaring him substandard. So our heroine decides she's going to show Mary Potts a thing or two and turn Sparky into a performer extraordinaire.

The results are predictable, which is what I really liked about this title. No, Sparky doesn't turn into an acrobat or perform amazing tricks. He's still a sloth, after all. And therein lies the brilliance of this title - that while we might wish our loved ones could transform into something else, we need to learn to appreciate them for what they are. I suppose some would see Sparky! as a bit of a downer for this, but I saw the opposite in it, especially in the last frame where our girl tags her pet as "it", sitting contentedly by his side. Sparky's not lighting up the world with his feats of bravery. He's just being what he is, a sloth, albeit one who has come to love his girl.

There's a lot here about adjusting your expectations, about being who you are, about discovering that life is all about adventures that take you down entirely different paths than you anticipated. And there's a really darn cute sloth, whose strength lies in his constancy. For my money, that makes Sparky! one of the most unexpectedly delightful picture books of the year.

Sparky! by Jenny Offill, published by Schwartz & Wade
Ages 4-6
Source: Library
Sample: "All week, we trained in secret. Sometimes Sparky slept through practice and I had to poke him awake. Sometimes he forgot what he was doing and we had to start over. / Sometimes he took so long to fetch that I went inside and had dinner while I waited."

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