Sparky!

sparky!Sparky!

by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

Schwartz & Wade, 2014

Girl wants pet. Mother agrees, so long as pet is low maintenance. Sloth arrives via express post. The premise is simple enough, but Offill and Appelhans veer off script just enough to take what might have been simply charming and make it particularly funny, in an irresistibly peculiar way.

The story’s initial progression follows tropes as we might expect. The girl makes lots of plucky attempts to make Sparky into a perfect pet (or at least believe him to be), playing all manner of games at which she can beat him. But her smart, bespectacled frenemy isn’t having it. So our protagonist casts Sparky as the star of his very own talent show, and, on the day, he fails. Miserably. Frenemy departs in a fit of superiority, and all seems lost. Here’s where the script flips. What’s supposed to happen is the girl discovers some secret, sloth-specific talent Sparky has that rescues the day from some convenient cataclysm, shining on him a new and heroic light. Instead, he just sleeps in his tree and the girl engages him in a game of tag. “‘You’re it, Sparky’ I said. And for a long, long time, he was.”

Beyond the achingly sweet double meaning of that final phrase, the situation’s refusal to conform to our expectations adds a lovely meta-humor to the tale. The funny comes from dodging our expectations, as funny often does. But in this case those expectations are not part of the situation itself but come from the literary tradition surrounding it.

But funny is just the beginning. The earnest perspective of Offill’s first person narrative is enchanting. The girl is trying so hard to believe in Sparky’s wonders herself that she convinces us in the bargain. Appelhans’ muted watercolor sketches wring buckets of charm from the characters and circumstances in open, expansive compositions with plenty of laughing room. Even the typeface, based on Appelhans’ hand lettering, adds to the story’s soft and tender heart.

This is the sort of book that makes one long for a regular group of preschoolers to read it to, at least if that someone is me.

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